Friday, June 3, 2022
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COVID & Connectivity
Even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, some teens faced problems completing their homework because they lacked a computer or internet access at home – a phenomenon often referred to as the “homework gap.” And as students pivoted to virtual learning, and later shifted between online and in-person classes, access to technology and reliable internet connectivity continued to be crucial to student success. Pew Research Center's new survey reveals some teens – especially those from less affluent households – face digital challenges to completing their schoolwork. About one-in-five teens (22 percent) say they often or sometimes have to do their homework on a cellphone. Some 12 percent say they at least sometimes are not able to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection, while 6 percent say they have to use public Wi-Fi to do their homework at least sometimes because they do not have an internet connection at home. As in previous Center studies, parents’ socioeconomic status matters when it comes to homework gap challenges. Some 24 percent of teens who live in a household making less than $30,000 a year say they at least sometimes are not able to complete their homework because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection, compared with 14 percent of those in a household making $30,000 to $74,999, and 8 percent of those in a household making $75,000 or more. Teens whose parent reports an annual income of less than $30,000 are also more likely to say they often or sometimes have to do homework on a cellphone or use public Wi-Fi for homework, compared with those living in higher-earning households.
Sens Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) wrote to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator Alan Davidson and stressed that broadband deployment grants should be technology neutral. The message is consistent with what NATE: the Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, the Wireless Infrastructure Association, Competitive Carriers Association and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association have been advocating for. NTIA recently began accepting applications for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Its language says NTIA will prioritize fiber projects. “NTIA states that only fiber technology can achieve the scalability needed to meet the evolving needs of consumers over time, as well as to ‘support the deployment of 5G, successor wireless technologies, and other advanced services,’” wrote Blackburn and Hagerty in their letter. They also stress that technology neutrality has been the basis for funding distributed by the Federal Communications Commission, such as with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The senators urged NTIA to reconsider, saying that a fiber-first rule makes no sense for much of rural America.
Recently, the Minnesota Telephone Alliance and the Minnesota Rural Electric Association asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to revoke the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status for LTD Broadband. ETC staus must awarded by a state regulatory authority or by the Federal Communications Commission to any carrier that wants to collect funding from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. The petition stems from LTD being the winner in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction in Minnesota to receive $311 million to bring broadband to 102,000 passing in the state. In the RDOF filings, LTD promises to build fiber-to-the-premise to all of these passings. The petition contends that LTD can’t make the financial commitments to fulfill the RDOF pledge. The petition relies heavily on a recent South Dakota proceeding where the State denied LTD’s petition to gain ETC status. In this case, LTD already has ETC status in Minnesota, but the filing argues that LTD doesn’t meet the technical, managerial, or financial requirements to tackle a huge fiber build in Minnesota.
As discussed in Keller & Heckman's initial post in this series, the Federal Communications Commission is about to launch its new Broadband Data Collection (BDC) program. The purpose of the BDC is to enable the Federal Communications Commission, acting through its contractor (CostQuest Associates), to develop a comprehensive database of serviceable broadband locations where fixed broadband Internet access service has been or could be installed – the Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric. Starting summer 2022, all facilities-based providers of fixed and mobile broadband Internet access services will be required to submit broadband data on a biannual basis. In this post, Keller & Heckman delves into the who, what, when, and where of the BDC filing obligations and process.
Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), every state will receive at least $100 million to start via the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Allocation of this much federal money to states for a specific objective without a long-standing local department or agency in place to ensure the funds are deployed wisely is rare. Many states do not have a dedicated broadband team. If they do, it is often staffed by just a few people who are tucked inside another agency or staffed by a third party. Yet states are expected to administer federal broadband funds on tight timetables, across multiple agencies and levels of government, and with deep involvement from private-sector internet service providers (ISPs). Global supply chain snarls, domestic labor shortages, and other pandemic disruptions could further complicate those efforts. And as new initiatives take flight, there is also the question of how programs launched under previous federal broadband programs will be managed. States face a formidable task, so we’ve designed nine elements they could consider when developing their broadband programs. With digital equity serving as a North Star, the goal is to help states make the most of this historic funding and close the digital divide once and for all.
States are looking toward electric utilities for new broadband initiatives. The New York Power Authority (NYPA) will be working with Sherburne Electric, a NYPA municipal electricity customer, to use NYPA’s existing fiber network for the middle-mile connection as Sherburne designs and builds out fiber networks to its 1,800 homes and businesses. The project is part of Gov Kathy Hochul (D-NY)’s $1 Billion ConnectALL initiative that aims to transform the state's digital infrastructure and deliver affordable broadband to millions of residents and businesses. Under ConnectALL, the state will use over $1 billion in public and private investments to connect New Yorkers in rural and urban areas statewide to broadband. In Arkansas, more than a dozen electric cooperatives have partnered to form a new wholesale broadband provider that will leverage their fiber-optic networks to accelerate statewide broadband deployments. Diamond State Networks aims to provide access to 1.25 million rural Arkansans with a combined network covering more than 64 percent of the state’s land mass and more than 50,000 miles of fiber lines. And in Florida, Tri-County Electric Cooperative will be working with broadband provider Conexon Connect on a $65 million project to deploy a 2,400-mile fiber-to-the-home network within the next few years. Conexon was one of the top bidders in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, and it has also partnered with electric co-ops in Georgia, Colorado, Louisiana and New Hampshire to build fiber broadband networks.
A $400 million investment in broadband internet infrastructure approved by Illinois lawmakers in 2019 could pay for itself by added tax revenues alone within four years of completion of construction. That's according to a report by the University of Illinois Project for Middle Class Renewal and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, which estimated an additional 238,000 households, businesses and farms would have new internet accessibility as a result of the state funding combined with at least $100 million in new federal funding and other nonstate funds. The Illinois Economic Policy Institute is a nonprofit research organization with strong ties to organized labor, while the Project for Middle Class Renewal is housed in the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations and has a mission of "elevating public discourse" on worker-related issues to promote middle-class jobs and reduce poverty. Their report found the broadband expansion has several implications, from economic impacts in the billions of dollars to social impacts such as access to telemedicine that are more difficult to quantify. From a direct economic standpoint, the broadband expansion will boost worker wages by $843 million annually, according to the study, while creating over 25,000 short- and long-term jobs.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes the largest-ever federal investment in broadband. Pennsylvania could receive as much as $1 billion — enough to seriously move the needle. But the state may now have another, more unique problem. In 2004, Pennsylvania lawmakers gave telephone companies what one critic at the time described as a “virtual veto” over publicly-owned networks they saw as unwelcome competition. But for years afterward, the law was rarely invoked. More recently, local governments flush with federal dollars from two pandemic stimulus packages have begun ambitious broadband projects that place them directly in the crosshairs of that law, which is facing new challenges and fresh scrutiny. Already, the restrictions have prompted officials in the Southern Alleghenies (PA) region to get creative. Instead of working within the confines of the law, local officials decided to sidestep it altogether by creating a separate nonprofit to deal with broadband expansion. In legal proceedings in front of the state Public Utility Commission, the state agency that oversees the phone companies, fundamental questions about how the almost two-decades old law should work are being hashed out for the first time.
Governor Tony Evers (D-WI) and Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq announced that additional funding would be available for the current round of the State Broadband Expansion Grants. This brings the total available funds to $125 million-- $25 million more than what was announced in November 2021. The funding for the grants comes from the 2021-23 Biennial Budget signed by Governor Evers in July 2021, which will be used to expand high-speed broadband internet to unserved or underserved areas of the state. In March 2022, the PSC received 194 applications requesting more than $495 million in grant funding from the state's Broadband Expansion Grant Program. The Commission is expected to make grant decisions in the coming weeks. A list of 2022 Broadband Expansion Grant Program applicants is available here, as well as a map of the applications. A list of previously funded broadband expansion grant projects and more information about the Broadband Expansion Grant Program can be found here.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) launched a Request for Proposals (RFP) that will award $95 million in broadband grants across the state, applications must be submitted by August 4, 2022 at 4:00 pm. Building on appropriations from both the 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions, this grant round contains the highest-ever amount of funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure grant program. Funding from two sources – state and federal – can be used to reimburse for up to half the cost of the broadband infrastructure deployed. Funding for a single project is capped at $5 million. On the state funding side, in May 2022 Governor Tim Walz signed legislation appropriating $50 million -- $25M in FY23 and $25M in FY24 – from the state’s general fund for broadband. This bolsters the state’s practice since 2014 of providing state funds to build out broadband service in areas of the state where it is challenging to do so. For federal broadband funding, the remaining $70 million available for grant awards in this round is federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund, administered by the U.S. Department of Treasury (Treasury).
Two groups of communities in northwest Vermont are close to reaching an agreement with Google Fiber to bring lightning-fast service to some of the state’s most underserved areas. Communications union districts (CUDs) are towns that have banded together to build communication infrastructure. Two of Vermont’s newest CUDs, Northwest FiberworX (with 21 member communities) and Lamoille FiberNet (with 10 member communities), joined forces last year to build, own and maintain an open-access fiber network that can host multiple internet service providers — a first for the state. Google heard about the partnership and approached the state in September, said Val Davis of Johnson, executive director of Lamoille FiberNet, and they have been in discussions since. Google Fiber is a high-speed broadband internet service that uses fiber-optic cables to deliver speeds of up to two gigabits to homes and businesses. The company currently serves 20 metro areas across the US. The process involves a lot of back and forth, but Davis said he hopes to have an agreement signed with Google by the end of June.
New York is continuing to expand broadband internet access statewide through a new initiative called ConnectALL. A replacement for former Gov Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)’s New NY Broadband Program, the ConnectALL initiative is a $1.4 billion program that will use $300 million of state money and $1.1 billion from the federal government. Of the federal money, $800 million comes from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and $345 million from the American Rescue Plan. The money will allow the state to provide faster internet speeds to areas that are below the recommended speed of 100 Mbps, give a $30 per month internet subsidy for low-income households and provide grants to assist with construction projects to lay fiber optic cables. Gov Kathy Hochul (D-NY) also revoked the state Department of Transportation’s PERM 75 permitting program – known as the Fiber Tax – that allowed the department to impose a fiber optic fee, charging internet service providers thousands of dollars per mile on fiber installations in the state’s right of way.
MCNC recently announced it will fully support the collaborative efforts from many state, local and federal stakeholders to ensure North Carolina maximizes the unprecedented opportunities now available for broadband and digital equity and inclusion investments. US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was in Durham (NC) to announce the launch of the Internet for All initiative, which will invest $45 billion to provide affordable, reliable, high-speed internet for everyone in America by the end of the decade. The initiative will be administered and implemented by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). MCNC continues to be the trusted technology non-profit that serves North Carolina, providing a statewide fiber-optic backbone, high-speed connectivity, consulting, cybersecurity, data center, network engineering, and other services to community anchor institutions, non-profit organizations, and commercial providers. Clients include education, non-profit health care, libraries, state and local government, research, public safety organizations, and more. The Internet for All initiative will build Internet infrastructure, teach digital skills, and provide the necessary technology to ensure that everyone in America – including communities of color, rural communities, and older Americans – has the access and skills they need to fully participate in today’s society.
A new effort to install a fiber network could soon bring high speed broadband throughout Rocky Mount (NC). But some living in rural areas outside the city limits have concerns that the digital divide in their neighborhoods will keep growing. On May 20, city leaders announced telecommunications company Metronet would be spending $20 million to lay a fiber network throughout the city limits, bringing high speed internet as soon as next spring. While Rocky Mount celebrated, neighboring communities said they're worried about being left behind. However, Nash County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robbie Davis said that Nash County (NC) has been working with a Wilmington-based company called CloudWyze to install a county-wide network. Davis said the county had invested $2 million already in the hopes of bringing 90% of residents online by 2025. Neighboring Edgecombe County has been trying to do the same. County Manager Eric Evans said that four companies were bidding for grant money from the state to set up a network there as of late May. But even with $1 million of the county’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for broadband expansion, they won’t be able to bring service to everyone. “Because it’s just so costly to do that, it would probably cost at least $10 million or more in grant funds to do that,” Evans said. “But it certainly will go a long way to help cover the areas that are currently unserved.”
Ookla's first quarter 2022 results for the United States show that there is room for improvement on C-band usage in the country. Median 5G performance for Verizon reached 107.25 Mbps in first quarter 2022, fuelled by its C-band deployment, but T-Mobile maintains the upper hand in the performance stakes, recording 191.12 Mbps. Furthermore, Verizon looking to capitalize on C-band advantage. While still early days for C-band in the US, Verizon will hope that its improved 5G performance will feed through into growth in postpaid net phone additions, following a decline in first quarter 2022. AT&T’s postpaid net phone additions have exceeded expectations, driven by stronger 4G/LTE performance relative to Verizon, coupled with wider 5G coverage and aggressive postpaid pricing. Additionally, rising costs could well shift the competitive dynamic in Verizon’s favor. While the release of further C-band spectrum will shift this dynamic, that won’t happen until the end of 2023. In the meantime rising inflation will play a larger role, forcing operators to either consider raising prices or absorb additional costs. AT&T has already signaled that it favors the former. Verizon could well be a beneficiary.
The race to build 6G is on—or, at least, the race to start selling the idea to Washington. 5G is still being rolled out, and is still only used by about a tenth of mobile phone users around the world (U.S. figures are comparable). It will take years for 5G to come into more widespread use. But it also takes a long time to negotiate what techniques will be implemented in standards, so telecommunications industry types are already looking to the next generation: 6G. The contours of 6G already matter, if not to consumers, to the companies that intend to build out the network. Patents that are deemed “standards-essential” can be worth millions (if not billions) to the companies involved, and standards also have substantial “soft power” as they are deployed around the world. The Next G Alliance, a year-and-a-half-old group involving large companies like Apple, AT&T, Google and Intel is trying to get Washington thinking about its needs early. In a new report, the group attempts to lay out what technologies will need 6G in order to work well, so that engineers can work backwards to figure out what capabilities to design into the standards.
An order by Indian regulators requiring Internet companies to store their users’ real names and track their usage history has alarmed digital privacy advocates and virtual private network providers, which have begun to pull out of the country in protest. ExpressVPN, a leading virtual private network firm based in the British Virgin Islands, said that it would shut down its servers in India. The company said that it “refuses to participate in the Indian government’s attempts to limit internet freedom” and warned that the order requiring VPN companies to store their users’ data for up to five years could be abused by authorities. Indian authorities have argued that the new rules, which are to take effect June 27, are necessary for law enforcement to track down perpetrators of cybercrimes such as fraud, which is prevalent in a country with some 600 million Internet users. But digital privacy advocates say the rules go beyond what most Western governments demand of Internet companies and align more closely with outliers such as China, which is known for draconian Internet regulation.
Benton (www.benton.org) provides the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events. While the summaries are factually accurate, their sometimes informal tone may not always represent the tone of the original articles. Headlines are compiled by Kevin Taglang (headlines AT benton DOT org) and Grace Tepper (grace AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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