Lit Communities, in partnership with Ice Miller Whiteboard and DLZ, has helped provide Monongalia County with a strategic plan to guide the rollout of critical broadband connectivity to residents, businesses, and other organizations in the historic community of about 100,000 residents along the Monongahela River in West Virginia.
The 168-page strategic plan was presented to County Commissioners on Feb. 19, completing a project that began in May 2021 with the goal of both identifying areas that show the most need for improved internet service, and laying out a path for providing that critical new infrastructure across the county that includes rural areas as well as metro Morgantown and the University of West Virginia.
The project included a series of meetings and a survey that found overwhelming support for improved internet service and culminated with the following recommendations:
The county should use federal infrastructure funds and other federal and state grants to invest in a middle-mile fiber backbone network.
Private providers can use the network to expand wired and wireless last-mile connectivity. The county can do the same in certain locations, primarily in the western sections of the county.
The county can leverage the high level of collaboration already demonstrated by local energy companies and utility providers to take advantage of existing rights-of-way and easements to enhance the rollout’s efficiency and effectiveness.
Lit Communities provided expertise on network design, financial modeling, consumer demand, and grant processes to help determine the specific next steps that Monongalia County leaders can take to achieve their fiber broadband goals. The full report can be viewed here.
“The level of interest and commitment we found among multiple stakeholders in Monongalia County gives us confidence that this plan, if followed, would result in a project that could be used as a national template on how to bring top-tier fiber broadband connectivity to similar communities across the country.” – Brian Snider, CEO of Lit Communities
“This strategic plan has been a huge project for our county, staff, and consultants,” said Sean Sikora, Monongalia County Commissioner. “We need robust internet connectivity to grow and thrive, and now we’re one step closer to providing better broadband service to more of our residents.”
About Lit CommunitiesLit Communities is both a forward-thinking builder and operator of next-generation network infrastructure and a consultancy that guides communities across the country through the complicated process of deploying their own open application fiber optic utilities. Lit Communities believes that by separating the network infrastructure from the services provided on it, a more resilient and consumer-friendly environment is created. This approach makes otherwise prohibitively expensive networks feasible to build in communities of all sizes. Learn more about Lit Communities.
On Monday, January 10, 2022, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) posted a request for comments in the Federal Register inviting the public to submit comments regarding the implementation of broadband programs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The following responses are a condensed summary of the comments submitted by Lit Communities Broadband, Inc.:
Regarding the goal to bring reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband to all Americans:
We recommend that NTIA define “access”, “adoption”, “digital equity” and “digital inclusion” uniformly so that all states can integrate those definitions into their 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Current baseline data can be identified to determine which indicators best capture adoption, affordability, digital equity, and digital inclusion and NTIA should require these metrics be included in their respective letters of intent, 5-year plans, initial and final proposals. Subrecipients who apply to the States should be rated, ranked, and funded based on meeting these goals to ensure that all projects and programs are consistent with the Act and make incremental progress towards these outcomes.
To ensure that all voices and perspectives are incorporated into the rulemaking and implementation process, States should be required to undergo a public comment process, similar to those utilized in transportation, water, sanitary sewer, etc. and include documentation on how input was gathered, responded to, and incorporated into the respective plans (as applicable). Similar to the EPA’s State Revolving Fund Programs and requirements for public comment prior to approval of Intended Use Plans, States should be required to solicit feedback from eligible entities (public and private) and incorporate these aspects into their finalized plans.
To demonstrate the IIJA’s funding and investment impacts in broadband, grant recipients should be required to collect a range of data regarding project expenditures and completion, locations served (Census Block level), geospatial data, pricing and speed tiers offered, and any data requested to demonstrate alignment and progress towards meeting the goals established. NTIA should also work diligently to States to ensure that duplication of funding is avoided prior to all grant awards. Applications for all state and federal funding should include a question regarding any pending applications submitted, funding amount requested, high-level scope and project location(s). NTIA should also encourage the formation of State-level interagency workgroups composed of the varying funders (both State and Federal) where they can meet and discuss pending applications and on-going projects to ensure coordination and non-duplication of efforts.
In terms of NTIA’s role in supporting States, Territories, and subgrantees to achieve the respective goals:
Technical assistance provided to the States should be focused on programmatic administration and overall portfolio management of NTIA funded investments. States that are failing to meet the goals established by NTIA should be offered Technical assistance to identify deficiencies, develop solutions to address areas of weakness and assist with implementation of those efforts. Technical assistance provided to localities, prospective sub-grantees, and others should be focused on identifying eligible project areas, utilization of existing GIS data to corroborate data/findings, assistance identifying unserved and underserved areas (Census Blocks and Census Tracts), and for entities who lack the Financial, Managerial, and Technical competencies, provide assistance with application preparation and project development (cost estimates, feasibility studies, etc.).
Prior to the State’s award of subgrants, NTIA should be given an opportunity to review each State’s methodology for preparing fundable projects lists, ensure that public comments were solicited and incorporated into 5-year, initial and final proposals, and evaluation of overall project readiness to avoid unliquidated funding obligations. Specifically, NTIA should consider the following criteria when evaluating a state or territory’s process:
Adequate timeline for solicitation of project proposals (60-90 days)
Adequate timeline of public review, comment, and incorporation into the respective plan
Review of methodology utilized to determine an applicants readiness to proceed (i.e. shovel ready status)
Timeline for the release of funds upon closing and documentation of outlays/expenses
Review of the program and subawards alignment with the IIJA and NTIA’s goals and objectives
Demonstration that subaward compliance with all applicable federal crosscutters and state rules and regulations
Description of how each State conducted its challenge process as part of State mapping and/or identification of unserved/underserved areas, and broadband access.
For subrecipients who are economically disadvantaged or distressed, NTIA should consider additional subsidization to assist with the grant match (i.e. reducing the match based on demonstration of economic or financial circumstances). When considering the circumstances to waive matching requirements, NTIA should consider rurality (homes passed per mile), lower than average median household income, and high unemployment demographic data. Additionally, NTIA should consider whether the applicant has exhausted its funding capacity in terms of general fund balance, debt capacity, and ability to provide the match without causing undue hardship on the applicant.
When evaluating strategies to ensure the future of America is made in America by all of America’s workers:
NTIA must acknowledge that the lack of a workforce to implement projects funded by the IIJA can have a significant impact on the ability of a subrecipient to complete their project on a timely basis, ultimately delaying the provisioning of broadband services to unserved/underserved residents, businesses and community anchor institutions. Workforce and supply-chain constraints will not be restricted to just outlier areas. Rather, these challenges exist across the entire country and might possibly be even more severe in rural or economically distressed areas who are likely already dealing with population decline, reduced labor workforce, and/or lack of trained and skilled personnel. Irregardless of location, providers of all sizes will be faced with these challenges, especially those with existing operations below capacity.
To mitigate the impact of workforce or supply chain limitations, NTIA should consider requiring States to include workforce training/skill development and supply chain considerations and analysis in their 5-year, initial and final proposals. State-level plans and proposals should clearly identify known gaps in the network development and deployment process and provide goals for increasing the respective capacities, i.e. prioritizing installation technicians, and also be provided with the ability to allocate a portion of their funding toward increasing workforce development training and skills development. Rather than a good faith effort to provide equitable access to jobs tied to network deployment, grant funding and/or incentives should be made to providers and public entities to increase workforce development capacity and availability of skilled personnel.
Regarding the use of American-made network components, NTIA should work with the Department of Labor and other broadband funders to forecast areas where shortages exist and provide tax incentives for American manufacturers to fill those gaps in the supply chain and analyze any potential impacts on increased deployment cost. Nationally sourced materials and components are a great idea, however we should be considerate that potentially inflated costs will result in less projects funded through the IIJA. Buy American requirements have a great purpose and impact on our economy, but they should be balanced with national supply chain shortages. The last scenario we want to experience is even longer delays or significantly increased costs simply to meet this requirement.
With respect to ensuring Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funded networks are sustainable and scalable:
We recommend that NTIA require applications to include financial modeling and projections to demonstrate a network’s fiscal sustainability, with and without federal or state grant funding. State’s should avoid awarding funding to projects that fail to demonstrate how they will financially be supported through revenue derived from the network’s subscribers. Applicants should be prepared to identify the number of unserved and underserved households, businesses and anchor institutions and demonstrate how the proposed project solution will reach those locations. States should incentivize applicants (through additional points or funding) who propose projects in the communities that are the least connected and review American Community Survey, FCC Form 477 data, Speed Tests, etc. to determine which areas face accessibility or affordability barriers.
Regarding the allocation and use of BEAD funds to achieve universal, reliable, affordable,
Prior buildout commitments should be incorporated into the new FCC and state-level broadband maps to avoid unnecessary duplication of funding efforts. Applicants proposing projects in areas with prior or existing buildout commitments should be prepared to describe how their solution does not duplicate efforts. NTIA could coordinate with other federal and state broadband agencies to maintain an up-to-date list of current projects under construction through data from progress reports and increased project oversight. Upon completion of these existing buildout commitments, NTIA should request data from the funded entity to verify that the network was built to the standards it committed to, i.e. prove that access is universally available in the respective location.
NTIA should strongly consider designating the use of BEAD funding to support the development of accredited workforce training and certification programs as a mechanism to address the current labor shortage in the broadband industry. Another consideration could include a funding option for planning and design of eligible networks that are not ready to proceed to construction or who lack the funding to support pre-construction activities to assist entities who can not undertake project development until financial assistance is provided. Once an eligible project has been designed and planned, the entity can approach NTIA, State, or other funding agencies for the construction phase.
Regarding the establishment of strong partnerships between State, local and tribal governments:
Through a transparent public comment process, States should require all pertinent stakeholders and state agencies to review and comment on 5-year, initial and final proposals to understand how the funding and respective projects could potentially complement their efforts and determine if there are opportunities to collaborate and/or leverage existing assets and infrastructure. State agencies that should be involved with the development of State plans include: Education, Transportation, Emergency Management, Health Services, Parks and Wildlife, State Library Agencies/Commissions, Water, Workforce Development, Public Utility Commission, Environmental Quality, and Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Regarding the inclusion of tribal governments, NTIA could clarify which recognized tribal entities should participate in the planning development process, i.e. recognized tribes as defined under existing federal law. Once tribal entities have been identified, States should make a diligent effort to coordinate with representatives from each group and encourage them to participate in the broadband planning process, specifically identifying unserved and underserved locations within their respective boundaries. Lastly, States should document how they facilitated the coordination described above and confirm if those needs were captured into their plans and funding list.
With respect to low-cost broadband service options and aspects of affordability:
For ease during implementation, we recommend that the eligible subscriber definition be consistent with programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Lifeline programs. Ideally, BEAD funding recipients should be required to participate in the ACP or Lifeline as a condition for funding and recommend that the existing factors that qualify an individual or household under the Lifeline or Affordable Connectivity Program mirror the eventual definition of an eligible subscriber under NTIA’s rulemaking and program implementation.
Rather than each State independently defining an eligible subscriber and developing its own low-cost option, NTIA should encourage states to require participation in existing subsidy programs. If the States are seeking to allocate a portion of their BEAD funding for additional low-cost subsidy funding capacity, we recommend that they mirror the existing definitions, eligibility and programs to avoid situations where a household might qualify under the ACP program, but not under a different State definition. Defining a baseline standard definition for both an eligible subscriber and low-cost broadband service option provides a great benefit to States and providers, creates a uniform approach for implementing the requirement, and complements existing subsidy programs such as Lifeline, High Cost, and Affordable Connectivity Program.
Millions of residents and businesses only have a single option for broadband service which artificially creates an environment where affordability is not a concern for the incumbent provider. Additionally, offering affordable broadband options should not translate into the lowest possible speed tier being made available to qualified individuals that is inherently below the necessary speed threshold.
Regarding the implementation of the MIddle Mile Broadband Infrastructure grant program:
Open Access Networks could create a more balanced playing field in terms of access and reasonable cost and should be targeted where no middle mile exists currently. For areas where middle mile facilities exist, but are more expensive to the provider, consider a subsidy that can offset the economic challenge. Utilizing Middle Mile grant funding could be effective in reducing a portion of the CapEx that would otherwise be paid for by the providers.
When prioritizing middle mile grant applications, leveraging existing rights-of-way, assets, and infrastructure to minimize financial, regulatory, and permitting challenges should be given greater weight to prioritize applications that will create the biggest impact for the least amount of funding requested. Connection of community anchor institutions are important and considerable weight should be given to projects that directly connect unserved/underserved schools, libraries, hospitals, and essential community facilities. With respect to technical assistance or guidance provided, NTIA should consider providing recurring webinars regarding the Indicators of Broadband Need mapping data aggregated and how to identify eligible project areas. NTIA should also consider steering technical assistance towards applicants who lack the financial, managerial, and technical competencies to identify eligible projects, develop project opportunities and implement projects funded through the program.
One example of a successful deployment by a non-traditional provider is Medina Fiber and its partnership with the Medina County Economic Development Corporation and Medina County Fiber Network to deploy FTTH in rural areas of Medina County, Ohio. Medina County is also leveraging $11 million in ARPA funding to expand network infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas. Another example is the Rail Trail project in York County, Pennsylvania, funded with CARES Act funding and utilized a recreational trail to deploy Middle Mile infrastructure. York County is leveraging $25 million in ARPA funding to construct an open access, middle mile network with seven rings which can be utilized by multiple ISPs to provide fiber Internet service to residents and businesses.
Greater consideration should be given to fiber networks built using the latest Gigabit PON technologies to support last mile residential and commercial speeds of 1 Gbps, 10 Gbps, and even higher as needed. NTIA should also require multiple-ring architecture that provides exceptional reliability and redundancy to “self-heal” and route data traffic around the other side of the fiber ring. NTIA should require the placement of extra fiber capacity into networks to support growth of residential and business customers but also future technologies such as IoT, wireless, and Smart City applications for transportation, public utilities, environmental, public safety/emergency response and smart agriculture.
When I graduated from high school in the year 2000, it was apparent to me that not every one of my classmates who started kindergarten with me in 1987 were walking across the stage to collect their diplomas, let alone continue on to college. The only fiber we had at the household came from our diets and those nostalgic decorative glass boxes. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, students across the country were consistently made aware of the effects of dropping out of school and the impacts that it could make in your life. At the same time, technology was coming into our homes in the form of America Online (AOL) and other gateways to the World Wide Web. I remember when our household had a separate phone line installed so we can utilize a 56k dial-up internet service and how it felt like the cutting edge. With this vital connection, I was able to research universities, complete my homework assignments, learn about different careers, complete my FAFSA and connect with my friends across the country. Even if the speed was putridly slow, it was the connection to the technology that changed the course of my life forever.
I was fortunate that my hard-working mother had the means to provide me this connection to the internet and a personal computer. Shamefully, at that age it wasn’t apparent to me that many of my peers living in the same city lacked the same access that was afforded to me. In the 1990’s, PCs and dial-up access were expensive and I was oblivious to the fact that there were many households in my own hometown that were left without the same technology that enriched my life. All these sentiments came full circle 20 years later when I learned that the 2016 American Community Survey found that the City of Brownsville, my hometown, was the least connected city with over 50,000 households in the entire United States. Little did I know that the Digital Divide was very much present and vehement in my very own backyard! As a co-founder of a company that aims to strike at the heart of this epidemic, I am now able to do something about it and reverse the effects that this problem has caused for decades.
The first step to fixing most problems involves understanding and acknowledging the root of the problem itself. The Digital Divide is not something to take lightly or believe that it doesn’t affect you or your community. In short, the Merriam-Webster defines the Digital Divide as the “economic, educational and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.” By ignoring this problem, we are doing a disservice to our communities and that long-lasting effects it could have on our resiliency, innovation and sustainable growth. To further understand the impacts of the Digital Divide, we must review the data and statistics to analyze how big the problem is. As was covered recently in the Associated Press and national news cycles and on popular programs such as Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, nearly 3 million students across the United States lack an internet connection in their homes, representing a staggering 18% of their age demographic. Not only do these same students lack an internet connection, they also lack the devices and equipment necessary to connect to the network as well. In other respects, entire swaths of major cities such as my current hometown of San Antonio, Texas are without adequate and affordable internet connection, as was illustrated by the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio (add link). The effects of the Digital Divide have also reached older individuals who are retired and on fixed incomes, lacking the means to connect to their families and friends through popular applications such as FaceTime, Facebook and Google Hangouts. Concurrently, the lack of proper internet is also affecting connectivity of businesses operating across all types including home-based businesses to those along the Main Streets, rural Farm-to-Market roads, and pockets of areas in densely populated areas. The compounding of these effects across the entire cross-section of our communities paints a very frightening picture of the impacts if ignored.
What can we do as a community to utilize partnerships, best practices and financial resources to foster strategies to reduce the effects of these impacts? There are organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, hundreds of dedicated non-profits and local organizations such as the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio who are tackling the problem from all angles and respects. Establishing partnerships and identifying resources to neutralize the effects of the Digital Divide are imperative to solving the problem in each of our communities. Staying informed and engaged with proposed legislation at the state and federal level to achieve the greatest impacts from policies that shape the environment is also critical to framing our respective solutions. For example, it is well-known that the Federal Communication Commission’s Form 477 has major flaws regarding the collection of data from incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which reflects the availability of fixed broadband service at the U.S. Census block level. Due to the U.S. government’s utilization of Form 477 data to determine service availability and eligibility for most federally subsidized broadband grant programs, a major opportunity exists for members of the community, universities, industry experts, stakeholders and digital equity advocates to collaborate and develop innovative solutions that provide greater accuracy of broadband service availability and additional aspects such as affordability and local or state digital inclusion planning efforts. By exploring these strategies as a unified voice, we are able to leverage innovative technology, deployment approaches, and financial resources to ensure the integration of initiatives from local, state and federal non-profit organizations.
Despite the seriousness of the problem we are facing across the nation, we are on the precipice of network deployment solutions that can diverge from what has been done decade after decade in the U.S., which is to be the arbiter of communities and individuals’ fate through the denial of access to technology and connectivity. We have the choice to let business as usual continue, with others choosing our fate for us, or we can regain control of our direction and address the needs of the community. In an age where zip codes, demographics, age, and ethnicity can predict our health, education and livelihood, we must recognize how access to affordable and innovative technology can turn those assumptions upside down due to the opportunities that will be unlocked for students, businesses, government and the elderly. To ensure the strategic alignment of the network with community anchor institutions, school, non-profits, business districts and residents, Lit Communities has integrated community and stakeholder’s needs into our overall assessment process called the Community Assessment and Network Deployment workflow. Through our hard work and determination, communities across the country will begin to realize the impacts of this integrated approach and the evolved conversation regarding Digital Equity, in our own backyards.
Chief Strategy Officer
Rene Gonzalez is the Chief Strategy Officer at Lit Communities, which provides a full, turnkey solution for building broadband infrastructure for communities of all sizes, enabling them to create digital equity for the residents and businesses. Rene has over 15 years of experience in project management, strategic planning, project development and federal and state grant consulting for public works and infrastructure projects. He has worked in both the private and governmental sectors, which provides a unique ability to strategically align the needs of clients with opportunities to leverage financial assistance from the federal and state government. Over the course of his career he has assisted various municipalities and government entities on obtaining more than $38 million in grant funding for critical infrastructure projects.
In late October, Lit Communities’ Chief Strategy Officer, Rene Gonzalez and Chief Client Officer, Jessica Fowler traveled to Washington, D.C. to begin building strategic relationships and create awareness of our company and our priority markets. Through the assistance of the Ice Miller Strategies team, we met with five different Congressional offices, the National Economic Council within the White House, and the National League of Cities.
To build awareness of Lit Communities, we provided an overview of our company founding, mission, and approach to working with municipalities through our Community Assessment process. By explaining our process and outcomes, we were successful in demonstrating how Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) can be leveraged to close key infrastructure gaps and ultimately, the Digital Divide. As an extension of the P3 approach, we also explained how Lit Communities launched Medina Fiber in March 2021, our very first fiber to the home deployment in Medina County, Ohio.
We talked about our success in establishing a partnership with Medina County’s Board of Commissioners, Medina County Economic Development Corporation, and Medina County Port Authority to leverage its middle mile network for a last mile deployment to nearly 50,000 residential and business customers throughout the County. Medina Fiber is Lit Communities’ first network deployment, and we shared what we are learning through this project and how it can help our future network deployments succeed. Given the onset of federal funding for broadband infrastructure, it was very important for us to share how P3s can be utilized vs. traditional private sector approaches. We also had the opportunity to brief various Congressional offices on the priority markets where Lit Communities is developing partnerships for last mile infrastructure deployment.
Combined with the timing behind Congress’ approval of the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA) and the historic funding allocation of $65 billion for broadband infrastructure and adoption, municipalities have a once in a lifetime opportunity to partner with the private sector to ensure that their communities are not left with bandwidth that won’t allow for virtual learning, remote work and telehealth. Coordination and work with federal, state and local representatives will be required by any municipal leader as partnerships with providers and private equity are created.
We found from our time in DC that there is tremendous support and strong interest from Congressional representatives and their staff in seeing both local networks succeed and the effective and efficient use of resources. There was also interest in the data from the community survey that Lit performs as part of a Community Assessment. How residents in Lit’s emerging markets view current services and their opinions on pricing, reliability and speed were discussed and we have made a commitment to provide Congressional representatives with continued feedback from community members.
Lit’s Community Assessment process helps municipalities begin this journey of creating enhanced broadband connectivity and learn how to be effective in their role as a partner in a P3 network. The Community Assessment is built around providing answers to three key questions:
What would a municipal network look like?
How much would it cost to build?
Would my community support it?
What would a municipal network look like?
A preliminary design for both a middle mile and a last mile network are the assessment’s key elements- the two designs supply important financial metrics used to inform the financial models for the networks and to provide cost information. Think of this middle mile (or “core” network) as the interstate on a road system or a main fiber artery. The middle mile network connects core anchor institutions such as municipal buildings, emergency and health services, libraries and schools and other organizations deemed critical to the wellbeing of the community. The last mile connects homes and businesses and runs off of the middle mile network.
Example- In Medina, OH, Lit found a middle mile partner in the Medina County Fiber Network. In 2010, the Medina County Port Authority bonded a broadband project, Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN), to create the infrastructure for robust broadband service that could be shared by multiple telecommunications carriers as part of driving economic development within Medina County. The MCFN created a strategic plan in 2017 that addresses expansion of certain fiber trunks into industrial parks and to introduce a residential and small business fiber product through commercial partnering.
In 2021, a relationship was created with Lit’s commercial entity, Medina Fiber, to introduce a
residential and small business offering to Medina County. Medina Fiber is partnering with MCFN and leasing strands to build last mile connectivity to the residents and small businesses of the County. Since March 2021, Medina Fiber has deployed fiber across nearly 4,000 households in Seville, Westfield Center, Montville and Medina City combined. In October 2021, Medina Fiber opened its first Demonstration Center in Seville for customers to provide direct customer service and learn about gigabit internet services and its utilization in the home and business.
How much would it cost to build?
Once the preliminary design is completed for a middle and last mile network the number of overall road miles and the estimated percentage of aerial and underground construction are both used to create a financial model with a project budget, income statement, cash flow statement, revenues that can be earned (from internet, TV, VoIP, telehealth, smart home, 5G/small cells services), expenses (engineering, construction and O&M), and debt and equity scenarios.
An important number included in the financial model for communities and their partners to know is the cost per household passed, which is based on engineering and construction costs (labor and materials). Investors in broadband networks watch this number carefully to ensure it falls within their acceptable range (more on this in another blog!). As part of the cost estimating, Lit’s Community Assessments provide for the creation of a capital stack that includes public and private funding opportunities. Local, state and federal funds as well as sources of private equity are part of this stack and combined together can finance the network.
Lit believes that every community should have the opportunity to have an ownership position in a community network and we strongly encourage municipalities to consider this type of investment. Community ownership in the middle mile network can set municipalities on the path of revenue generation as they can charge for access to their network (think of a toll that is paid on an interstate by every driver!).
Would my community support it?
Lit Communities works closely to engage stakeholders and residents through focus groups, town halls and community surveys, all used to gauge and encourage support for a network. Oftentimes there are community institutions and organizations with similar goals and desired outcomes who can be terrific partners with their municipal leaders. The survey is designed to ask respondents questions about current and desired services, pricing, and reliability. Knowing how community members view their connectivity is critical in planning how to address challenges.
Example- According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), Brownsville, TX, has consistently ranked as one the least connected cities in the United States, with 47.13% of households without broadband of any kind and 67% of households who do not have cable, DSL, or fiber broadband. Recognizing the severity of this problem, the City established a partnership with seven community anchor institutions to fund the Broadband Feasibility and Digital Inclusion Plan to study and address the lack of broadband in the community.
In July 2020, Lit Communities began working with Brownsville on a Citywide broadband feasibility study and digital inclusion plan. In July 2021, Lit Communities Broadband, Inc. created BTX Fiber, LLC for the sole purpose of serving Brownsville’s residents and businesses and partnering with the City to provide a source of revenue generation. BTX Fiber will work with the local workforce and community college (Texas Southmost College) to meet both the skills and labor needs of the project. Currently, the City is embarking on a 24 month effort to develop its own 93-mile middle mile backbone network utilizing $19.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, allowing for further opportunities to work with private partners such as BTX Fiber to deploy last mile services in priority areas of the community. Additionally, the City’s proposed network will connect 32 anchor institutions including city facilities, Police, Fire, EMS, and public parks.
With answers to these three questions, municipalities are now poised to consider next steps in making the networks a reality and can engage withs State Broadband Offices as they will be the gatekeepers for all the IIJA funding. Be involved, know your needs, and know how much your solution costs so it can be included in the long-range plan!
Looking for a guide you can trust to help you explore these questions for your own municipality? Book a free demo with our team today!
As a result of the impacts from the digital divide in our communities, states, and country we are finally on a path towards closing these critical gaps in our infrastructure and deploying the technology of tomorrow. With over $25 billion in federal funding dedicated specifically for broadband and digital inclusion efforts over the past several years, and state legislative bodies making similar investments across the country, we are finally ushering in a new era for broadband deployment.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to address critical gaps in our broadband infrastructure was evident, however the funding needed to solve the problem and deploy solutions was not readily available. While investment in addressing the needs in rural areas across the country have been assisted greatly by the programs of the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect, Community Connect, and Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants over the past several years, funding has not been reciprocal for urban and suburban communities.
After witnessing the challenges faced by our K-12 schools, universities, and remote workers during the pandemic, it is fair to acknowledge that the digital divide exists in non-rural areas as well. With the funding provided by the federal government in the CARES Act, Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 more efforts are being made by communities, both urban and rural. This isn’t a game about winners and losers, to close the digital divide permanently we must utilize solutions that build greater capacity and quality broadband deployment for the county as a whole.
Beginning in March of 2020, some communities determined that it was critical to utilize local aid provided in the CARES Act to support the deployment of broadband infrastructure in response to the pandemic. While this was a positive development, the deadline of completing all projects prior to the end of December 2020 posed a major challenge. Fortunately, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 included an extension of the March 2020 local aid until the end of 2021 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 allows for projects to be completed by the end of December 2026.
This is a tremendous opportunity for more communities to learn from the efforts of projects completed in 2020 and make similar investments in their own. Luckily, there will be more time to complete these potential projects this time around! Also, the establishment of the Capital Projects Fund in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides an additional $10 billion in funding for communities to make investments in broadband infrastructure. With the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit program that launched in April 2021 and new grant programs being implemented by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) such as the Broadband Infrastructure, Tribal Connectivity, and the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Programs, there are great opportunities to utilize this funding to build greater capacity in underserved communities. Combined with the new leadership of Acting Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel at the FCC, both communities and industry partners such as Lit Communities can now pursue these efforts with confidence.
There is a great sense of optimism that the new leadership at the FCC will address long-standing concerns surrounding the accuracy of broadband mapping and data collections from incumbent providers. While you might not know about the infamous FCC Form 477, you might have been impacted by it. In a nutshell, the data that is currently provided by ISPs overstates availability since data is provided at the census block level. This is a major issue because this inaccurate data not only disqualifies some communities from applying for federal grant funding, but it also results in uncertainty when awarding billions of dollars through the FCC’s Rural Deployment Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and related programs. Thanks to the passage of the Broadband DATA Act (Public Law No. 116-130) and the funding provided in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, we can be hopeful for a more granular and accurate picture of broadband availability starting in March 2022. With a solid awareness of the homework gap, there is a sense that the $7.6 billion in funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund will be the start of an approach to expand the E-Rate program to address connectivity beyond the classroom and into the homes of students and instructors. Lastly, while it has been quite some time since Congress passed a major infrastructure bill, there is even more potential to put funding towards broadband deployment and closing the digital divide. Thanks to the leadership of Rep. James Clyburn (SC – 6th District) and other key leaders in Congress have put forth proposals that would authorize more than $65 billion to ensure unserved and underserved communities would have affordable high-speed internet access.
In the communities of Brownsville, TX and York County, PA, Lit has successfully facilitated the application of ARPA funding for the construction of middle mile network infrastructure. In Brownsville, the city is using ARPA dollars to build a redundant ring configured open access middle mile network which will serve the city’s anchor institutions as well as a backbone for a private provider to build a fiber to the home network. This is remarkable because Brownsville has consistently ranked among the least connected cities in the United States, with over 66% of the population lacking access to a wireline connection of any kind. In York, the County is pursuing a similar approach to Brownsville, albeit at a more regional level, and is deploying redundant ring configured open access middle mile infrastructure throughout the County with ARPA funding.
In summary, there is a great deal of momentum building on a number of fronts at the federal level which will have a lasting impact in beginning to close the digital divide, and Lit Communities is working on the front lines to help make building this digital bridge a reality. Learn how we can help YOUR community by visiting our website and reaching out, we can’t wait to bring you faster, better broadband.