Stirring the Pot : Eye on the Broadband Prize

As originally posted on the Blandin on Broadband blog

Community broadband leaders need to keep their eyes on the prize – broadband money!  “To the Victors belongs the Spoils.”  In Andrew Jackson’s day, that meant political patronage.  Today, the spoils are fiber optics!

In addition to the $20 million (with an additional $10 million in play) of Border to Border Broadband grant funds, there is a whopping $20 billion on the table via the FCC’s Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF) coming in October.  Large areas of Minnesota are eligible for funding to be allocated via a reverse auction. https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/maps/auction-904-preliminary-eligible-areas/

The state’s broadband fund is designed to give communities input on provider proposals.  A community can choose to support applications via a single letter of support, by rallying multiple letters of community support and/or by providing direct funding.  A community could choose to write a letter of protest to the state if the service to be delivered was deemed in adequate or if the funded project would be a barrier to future fiber infrastructure investment.

The RDOF program incents fiber providers but allows fixed wireless, DSL and even satellite.  While the RDOF program offers no formal role for community engagement, there are important ways for governments to influence the results.  The community need to find a provider who will bid and, preferably, someone ready to deploy fiber optics.    At a minimum, community broadband activists should be in contact with prospective providers to see if they plan to bid and with what technology in mind.  A community could also work with a provider to get adjacent areas deployed via some combination of state, local or provider funds.  Finally, documenting the demand for broadband will help a provider to appropriately bid for the RDOF funds.

The RDOF eligibility map is a patchwork based on claims of existing services by incumbent providers.  If a provider claims one house in a census block to be served with 25 Mb/3 Mb, the entire area is deemed served making them ineligible for RDOF.  CenturyLink and Frontier are now claiming thousands of census blocks as served taking them out of the program.

Communities should work with GIS mapping experts, either consultants or their own county planning staff, to see the impact of these new service claims and to test the reality of those claims.  While there is no formal way to refute the data, communities can act by working through state and federal staff and elected officials to ensure accuracy.

Clearly these RDOF dollars will have a huge influence on broadband deployment; I believe that what a community has for infrastructure and services for the next generation will be determined by this auction.  Don’t just sit and watch.  Make this program work for your area or suffer the long-term consequences.

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