Thursday, July 7, 2022
Headlines Daily Digest
Stories From Abroad
The Federal Communications Commission adopted a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking taking measures to improve the reliability and resiliency of mobile wireless networks that are a significant lifeline for those in need during disasters and other emergencies. As the FCC noted when it launched this proceeding in 2021, recent events including Hurricane Ida, earthquakes in Puerto Rico, severe winter storms in Texas, and hurricane and wildfire seasons continue to demonstrate how the United States’ communications infrastructure remains susceptible to disruption during disaster events. The need to strengthen the nation’s networks has been further underscored since that time in the face of on-going wildfires in New Mexico and other western states and the forecast that 2022 will bring another historically active hurricane season. Now the FCC is leveraging the industry-developed Wireless Network Resiliency Cooperative Framework (Framework) as a starting point for introducing the Mandatory Disaster Response Initiative (MDRI) and, in doing so, renewing efforts to ensure that the nation’s communications networks are more available in the midst of disasters and other emergencies.
Navajo Nation first responders are getting a major boost in their wireless communications thanks to the FirstNet network expansion currently underway by AT&T. In addition to constructing new, purpose-built FirstNet sites where first responders said they needed improved coverage, AT&T is collaborating with Commnet Broadband, NTUA, NTUA Wireless, and the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to help build out additional Band 14 spectrum and AT&T commercial LTE spectrum bands across more than 100 sites. These sites, installed across Navajo Nation’s 27,000 square miles, will help extend FirstNet’s reach in the community, as well as improve the LTE broadband signal for residents. Chapter Houses, schools, medical centers, businesses and housing complexes will benefit from the new sites. Most towers are operational now with the final two expected to be operational by December 2022. These network enhancements will also help improve the overall coverage experience for AT&T wireless customers in Navajo Nation. Residents, visitors and businesses can take advantage of the AT&T spectrum bands, as well as Band 14 when additional capacity is available.
With tens of billions of dollars being made available for rural broadband infrastructure projects, electric utilities – including rural electric cooperatives, publicly owned power companies, and investor-owned utilities – stand ready to play a crucial role in bringing broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the US Easement issues are a significant concern for many of them. Utilities have easement agreements with private property owners that allow the utility to install poles and run wires across a strip of property. A single utility may have hundreds or even thousands of such agreements adopted at various times over a utility’s long history. While these easements were secured to transmit electric power, the addition of broadband infrastructure for the purpose of providing commercial communications services – even just an additional fiber optic cable –may potentially exceed the scope of the easement, leading to potential claims by landowners for damages based in trespass, unjust enrichment, or other legal theories. Without protective legislation, an electric utility that seeks to deploy fiber infrastructure for commercial broadband within its existing electric easements will need to weigh the benefits of the deployment against the potential risk of legal action, factoring in the significant federal and state funding available to bring fiber-based broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the country.
One of the more interesting requirements of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program grant process is that States must reach out to communities and stakeholders to make sure that everybody gets a voice in setting the state grant rules. This is something that communities of all kinds should be participating in. It’s easy to think of the $42.5 billion BEAD grants as only for rural broadband. But the grant money can be used for a lot more purposes, such as bringing broadband to anchor institutions, bringing broadband to apartment buildings in low-income neighborhoods, funding broadband devices, training and workforce development, and for digital equity programs. This means there are a lot more opportunities for funding than just last-mile broadband, and any community interested in any of those areas should make sure that your State hears from you. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) rules require states to reach out to the public and key stakeholders. The State must reach into all geographic corners. The NTIA rules require ‘meaningful’ engagement and dialog, whatever that means. States must utilize multiple awareness and participation mechanisms as part of the outreach. States are specifically tasked with reaching out to unserved and underserved communities, including underrepresented and marginalized groups. States are also required to document the outreach process.
[Doug Dawson is president of CCG Consulting.]
Incompas submitted comments in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Notice that seeks input on the state of the communications marketplace to inform the FCC’s required assessment of the state of competition in the communications marketplace in its upcoming Communications Marketplace Report to Congress. Incompas states, in its comments:
- The fixed broadband internet access service marketplace is highly concentrated. Consumers and small businesses have insufficient choice.
- The FCC should continue to view fixed and mobile broadband internet access services as separate, complementary, non-substitutable services.
- Any conclusions drawn about competition in the fixed broadband internet access service marketplace must be based on accurate and verifiable data.
- Competitive broadband providers continue to face significant barriers to deploying their networks.
- A new streaming era is bringing renewed competition to the video marketplace.
A new reverse auction by the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) will allow telecommunication companies to bid on funds. The PSC’s order for the auction, NUSF-131, was entered on June 28. It sets the procedure for the reverse auction to bring broadband services of at least 100 megabits per second to certain census blocks in the state. The affected areas are primarily in northeast and south-central Nebraska, with none of them venturing farther west than McCook (NE). This will be a first-of-its-kind effort for a state to pull off. “The [Federal Communications Commission] has done a couple reverse auctions, but to my knowledge, we’re the first state who’s tried to do one,” said Cullen Robbins, the PSC’s director of telecommunications. This first run will assess the usefulness of reverse auctions in the future. The PSC only approved the reverse auction process in March 2022. “The idea behind it is, if there was money available and money not being used properly by other companies, that we could make that money available for other properties,” Robbins said.
One of the city of Portland (OR)’s smallest bureaus is beefing with some of the nation’s largest companies. It’s a fight that might sound abstract but could touch the wallet of every household in town. At issue are the franchise and utility fees that the Portland Office for Community Technology levies on corporate behemoths—AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric, NW Natural, and many others—for access to the city’s right of way. Like other cities, Portland has long charged companies for the opportunity to put up poles and wires, string fiber-optic cable, and run pipelines under city property. It’s a complex, lucrative undertaking that yielded the city $87.8 million in 2021, its third-largest source of revenue after property taxes and business license taxes. Late in 2021, the Office for Community Technology, whose director calls her 13-employee bureau “small but mighty,” informed the more than 300 companies that pay fees that it was time to “streamline” those agreements. That made sense: Over decades, the bureau had struck different deals with different companies at different times. Robert McCullough, a former PGE executive who now consults for utilities nationally, says he’s urged City Hall for more than a decade to tweak the franchise fee to raise more revenue. But McCullough fears city staff will be overwhelmed by the army of utility lawyers. That swamping has begun. The public comment period for the second draft of new rules closed June 2. The tenor of the 159 pages of comments submitted was decidedly hostile.
[June 8, 2022]
In eastern Idaho, two relatively small towns, Idaho Falls (population 62,000) and Ammon (16,000) have begun treating broadband as an essential service. These fairly conservative communities offer residents access to lightning-fast internet at low cost. They rely on variations of the same theme to achieve these results: public network ownership. It’s a model that’s gaining steam nationwide, with Detroit (MI) set to begin construction on a $10 million network explicitly modeled after the one engineered in tiny Ammon. In most places, residents have at most one option for fiber internet — the service provider that built and owns the fiberoptic cable in their neighborhood. But using “open access network” models in place in much of Ammon and Idaho Falls, the fiber-optic lines are publicly owned, and internet service providers compete for customers across them. Instead of the market developing along the lines of cable TV, it’s developing more like the market in shipping, where UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service compete for customers while delivering their services using publicly owned roads. There are no contracts, so dissatisfied customers can switch providers in minutes. The competition drives down prices — way down. The average Ammon customer pays less than $30 per month for a true 1-gigabit connection.
[Bryan Clark is an Idaho Statesman opinion writer based in eastern Idaho.]
Imagine Idaho Foundation is working to bring better internet connection and access to the state. This non profit organization is doing so by trying to bring broadband infrastructure to all of Idaho. They believe this way of connectivity will create stronger, stable communities across the state while improving economic, telehealth and education benefits. Idaho will receive $100 million through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program at a minimum; however, they say they have seen estimates of up to $1 billion for funding. Now, they are wanting to prove to the Federal Communications Commission that $1 billion is necessary for Idaho to get high-speed internet access everywhere, especially rural areas. Imagine Idaho is conducting a speed-test campaign to assist those efforts. The test will show how many residents are going with poor or no connection. Those who take the speed-test will need to enter in the address of which they are taking the test from, service provider, cost of service, upload speeds and download speeds. They say all information given will remain confidential. This will provide the organization with an accurate database to appropriately determine where better internet is needed.
Bloomington (IN) took final steps to solidify its agreement for city-wide, high-speed internet. Paris-based Meridiam will now be able to build a fiber optic network to at least 85 percent of residents within three years. The city’s redevelopment commission passed a resolution to appropriate funds generated by Meridiam’s new tax increment finance (TIF) district. Meridiam will invest $50 million in the network but receive almost $11 million in tax breaks through the TIF over 20 years. Under French law, Meridiam is a benefit corporation. Bloomington information and technological services director Rick Dietz said this makes the company a good fit for the city. “Not only are they concerned about their bottom line for their investors, but their bottom line includes environmental, social, and corporate governance goals and [United Nations] sustainable development goals,” Dietz said. Meridiam’s network will provide one Gigabit per second exclusively through a yet-to-be-named internet service provider (ISP) for at least five years. After the exclusivity period, any ISP can use the infrastructure. Meridiam said it hopes to announce a contract with an ISP this July. The company plans to begin laying fiber sometime in 2022.
Telecom giant Charter Communications, known to many as Spectrum, does not like the City of Brownsville (TX)'s new multi-million broadband network project. That was made clear by Todd Baxter, Charter’s group vice president for state government affairs. When asked about how he thinks the state of Texas should get fully wired -- and whether it was the job of the private sector, public-private partnerships, municipal broadband or a combination -- Baxter said, "Brownsville is very well served and ubiquitously served by the private sector right now. So, I think a really good question that should be asked is, should government money be being used to over-bill the private sector to build redundant networks when, in fact, local governments should be looking to partner with the private sector, who already has networks in those towns. And so I would question whether that is actually a good use of taxpayer dollars. I think that is the question that should be asked.” Gov Greg Abbott (R-TX) responded, "“A primary goal of the legislation that we passed, a primary goal of the half a billion dollars that we provide in funding is to make sure that those with no access to broadband whatsoever are going to be able to get it. Those who live in rural settings, like those that were mentioned in Penitas, they are going without it and they need it. That said, there are multiple platforms that are available to make sure that those in Brownsville will be able to get that."
The Federal Communications Commission has been making admirable progress on its new broadband maps, and recently it opened up its system for internet service providers (ISPs) to input coverage data against the new Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric. Two concerns I've had persist: 1) for all the focus on where ISPs provide broadband service (the numerator), how many people and locations we are trying serve (the denominator) may be a more influential number, and 2) public access to this data in its raw form is important when big changes like this are being made quickly. The amount of change to the federal formula for measuring broadband availability, and potential complications, only make public access to data more important. Congress authorized the FCC to sign a contract with a private company, and presumably the FCC’s contract with CostQuest specifies that they can’t release the raw location data publicly. While the FCC may make a map available to the public with individual locations, they should consider doing more. These are big changes in methodology. Let’s ensure we’re having a public conversation about what’s changing and how.
[Mike Conlow writes about technology, policy, politics, and economics in various combinations in 'Mike's Newsletter'.]
With billions of dollars both public and private on the table, new fiber players are springing up left and right. Some are small, rural telecom companies who have decided to make the technology leap from DSL. Others are entirely new entrants targeting strategic pockets of certain states, as Wire 3 is doing in Florida. It seems almost impossible that all will survive in the long run. But is the fiber industry destined for a rollup akin to what’s already been seen in cable and wireless? And if so, when will it happen and who will be doing the buying? By all accounts, the answer to whether there is a rollup coming is a resounding “yes”. Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner and New Street Research’s Blair Levin both said consolidation is absolutely coming. AT&T CEO John Stankey seems to agree. Stankey argued that for many smaller fiber players “their business plan is they don't want to be here in three years or five years. They'd like to be bought out and consumed by somebody else.” And Wire 3 CTO Jason Schreiber said “it seems inevitable in any majorly fractured industry.” But the question of when consolidation might begin in earnest is a bit more complicated. Entner contended that at least for rural telcos, the question centers on how much fight they have left in them. Since these smaller companies likely don’t have dedicated build crews or other key equipment to hand, they “have to find muscles they haven’t moved in decades” if they want to upgrade their networks to fiber.
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