USDA Launches New Program to Create High-Speed Internet e-Connectivity in Rural America

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2018 – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service. Answering the Administration’s call to action for rural prosperity, Congress appropriated funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget for this broadband pilot program. USDA Rural Development is the primary agency delivering the program, with assistance from other federal partners.

“High-speed internet e-Connectivity is a necessity, not an amenity, vital for quality of life and economic opportunity, so we hope that today rural communities kick off their rural broadband project planning,” Secretary Perdue said. “Under the leadership of President Trump, USDA has worked to understand the true needs of rural communities facing this challenge so we can be strong partners to create high-speed, reliable broadband e-Connectivity.”

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28).

Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second (mbps) download and 1 mbps upload.

Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms. USDA seeks to stretch these funds as far as possible by leveraging existing networks and systems without overbuilding existing services greater than 10/1 mbps.

Evaluation criteria include connecting agricultural production and marketing, e-Commerce, health care and education facilities. Previous research by USDA has demonstrated that high-capacity broadband is critical to all aspects of rural prosperity, including the ability to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

To help customers with the application process, USDA is holding a series of online webinars and regional in-person workshops. The full list of upcoming public webinars and workshops can be found at the ReConnect Program’s resource portal at reconnect.usda.gov.

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure is a key recommendation of the task force.

To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB). In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic (PDF, 190 KB).

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit http://www.rd.usda.gov.

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Broadband Mapping Anger Boils Over

— Senate Commerce lawmakers and telecom industry witnesses were unified during a Thursday hearing in slamming the accuracy of the FCC broadband mapping that will dictate eligibility for billions of dollars of Mobility Fund subsidies intended to help companies build out wireless service. The FCC had extended the time period for challenging the map accuracy, but critics are still unhappy. U.S. Cellular Vice President Grant Spellmeyer called the maps “nowhere near accurate” and said his company will run out of time before challenging as much as it would like. “It’s going to crack open a digital divide that’s far worse than what we’ve seen previously,” he warned, suggesting the FCC be “directed to stand down” and potentially hand over the responsibility to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

— Lawmakers echoed the telecom industry anger. “Clearly the amount of resources that’s expended trying to get information that isn’t very accurate, is not going to help anybody in the long run,” Thune told John after the hearing. “They certainly make a very compelling argument that there’s a better way to do this.” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said many lawmakers still “don’t have the comfort level” in the accuracy of the maps determining subsidies. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) complained that the current set-up lets the government shift the burden to others to fact-check the maps’ accuracy.

— The FCC wasn’t on deck to testify, but an agency spokesperson defended its efforts, saying the commission is “working with a number of members of Congress to ensure that we get as much input into the map as possible and move forward” with the Mobility Fund subsidy auction. The current system “doesn’t make sense” and is “often providing duplicative subsidies to more than one carrier to serve the same area while many areas without service don’t receive any money,” the spokesperson added.

Source: POLITICO Morning Tech

These folks have yet to experience the real anger.  The Gold Country Broadband Consortia held a series of public meeting and those citizens who requested service based on the broadband maps and were turned down by the telcos were very angry, livid would be a more accurate description. Their expectations were raised by the government maps, based on data provided by the telcos, only to have their desire for broadband to be dashed by the very telcos that provide the erroneous information in the first place.  For these citizens, the government was not doing their job, and it appears there is still a problem.

I like the irony of this mapping problem. The telecom industry is angry about the accuracy of the government maps, when the maps were based on the information they provided.

NTIA: We’re Working To Fix The Broadband Mapping Problem

The article is at Fierce Wireless

There’s a lot going on out there that these [current] maps don’t cover,” David Redl, the NTIA’s administrator, said here during keynote remarks at the annual Competitive Carriers Association trade show. He noted that the regional and rural wireless network operators that make up the bulk of the CCA’s membership continue to upgrade their networks across the country, and that NTIA’s broadband map should reflect that work.

Indeed, Redl said the NTIA has been reaching out to smaller wireless network operators and others in order to collect data that it will eventually use to update the agency’s broadband map.

He added that the agency is looking to work with an unnamed state to pilot new broadband mapping technologies in the coming months.

Rest of the Article is HERE.

Redl said the agency received 53 sets of comments “indicating a variety of data sources and approaches that we can use to support these efforts.”

The Insightworks submitted comments on Broadband Mapping and participated in the beta testing of a highspeed internet recording device which can be used to validate speeds reported by the ISPs.

Field Level Broadband Mapping Proposal

I have been working on the problem of broadband mapping accuracy since the summer of 2013 when the Gold County Broadband Consortia collected broadband survey forms at the Nevada County Fair. Plotting the information gathered at the Fair revealed some significant gaps in the California Broadband Maps. 

The GCBC worked with the California Public Utilities Commission staff to came up with a standard form which could handed out at community meetings to collect field level information on actual broadband coverage in the GCBC areas of responsibility, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado Counties and eastern part of Alpine County The form was eventually put online, producing a spreadsheet that with a little clean up could be forwarded directly to the CPUC for inclusion on broadband maps.  Sample online map is HERE.

The problem of collecting field level data which show the real broadband coverage is a significant challenge for state and federal agencies responsible for producing accurate broadband maps. Maps which are essential for policy making and the equitable distribution of broadband subsidies.  I have been thinking about the problems for some time and propose the following solution.

In 1867, Oliver H. Kelley, an employee in the Department of Agriculture, founded the Grange. The Grange’s purpose was to provide farmers with an organization that could assist them with any difficulties that arose. One of the latest difficulties is the lack of broadband in rural communities. 

Rural Granges places them in the right location to participate in a grassroots field level broadband data collection program. Broadband access is becoming a component of modern agriculture, and the national Grange organization has highlighted the need for agricultural access to this critical infrastructure.  Granges have a vested interest in making sure broadband maps accurately reflect the real coverage.

According to the  National Grange Organization:

“. . .America’s most pressing broadband problem: our national need to expand high-speed Internet access across rural and underserved areas.”

State agencies responsible for broadband maps should consider developing a grassroots field level data collection program in conjunction with the State and County Granges in those counties with poor broadband coverage. The Granges collect the data in the field and state agencies consolidate the data in spreadsheets, create shape-files for submission to FCC/NTIA for publication of field level broadband data. 

With granges all across America, this program could be replicated in all states with large gaps in broadband coverage. This real-world data will help solve the national broadband mapping accuracy problem. 

This is a sketch of an idea, with lots of work and coordination ahead to create a fully functional program. Your thoughts?

RCRC: Broadband Update

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved HR 3994, the Access Broadband Act this week. The bill, introduced by Representatives Paul Tonko (D-New York) and Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), would establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG) within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

OICG would streamline the federal funding application process for projects that expand broadband access. The office would consult with agencies offering federal broadband support programs to help streamline applications across the federal government. The goal of the office would be to standardize the application process for broadband programs such as the Rural Broadband Access Loans and Loan Guarantees program at the Rural Utilities Service. To the greatest extent possible, the office would create a single application for these broadband funding programs. If the bill is signed into law, OICG would track rural broadband programs that receive federal funding, the economic impact of broadband expansion, and progress towards closing the digital divide.

Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold a hearing entitled “Realizing the Benefits of Rural Broadband: Challenges and Solutions.” Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) will further examine the financial and regulatory barriers to rural broadband deployment, and any possible legislative solutions.

Source: RCRC Barbed Wire 

The formation of the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG) could be good news for the small ISP.  I write about the issues for small ISPs HERE.   I write letters to congressional offices explaining the circumstance facing small ISP when they are replying to a government request, as they have limited resource to prepare a proposal, no accounting departments, no legal staff and little bandwidth for proposal writing, the OICG will have to keep it simple and to the point if they expect small ISPs to respond.  They need to recognize it is small wireless ISP that a filling the coverage gaps left by the big ROI driven ISPs. Once the OICG is created I will be sharing some my experience with past broadband initiatives through letters and emails.

Committee Backgrounder is here: HHRG-115-IF16-20180717-SD002-U2

Carriers Clamor For FCC Oversight Of State and City-Level Small Cell Fees

The nation’s wireless carriers continue to petition the FCC to issue guidelines to states and cities about how much they should charge for small cell deployments and other network upgrades.

“Many municipalities unfortunately continue to demand exorbitant fees for access to rights-of-way and structures within them, including, for example, attachment fees that exceed $4,000 per year,” Verizon wrote in a recent filing. “Some cities, where providers may have a competitive necessity to offer service, continue to use their considerable leverage to seek fees that far exceed their costs.”

Full Article is HERE, which concludes.

Already, some FCC commissioners appear to be in lockstep with the wireless industry on the topic. For example, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in May that the FCC next plans to look at city and state rules that are hindering the rollout of small cells. He said the agency would move against “bad actors”: cities and states that are seeking to charge wireless operators unreasonable fees to deploy small cells or are moving too slowly on the topic. “We’ve tried the nice approach,” O’Rielly said at the time. Now, “we’ll have to take the aggressive route, and I’m completely comfortable in doing so.”

 

 

Blackburn Wants To Move NTIA Reauthorization Soon

— Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saw among her House Energy and Commerce colleagues “a lot of agreement that we need to make certain NTIA is in shape to handle broadband and to push forward with this rural broadband expansion,” she told reporters Tuesday following a hearing on GOP draft legislation to reauthorize NTIA for the first time since 1992. The measure includes provisions aimed at empowering the Commerce Department agency to do more to boost broadband in rural areas. Blackburn’s interested in marking up the legislation ASAP: “I would like to get it wrapped up very soon.” Expect further conversation on a possible new provision to elevate the NTIA chief role to a sub-Cabinet position, “something that we’ve heard from many people that they think that we should do,” Blackburn added.

— House Democrats largely accepted the draft during Tuesday’s hearing without objections, although some said they wished the legislation would do more, such as include the AIRWAVES spectrum bill, H.R. 4953, which would open up federal spectrum for commercial use. Some also wanted testimony from NTIA chief David Redl. Blackburn expects a positive reception from NTIA, she told reporters: “I think they’re going to like what we have to offer.” The draft would create a new NTIA internet connectivity office, urge NTIA to continue broadband mapping work and call for a GAO 911 study.

Source: POLITICO Morning Tech [Emphasis Added]

Faster, please!  Mapping is vital to the decision making process. If you do not know where the problem is, it cannot be fixed. Having valid maps should be an NTIA priority, as well as at the state levels, to ensure funds go to the areas that need broadband, and not be improving areas with existing broadband. Mapping accuracy is critical for the decision making process.