Thursday, January 12, 2023
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Data & Mapping
As the January 13 deadline looms for states to challenge the current Federal Communications Commission broadband coverage map, many states are asking for more time. I'm starting to wonder, however, whether more time is actually all that important. The FCC process is NOT building a location-level map of actual delivered broadband speeds, but rather a map of the performance that providers say they can deliver if a customer requests it. So let's try to put all of this together and see what it means. For me, a few key takeaways stand out (All of this is not to say that state efforts to understand their own view of coverage are not needed.):
- For Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD), the only reason for a state to be prioritizing resources now to coverage challenges (and/or seeking more time) is if the result could be a higher BEAD allocation. To be precise, this means that the state's efforts must result in MATERIALLY MORE unserved locations and that the increase is finalized at the FCC BEFORE the allocation is made.
- Given the actual nature of the coverage challenge process, I am skeptical that even with an additional 60 or 90 days the result of the FCC challenge adjudication process will be tens of thousands of locations in which the broadband providers' original submission is overturned.
- It seems tempting to instead focus on fabric challenges, and in fact, a number of states apparently did submit fabric challenges last fall. After all, a successful fabric challenge from October 2021 basically says "this is a location that no provider even realized was there" in the prior summer 2022 coverage submission, which a common sense view says should create a strong presumption that those "newly discovered" locations should be unserved. However, I think this again fails to understand the actual FCC rules. A "newly discovered" location added to the fabric in November or December 2022 must go through the legal process.
- If the current January 13 deadline is "extended", mostly what will happen is states will spend even more time and energy generating coverage challenges that will at best have a very low yield rate likely immaterial to the allocation outcome. Even worse, if the cascading result was that National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) felt compelled to delay the allocation notice -- to give the FCC enough time to process the even higher number of challenges that would flood in from an extension -- states would have lost additional months of delay in actually receiving any BEAD funds.
I’ve seen folks around the country suggesting that state broadband offices ought to put a priority on sustainability when selecting winners of broadband grant funding. It’s a concept that has instant appeal, but I immediately asked myself what it means. How do you measure sustainability in a way that can be used to score grant requests? The first test of sustainability is the expected life of the assets being constructed. Another test of any internet service provider (ISP) on sustainability is the financial ability and willingness to replace those electronics. That’s hard to judge. A big factor in sustainability is the operating philosophy of the ISP that owns the networks. We know there is a big range of (what I would call) corporate responsibility between ISPs. If we go strictly by the past, then the ISPs that have the most likely chance of operating a sustainable network for the long term are cooperatives or small telcos. If sustainability was the most important factor in awarding a grant, I personally would give all of the money to cooperatives and none to big ISPs.
A group of Tennessee broadband providers has launched projects that received $53.5 million in state broadband funding. The group, known as Project UNITE, is spearheaded by local provider United Communications. The projects will make high-speed broadband — fiber or wireless — available to more than 14,000 underserved locations in Middle Tennessee. The other providers involved in Project UNITE include Middle Tennessee Electric and Duck River Electric. The $53.4 million state grant is being supplemented by a $14 million investment from United Communications and more than $10 million committed by county governments for a total infrastructure investment of over $77 million. The grants fit in with United Communications plans to expand its existing network of over 1,700 route miles of fiber backbone to supply high-speed internet, the latest Wi-Fi technology, digital TV, and phone service to residential customers and businesses across Middle Tennessee.
An audit of the Oregon Broadband Office by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan (D-OR) found the office will likely be prepared to receive and facilitate upcoming federal infrastructure grant awards. However, the office will require more assistance, and federal funding specifically earmarked for broadband grant administration, to ensure Oregon receives all the available grant money and disburses it to communities with the most critical needs first. Auditors found the Oregon Broadband Office will need to focus additional efforts in the areas of strategic planning; documenting and distributing its processes, policies, and procedures, timelines, roadmaps, and milestones to its stakeholders to ensure transparency; and be more aggressive in removing barriers to broadband implementation. Auditors also note opportunities for the office to effectively monitor and improve broadband programs to close the known broadband gap. The office should pursue collaborative and unique ways of closing the digital divide through continued stakeholder engagement and by establishing dedicated funding for equitable broadband implementation in Oregon. The audit focused on the Oregon Broadband Office’s 14 statutory requirements set in action by the 2019 House Bill 2173. The auditors made 10 recommendations in total addressed to the Oregon Broadband Office, with the assistance of the Oregon Business Development Department, and the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council.
Governor Janet Mills (D-ME) has pledged that everyone in the state who wants high-speed internet will be able to get it by the end of 2024. Laying fiber cable to remote regions is the first phase of making good on that promise. Maine’s 2020 Broadband Plan estimated the total cost to build out 17,502 miles of fiber-optic or coax cable to currently unserved areas would be at least $600 million. To advance digital equity for all Mainers, regardless of ZIP Code, in 2021 the state created the Maine Connectivity Authority, a quasi-public agency, to leverage state and federal investment in broadband infrastructure through partnerships with private providers and rural communities. Maine was recently awarded a $5.5 million “Internet for All” planning grant to plan for the deployment and use of affordable high-speed Internet service throughout the state. According to the Maine Connectivity Authority, the $5.5 million is just one piece of almost $250 million in federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding Maine will most likely receive.
The Nebraska Legislature began its 2023 session with talk of unity but hints of battles yet to come. State Sen. Suzanne Geist (R-Lincoln) defeated State Sens. Tom Brandt (R-Crete) and Mike Moser (R-Columbus) to chair the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Sen Brandt called for less reliance on existing telecommunications companies to expand broadband. On Jan 5, he introduced a bill to authorize leasing of dark fiber and eliminate certain powers of the Public Service Commission. Chairwoman Geist, who is also running for mayor of Lincoln, said the state has great opportunities to expand broadband, but needs to make sure it’s also maintained. “We do have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that's going to present great numbers of money to the state. However, we have to answer the question with the industries that will be involved with this: How are we going to maintain this broad network that the money is going to come in?” Sen Geist said.
Arlington County, Virginia, is surveying residents and businesses to understand how they use broadband internet service and if their access can be improved. The survey is part of a $250,000 study that could inform ways to bridge the digital divide between residents with good internet connectivity and those without it, using the county’s existing fiber-optic network, dubbed ConnectArlington. Arlington has an extensive fiber network, which it installed seven years ago to provide connectivity for county and Arlington Public Schools facilities, support public safety needs, and encourage economic development. The study will also review a license agreement for leasing strands along an 864-count fiber line dedicated to economic development. The concept, intended to give local companies higher-speed internet at lower costs than big-name providers like Comcast, has languished because would-be providers found the agreement onerous. Survey questions include how long respondents have used the internet and how much it contributes to their jobs, whether they use broadband for telehealth services if they’re satisfied with the speed and cost, as well as demographic questions. Erika Moore—a spokeswoman for Arlington County Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development—says the county has studied the digital divide before but not on this comprehensive of a scale, but past research targeted low-income housing and relied on Federal Communications Commission and US Census data. This “did not provide the level of detail needed and gave no indication of service quality, bandwidth availability, provider competition, or digital literacy needs,” she said.
In the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to establish the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program to reimburse providers of advanced communications services for costs incurred to remove, replace, and dispose of communications equipment and services in their networks that pose a national security risk. As part of the FCC’s obligations under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau submits this report on: (1) the implementation of the Reimbursement Program by the Commission; and (2) “the work by recipients of reimbursements under the Reimbursement Program to permanently remove, replace, and dispose of covered communications equipment or services in their networks. To date, 30 Reimbursement Program recipients have, collectively, submitted 1,988 Reimbursement Claim Requests. The Bureau have approved $40,965,745 in Reimbursement Claims. The Bureau estimates that 2% of recipients that submitted status updates have completed the permanent removal, replacement, and disposal of all the covered communications equipment and services in their networks. The Bureau estimates that around 830% of respondents have made some progress in their overall plan but have not completed the work. An estimated 15% of respondents indicated that they have not yet begun the work to permanently remove, replace, and dispose of the covered communications equipment and services in their networks. Although these estimates show that there is still a considerable amount of work to be done to fulfill all of the objectives of the Reimbursement Program, the majority of recipients began to implement the removal, replacement, and disposal plans before the October 13, 2022 due date for their status updates.
The American tech industry is the most innovative in the world. I’m proud of what it has accomplished, and of the many talented, committed people who work in this industry every day. But like many Americans, I’m concerned about how some in the industry collect, share and exploit our most personal data, deepen extremism and polarization in our country, tilt our economy’s playing field, violate the civil rights of women and minorities, and even put our children at risk. As my administration works to address these challenges with the legal authority we have, I urge Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass strong bipartisan legislation to hold Big Tech accountable. From the start of my administration, I’ve embraced three broad principles for reform. We need:
- Serious federal protections for Americans’ privacy.
- Big Tech companies to take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use.
- To bring more competition back to the tech sector.
[Joe Biden (D-DE) is president of the United States]
Comcast is targeting “less than $200” per location to upgrade its network to support higher and more symmetrical broadband speeds, but Charter is only targeting $100 per location with the same goal, note financial analysts from MoffettNathanson. The analysts delved into the differences between what the two companies are planning and speculated about the difference in cost estimates. The number of locations targeted for the two companies are similar – 50 million for Comcast and 55 million for Charter. The key differences between the anticipated costs, according to MoffettNathanson:
- Charter’s plans call for upgrading to DOCSIS 4.0 for only 85% of its target 55 million locations, while Comcast DOCSIS 4.0 plans apparently encompass all 50 million of that company’s target locations.
- The two companies plan to use different DOCSIS 4.0 options. Charter plans to use Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD), while Comcast plans to use Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX). The former dedicates different frequencies to upstream and downstream communications within the coaxial portion of a hybrid fiber coax (HFC) connection and supports greater capacity on the downstream path.
- FDX is expected to be less costly eventually because it minimizes the need to make certain additional investments in the network, such as certain taps, but it requires special amplifiers that require further development, particularly if they are to become cost-effective, according to the analysts. As a result, Comcast may need to accomplish its network upgrades in two separate steps, increasing upgrade costs, the analysts speculate.
- Charter already has made greater use of switched digital video (SDV) in its network, eliminating the need to dedicate spectrum to content that isn’t being watched and therefore making more spectrum available for broadband.
Lumos is looking to enter its third state as the operator works toward a goal of reaching 1 million fiber passings by 2026. Specifically, it’s planning to spend $100 million to build out 1,200 miles of infrastructure in South Carolina, focusing on the Columbia metro region. The company’s fiber is already available to around 200,000 locations across North Carolina and Virginia. CEO Brian Stading plans to finish overbuilding its legacy ILEC footprint with fiber by early 2023 and thereafter expand into new communities both within the two states and elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic region. The operator will make service available in phases throughout construction and plans to offer symmetrical 5 Gbps service in underserved parts of Richland and Lexington Counties, including Arcadia Lakes, Cayce, Columbia, Forest Acres, Irmo, Lexington, Springdale, and West Columbia.
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