Wednesday, August 31, 2022
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Connecticut, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Arkansas won approval from the Department of the Treasury to use Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund allocations to support broadband infrastructure designed, upon project completion, to deliver reliable internet service that meets or exceeds symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), speeds that are needed for a household with multiple users to simultaneously access the internet to telework and access education and health monitoring. Treasury designed its guidance to prioritize connecting families and business with poor and inadequate service—particularly those in rural and remote areas. Treasury also requires states to explain why communities they have identified to be served with funds from the CPF have a critical need for those projects. The following descriptions summarize the five state’s plans that Treasury approved:
- Arkansas, approved for $47.5 million estimates it will connect 5,500 homes and businesses by building high-speed internet service in rural and remote areas lacking reliable internet connections. The Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) grant program is a competitive grant program designed to fund broadband infrastructure projects in locations throughout Arkansas without reliable internet of at least 100/20 Mbps. Areas in Arkansas eligible for CPF funding through this program are generally less densely populated, more rural and have higher numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged residents. CPF investments will support the state’s goal of closing the digital divide.
- Connecticut, approved for $40.8 million estimates it will connect 10,000 homes and businesses to affordable high-speed internet by focusing on low-income and multi-family home and business and areas lacking reliable high-speed internet connections. The Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program, a competitive grant program, will fund broadband infrastructure designed to deliver service that supports the statewide goal of universal access to affordable, resilient, and reliable internet access.
- Indiana, approved for $187 million estimates it will connect 50,349 homes and businesses to affordable, reliable high-speed internet services. Indiana’s Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program (NLC) is a competitive grant program, designed to provide funding to extend broadband infrastructure and service to areas and locations currently lacking access to at least 25/3 Mbps. Indiana designed NLC to incentivize service to school buildings, rural health clinics, and households with students.
- Nebraska, approved for $87.7 million estimates it will connect 21,000 homes and businesses to affordable, reliable high-speed internet services. The Nebraska Broadband Bridge Program, a competitive grant program, will award grants for broadband infrastructure. The program is designed to reach areas without access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet infrastructure, especially the state’s rural areas. Additionally, the program requires applications for underserved areas to develop and submit a digital inclusion plan to describe how the most disadvantaged members of the community will access the services provided.
- North Dakota, approved for $45 million estimates it will connect 3,965 homes and businesses to affordable, reliable high-speed internet service. The program aims to provide sustainable, future-proof connectivity to areas in the state lacking connectivity of at least 100/20 Mbps, including tribal lands. The state plans to collaborate with tribal organizations to identify solutions to address specific connectivity needs.
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded $105,846,128.07 in grants awarded from the Internet for All initiative to five Tribal entities in Arizona. The grants will fund high-speed internet infrastructure deployment projects through the Internet for All Initiative’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program for Hopi Telecommunications, Inc., Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, San Carlos Apache Tribal Council/Triplet Mountain Communications, Inc., and White Mountain Apache Tribe. In all, the projects will connect more than 33,300 homes with the high-speed internet connectivity necessary for learning, work, and telehealth.
AT&T, Verizon and Lumen Technologies lined up alongside utility providers in arguing against changes to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) pole attachment regulations, pitting the unlikely partners against cable and fiber providers alike. At the heart of the current FCC debate are proposed reforms which would force pole owners to share the cost of replacing poles with attachers, rather than leaving the latter to shoulder the entire cost burden. The FCC opened a review of its pole attachment rules in March, asking industry interests to weigh in on whether it should clarify the process for and regulate the cost of securing pole attachment rights. An initial round of comments filed before a June deadline saw AT&T and Verizon argue against changes while fiber builders represented by INCOMPAS and Charter Communications. Cable industry lobbyists NCTA – the Internet and Television Association and ACA Connects pressed for the implementation of new cost-sharing regulations on the grounds that pole owners benefit when attachers pay to have poles replaced. NCTA in particular claimed the need for reform is urgent, arguing comments submitted in the proceeding demonstrate “the current system for allocating the costs of replacing poles is unfair and interferes with the deployment of broadband to consumers, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.” However, AT&T and Verizon – this time joined by Lumen – pushed back, arguing in favor of the FCC preserving its existing regulation, stating that the attachers’ proposals would offload substantial portions of attachers’ deployment costs on other parties, including their direct competitors, merely serving to increase the profitability of the attachers’ government-subsidized services.
Corning will build a new manufacturing facility in Gilbert, Arizona, in response to a spike in demand for fiber-optic cable as the US government ramps up its $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding program. Corning said the investment is supported by customer commitments, including from "anchor customer" AT&T, which is also working with Corning on a fiber optic technician training program. AT&T also announced plans to build a new fiber internet network in Mesa (AZ) that will offer service to more than 100,000 homes in 2023. Building high-speed internet service to connect all Americans won't happen without the right equipment — and, thanks to the infrastructure funding law's "Buy America" provisions, it will need to be largely US-made. However, broadband industry trade groups have sought waivers from the Buy America rules, arguing "no combination of network products" will meet the requirements, and the American broadband sector doesn't have the number of suppliers needed to effectively follow through on providing universal broadband across the country. Nonetheless, AT&T is focusing on a fiber-first strategy for its expansion plans, with a goal of reaching 30 million locations with fiber by 2025.
Most Americans can choose among several providers of home internet service, but that competition masks their much more limited options for true high-speed connections. Home internet connections became even more essential during the pandemic, but there's still disagreement about the extent of competition in the broadband market. "Competition" in the broadband space has two primary interpretations. To consumers, regulators, and advocacy groups, competition is correlated to the number and variety in choices a customer has when choosing a broadband provider. To broadband, telecommunications, and cable companies, competition is correlated to the quality, scope, and pricing of broadband services provided to the consumer between existing or incumbent providers. A Consumer Reports survey in 2021 found that 26% of Americans said they had one choice for a wired home internet connection, 32% said there were two providers, and 16% said they had three options. Additionally, the survey found that the cost of home internet decreased based on the number of providers. So, with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) providing $42.5 billion in funding to build internet networks at speeds of 100/20 Mbps, consumer watchdog groups worry that the biggest threats to competition are incumbent broadband providers who seek to challenge IIJA funding distribution to new broadband entrants in a market where they already provide service Those challenges could effectively holding these areas hostage by denying residents the ability to choose a different broadband provider.
Connecticut's efforts to connect all residents to affordable, high-speed broadband get a $40 million boost when the US Department of Treasury approved the state's plan for using Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund support made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Connecticut estimates that there are over 160,000 locations that still lack high-speed internet access in the state. In July 2021, current-Governor Ned Lamont signed Public Act 21-159, which directed Connecticut's Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management to develop and maintain an up-to-date broadband map, with accompanying data, showing the availability and adoption of broadband internet access service in the state, including broadband internet download and upload speeds. The first map is due to be published before December 1, 2022. The law also promotes the build-out of broadband internet in unserved and underserved areas of Connecticut, particularly in urban centers and rural communities, through a grant program—subject to the availability of federal funding—established and administered by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
On August 30, 2022, Connecticut was approved to use $40.8 million in Capital Projects Funds support to connect 10,000 homes and businesses to affordable broadband through the Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program. The state is focusing on low-income and multi-family homes and businesses and areas lacking reliable high-speed internet connections. The Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program, a competitive grant program, will fund broadband infrastructure that delivers reliable internet service that meets or exceeds symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). For any networks built with Capital Projects Funds support, providers must participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP helps ensure that households can afford the high-speed internet they need for work, school, healthcare, and more by providing a discount of up to $30 per month (or up to $75 per eligible household on Tribal lands). Treasury guidelines also require recipients to consider whether the federally-funded networks will be affordable to the target markets in their service area and encourage states to require that a federally-funded project offer at least one low-cost option at speeds that are sufficient for a household with multiple users.
In August, The Pew Charitable Trusts updated its tracker for states that have dedicated broadband offices, task forces, agencies or funds. With this most recent update, Pew determined that all 50 states administer active broadband programs. But how they manage those programs varies widely. Some states place their broadband office inside a business or economic agency, while others house it within their technology agency. Some states coordinate broadband from the governor’s office or across agencies. However they are structured, these state authorities are handling billions of dollars in federal broadband investment through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. Pew states that “a state-level broadband office with full-time staff” is a core component of a successful broadband program. Additionally, the broadband office must establish required core competencies and a forum through which to gather informed input, and they must possess “the structure, support and authority to execute the planning, capacity building and competitive grant programs that increase service availability,” Pew notes.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will provide massive opportunities for local and state organizations across the country. The IIJA offers over $500 billion in federal funding to improve all forms of American infrastructure—including broadband internet access infrastructure. Of this, $2.75 billion will be distributed to states through Digital Equity Act programs that aim to ensure all residents have the skills and capacity to engage in the digital economy. This is a once-in-a-generation investment that can help Baltimore (MD) in profound ways by providing resources to address infrastructure at the local level. Additionally, a compelling application for digital equity funds will require community engagement. So, the time is now for Baltimore to build a meaningful public engagement process. The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation believes in establishing a “commission” with local and national experts charged with building a public record, on behalf of the mayor, to inform the city’s digital equity priorities. With a focus on critical areas like telehealth, workforce development, the creative economy, and consumer protections, public hearings in each Baltimore City Council district would offer a powerful mechanism to elevate high-impact opportunities.
[Amalia Deloney is the vice president and director of digital equity for the Robert W Deutsch Foundation.]
Auction 108 of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band closed after raising less than $428 million, a considerably lower amount in comparison with what we have seen in other recent auctions. The spectrum is considered mid-band, which is widely seen as supporting the optimum mixture of speed and coverage for 5G. But most of the available spectrum in the band is in rural areas. The identity of the winners has not yet been revealed, but among the 82 companies that qualified to bid in the auction were all major US wireless carriers – AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Dish. Licenses in the 2.5 GHz band are for individual counties, and up to three blocks of spectrum – ranging in size from 17.5 MHz to 50 MHz — were available per county. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the vast majority of licenses received winning bids. Of 8,017 licenses that were available, 7,972 were won. Auction 108 was completed relatively quickly – just under one month after it opened.
Healthcare is facing a new frontier, as the industry has seen a boom in digital health tools and technologies on both the patient and provider side. An explosion of health dat has also been driving increasingly sophisticated predictive and prescriptive insights into individuals and populations. Unfortunately, this frontier has proven to be hostile to marginalized communities. There is a growing digital divide, where healthcare technology has actually posed challenges, instead of benefits. The barriers to accessing newly digitized care are legion: it’s everything from language barriers to low income, lack of broadband or mobile access, disabilities and physical differences, low digital literacy, a fully understandable mistrust of the healthcare system and much more. The danger is that this divide will continue to grow, and even become insuperable. To combat this, industry leaders must focus on "techquity." Techquity is using advancements in healthcare technology to drive health equity in underserved, vulnerable and at-risk populations, and close the access gaps. Leaders have identified meaningful and extensive outreach as the main vehicle by which techquity can be achieved, and bridge our nations' telehealth digital divides.
With President Biden signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law in November 2021 and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) subsequently releasing Notices of Funding Opportunity which outline the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, Digital Equity Act (DEA), and Enabling Middle Mile Grant Infrastructure Program in May 2022, EducationSuperHighway and various organizations across Massachusetts are working to bring affordable broadband to the State. The organization has partnered with Springfield and Worcester (MA) Public Schools to launch an awareness campaign to get the word out about the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) $30 monthly subsidy benefit and assist families with affordable broadband enrollment. As of May, 2022, Springfield had a 42% and Worcester a 38% adoption rate, compared to the state average of 19%. In Boston, the organization provided pro bono service provider relationship management, procurement support, network design, pricing review, and Request for Information (RFI) document templates, as well as needs assessments for many affordable and/or mixed housing development portfolios. Ultimately, the organization has taken an active role in the digital equity partnership, sharing best practices on ACP adoption, training community leaders on ACP, helping review grant applications for ACP digital navigator programs, and sourcing opportunities for apartment Wi-Fi projects for underserved communities.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) allocated over $45 billion to states for broadband deployment through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) and Digital Equity Act (DEA) programs. This historic investment presents an opportunity to close the digital divide across the country, but we must make sure that the 20-25% of unconnected households living in multi-family and public housing, primarily in urban and suburban communities, are not left offline. EducationSuperHighway has established the "No Home Left Offline Coalition." In the coming months, the coalition will be hard at work advocating to states for the inclusion and prioritization of broadband solutions that efficiently connect unconnected households living in multi-family and public housing in their state BEAD plans. While the coalition’s near-term priorities center around ensuring states include multi-family and public housing in their network deployment plans, the coalition will also advocate for other policy solutions to ensure universal access to reliable, affordable broadband, and support policies that provide access to devices and learning.
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