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Promoting Broadband for Anchor Institutions

TPI Study Mischaracterizes BTOP Program Success

The Technology Policy Institute study of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) mischaracterizes the purposes of the Program and fails to recognize the program’s enormous benefit to community anchor institutions across the country.  The authors of the TPI study describe the BTOP program as a “rural subsidy” program.  In fact, the BTOP program is neither “rural” nor a “subsidy.” 

While the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) administered by the Rural Utility Service (RUS) was focused on connecting rural residential consumers to “last mile” broadband, the principal purpose of the BTOP infrastructure program was to provide high-capacity “Middle Mile” broadband services to schools, libraries, health providers, community colleges, and other anchor institutions all across the country, not just in rural areas.  The BTOP program also provided valuable support for public computer centers and promoted broadband adoption in urban, suburban and rural areas.  Unlike an ongoing subsidy, BTOP provided a one-time investment in long-lasting broadband infrastructure that expands the reach of broadband services across many underserved geographic areas that previously suffered from an inadequate level of broadband capacity.  The National Broadband Plan called for anchor institutions to have 1 Gbps capacity by 2020, and the BTOP program has played an important role in moving us toward that goal.

 

Response to AT&T's "Digital Bridge to Nowhere"

In announcing his ConnectED Initiative earlier this year, President Obama challenged America to ensure that virtually every student has access to high-speed Internet access at our nation’s schools and libraries within 5 years.  Unfortunately, AT&T wants to eliminate one of the most important mechanisms to achieve that goal.   

A recent blog post from AT&T argues that amending the E-rate program to support “dark fiber” would be akin to subsidizing a “digital bridge to nowhere.”  AT&T’s clumsy attempt to coin a phrase that analogizes schools and libraries to “nowhere” is a bit insulting, considering that schools and libraries often serve as the gateway for expanding the reach of broadband to nearby homes and businesses.  

More importantly, however, AT&T suggests that the E-rate program should not support dark fiber even when it is the most cost-effective broadband solution. AT&T posits that schools and libraries may not have the wherewithal to administer dark fiber networks, and that supporting dark fiber is inconsistent with the goals of universal service.  

The record shows otherwise.  Many school districts and library systems are already using dark fiber networks today.  Three school districts in Georgia reported to the FCC that they had installed dark fiber in the 1990’s, and those networks were recently upgraded to 1 Gbps capacity. The City of Lakeland Florida, Butte (MT) School District, Warrant Township (IN) have all installed dark fiber networks as well.  

The FCC’s recent Order establishing the new Healthcare Connect Fund found that self-construction of fiber networks was the most cost-effective solution for some rural health broadband pilot networks.  In fact, a rural school district in northern Florida specifically asked the FCC to give it the same right to build its own network that the FCC had given to health providers. Thus the FCC’s proposal to allow E-rate funding for dark fiber construction simply parallels what is already allowed in the Healthcare Connect Fund.

Several companies specialize in providing dark fiber networks for schools and libraries, including Fatbeam, Sunesys, Zayo,  Conterra, , and many others.  Many state research and education networks (R&E Networks) specialize in providing anchor institutions with both lit and dark fiber solutions.  Schools and libraries that lack the technical expertise can simply hire or contract with these companies to operate and manage the networks for them.

Finally, AT&T’s blog suggests that dark fiber networks do not support the goals of universal service.  On the contrary, dark fiber networks originally deployed to serve schools and libraries can interconnect with other networks, and the capacity can be shared on a wholesale basis with other providers who can provide high-speed Internet services to homes as well.  For instance, the CEO of Fatbeam, which provides dark fiber service to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Yakima, Washington says that, after first obtaining a commitment from the local school district to use the fiber, it runs “fiber through the towns’ business district, then sells connectivity on a wholesale basis to other providers, who use the infrastructure to deliver Internet service and in some cases to support fiber-to-the-home deployments.” 

The SHLB Coalition agrees with the portion of AT&T’s comments that suggests the E-rate program should be “technologically neutral”.  Dark fiber may or may not be the best solution for every school or library, but each local school and library system should be entitled to consider the full range of options as to the most cost-effective technology.  In fact, the FCC’s rules already establish the cost-effectiveness must be the most important factor a school or library uses in choosing their broadband service provider.  Eliminating dark fiber from the mix – even when it is the least costly option – is not technology neutral and could mean that schools and libraries pay more for their broadband services than they should.  This will then likely place even more stress on limited E-rate funds and make it harder to reach the President’s ConnectED goals.

 

SHLB Annual Conference Update

The SHLB Coalition will hold its Annual Conference on May 1-3 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.  In my humble opinion, this promises to be a great event! We have fabulous plenary speakers, including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, California Emerging Technology Fund CEO Sunne McPeak, Lord Jim Knight, a former Digital Minister in Tony Blair's government in the U.K., and a Keynote lunchtime announcement by NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling.  The panels are chock full of exciting presenters who will discuss hot topics such as E-rate reform, the Connect America Fund, the Healthcare Connect Fund, state and local broadband planning, BTOP sustainability, Lifeline Reform, and many more.  Speakers include a great mix of anchor institutions, broadband providers and government officials from the FCC, NTIA and Capitol Hill.  Visit www.shlb.org/agenda for the latest agenda information.  We hope to see you there!  John

The FCC Gigabit Workshop and the SHLB Coalition

The SHLB Coalition was pleased to participate in the FCC’s Gigabit Cities Challenge Workshop yesterday.  The Workshop was held to explore ways to promote Gigabit communities across the U.S.  Chairman Genachowski opened the day by re-stating his challenge that each state should have at least one “Gigabit Community” by the year 2015.

On the first panel, the SHLB Coalition sponsored a presentation by Dr. Kecia Ray, who is Executive Director of Learning Technology for the Nashville, TN Public Schools and also the President-Elect of ISTE. She gave a strong statement that education increasingly requires a “blended” approach to learning, involving traditional teaching, computers, broadband services, mobile devices, and Internet use at home.  She also spoke eloquently about the need to ensure that public libraries and school libraries are integrated into the schools’ on-line learning resources.  Dr. Ray closed by noting that the governments of Australia, Britain and Singapore are incorporating whiteboards and videoconferencing into every school and providing laptops for every child, so the U.S. will need to step up just to keep up.

She also presented a somewhat scary scenario: when students take their two-week online common core testing next year, the school district may need to shut down Internet access to the students and faculty that are not taking the test in order to ensure that the testing students’ bandwidth is not interrupted.  The school district has a 2 Gig connection to the Internet and 100 Mbps connections to the schools, but even this amount of bandwidth may not be sufficient to guarantee an adequate Internet connection to every child.  

The rest of the Workshop included presentations from several knowledgeable sources, such as Gigabit Squared, U.S. Ignite, Internet2, Google (Milo Medin), the Kansas City government, Jim Baller, Time Warner Cable, the Fiber to the Home Council, EPB, and Chris Mitchell from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance (another SHLB member).   Several presenters made references to anchor institutions in their remarks. 

The full presentation is available on the FCC’s web site at www.fcc.gov/events/gigabit-workshop-1.  It’s worth viewing for anyone interested in learning about the issues involved in solving our needs for more bandwidth.

 

BTOP/BIP Hearing Summary

February 27, 2013:  The BTOP Program and (to a lesser extent) the BIP Program took some hits yesterday at a contentious hearing of the House Communications and the Internet Subcommittee.  It was probably the roughest hearing since the programs were initiated in 2009, but there do not appear to be any plans for legislation to stop the programs. 

Chairman Walden (R.-OR) aggressively questioned NTIA Chief Larry Strickling about the propriety of West Virginia’s bulk purchase of high-capacity  routers.  According to Mr. Walden, the W. Va state auditor found that the State violated procurement procedures in awarding a no-bid contract for the Cisco routers.  Walden held up a large photo of a trailer and questioned whether the library using this trailer really needed a multi-thousand dollar router for a community of only 1500 people.  Mr. Strickling defended the purchase by saying that that community was planning to build a much larger library and that the equipment would accommodate several years of growth.  He also said the W. Va auditors improperly referred to the “list” prices for the routers instead of the discounted prices the State actually paid. 

 

Congressman Cory Gardner (R.-CO) several times complained that the EagleNet infrastructure program was overbuilding local telcos in Eastern Colorado instead of building broadband in the unserved areas of Western Colorado.  He held up a map showing the existing fiber builds by the telcos and that Eaglenet was providing a  second or sometimes third pipe to the same area.  (He said he attended a school with one graduating senior, and the school has 3 fiber connections, including one from EagleNet.)  Mr. Strickling responded that the telcos did not complain about the project until they lost the bid to serve Eaglenet.  Although he was interrupted several times,  Mr. Strickling eventually pointed out that the BTOP program is intended to bring high-bandwidth services to schools and libraries through Middle Mile builds, not to serve individual homes in unserved areas.  (NOTE: This was the point made in the SHLB letter to the House Members.) He also said much of the fiber laid by EagleNet “was along Internet 70, I mean, Interstate 70.” Rep. Diana Degette (D.-CO) also on the Committee offered to sit down with the telcos and Eaglenet and NTIA to work out a win-win arrangement.  (Strickling also noted that the EagleNet project was temporarily suspended because EagleNet had decided to replace some microwave services with fiber, but needed to get rights-of-way approvals first.  He expects the suspension to be lifted soon.)

 

The second panel was quite interesting, even though fewer Members were there.  The Colorado telco association representative (Peter Kirchhof) said there should have been an analysis of what areas had fiber before EagleNet began to deploy new fiber.  The President of Fairpoint-Vermont (Michael Smith) said there was “lots” of Middle Mile fiber throughout Vermont and the BTOP project should have funded “Last Mile” build-out in unserved areas.  Joe Freddoso did an excellent job of describing the MCNC build-out in North Carolina and the benefits to anchor institutions across the State.  He said MCNC did exactly that kind of analysis of existing fiber, and where they found existing fiber they worked with the industry to avoid any overbuild situation.  The Congressional members then asked the Colorado telco if that approach would resolve his concern and he said “yes, it would”. 

 

A special word of thanks to Rep. Doris Matsui (D.-CA) who introduced the SHLB letter into the record of the hearing.  NTIA staff and the Democratic staff both thanked me personally for submitting the letter.  A copy of the letter is available here.

 

Danville's Open Access Fiber Links Anchor Institutions

Danville, Virginia has used E-rate funding to launch a fiber network connecting schools, health providers and ultimately business and residential consumers.  That was my primary take-away from attending the Community Fiber Networks Conference last week in Danville, VA.  (The conference was the first of several regional conferences sponsored by Broadband Communities magazine.) 

Danville is a small city in southwestern Virginia that has struggled economically with the decline of the region’s agriculture and manufacturing industries.  The city decided in 2004 to reinvent itself as a technology hub.  It authorized the local electric utility to build a fiber network – called nDanville – to serve the city’s administrative offices and the local school system, funded with E-rate dollars.  For the past several years, Danville has offered free high performance Internet access to local schools and colleges so that every student and displaced worker in Danville can receive training and learn new skills.

But this was just the beginning.  In 2007, the city embarked on Phase II – expanding its fiber network to serve business consumers.  It has already attracted a large Microsoft data center and a supercomputing project involving Noblis and Cray.  The network has also expanded to serve the medical community – from Virginia Tech to local dentist offices – and is used for remote meter reading as well.  In Phase III, the project will begin serving residential customers using a combination of fiber-to-the-home and wireless technologies. 

The nDanville network operates on an “open access” basis – which means that the city provides the layer 1 wholesale capacity to commercial providers who compete to provide a variety of retail services to the customer.  nDanville is funded without any taxpayer or utility ratepayer revenue and is self-sustaining.   nDanville demonstrates the tremendous value of building a shared network that can lower the costs of serving all community anchor institutions and the community.  Policy-makers at all levels can learn lessons from Danville’s success. (More information is available at www.ndanville.net.)

 

Google Fiber: Will It Bypass Those Who Need It Most?

The good news of the Google Fiber project in the Kansas Cities is that many schools, libraries and other anchors will receive free service in the fiberhoods where enough residential consumers sign up for service.  The bad news, as the Columbia Missourian reports, is that schools and libraries in some of the least wealthy areas may get left out of the Google fiber network if not enough residential consumers in the neighborhood can afford to sign up for service.

The newspaper reports that many of the least prosperous neighborhoods are behind the pace needed to convince Google to wire their neighborhoods.  That means the schools, public buildings, libraries and community centers in these neighborhoods – those who arguably need a fiber broadband connection most – will fall further behind the wealthier districts that will get fibered up. 

The paper quotes Christopher Barnickle, an assistant director at the Kansas City, Kan. Public Library as saying, "I'm concerned that the digital divide will be exacerbated by the fact that you'll have extremely faster Internet in some neighborhoods while people in neighborhoods with fewer resources will be left even further behind." 

The Columbia Missourian has this story.

Query: Shouldn't Google build fiber to serve the anchor institutions in ALL Fiberhoods?