New NTIA Data Show Enduring Barriers to Closing the Digital Divide, Achieving Digital Equity

posted in: Planning | 0

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted what many already knew: high-speed internet access is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As workplaces and schools shifted to online environments, families that lacked access to affordable, reliable, high-speed connections, appropriate devices, and digital skills fell further behind.

Newly released data from the 2021 NTIA Internet Use Survey show that historically less-connected communities used the Internet and connected devices in greater numbers than they did two years ago. Despite that progress, the substantial disparities that NTIA has tracked for decades continued to be evident, highlighting the urgent need to work toward digital equity in the United States. Read more.

Digitally Connected Community Guide tapped for national workshop

The University of Missouri System Broadband Initiative team was tapped to help train extension professionals to be effective partners in closing their state’s digital divide. The May 3–5 workshop in St. Louis equipped participants from 11 states with training and tools based on the UM System’s Digitally Connected Community Guide model to help close critical broadband access and adoption gaps that impact quality of life and economic recovery. 

The National Digital Extension Education Team (NDEET), headed by Rachel Welborn, associate director of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State, asked UM to provide a train-the trainer-model program around the UM model.  

“This collaborative national training opportunity strengthens the impact of broadband expansion across rural America and other areas of need by bringing together Extension professionals as co-learners and community catalysts,” said Alison Copeland, UM System deputy chief engagement officer. “It’s an honor that the Digitally Connected Community Guide was selected by NDEET to train Extension colleagues across the nation.”

The Guide, an online curriculum produced by the UM System Broadband Initiative, offers tools and resources — and a step-by-step process — to engage local partners and residents in bringing high-speed internet to unserved Missouri communities; improve adoption rates and digital literacy; and increase the use of internet-based technologies and applications to improve health, education, and economic opportunities for all. 

More information about the Digitally Connected Community Guide is available.

Seven “Characteristics” of Successful Broadband Public-Private Partnerships

posted in: Funding, Planning | 0

We are at the beginning of  the Great Broadband Infrastructure Funding Boom. New federal funding for broadband started with the CARES Act and picked up steam with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) but the amounts involved are dwarfed by over $65 billion that will be distributed by the federal government over the next few years as part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).  Meanwhile, in the near term we expect over $400 million of the state’s ARPA funding to be appropriated by the General Assembly this spring, with actual awards and funding to begin by late this calendar year.

While this funding potentially could be distributed directly to local government, in many cases the federal and state enabling legislation contemplates that private for-profit internet service providers, nonprofits and government entities will work together to implement broadband access and internet adoption projects. These public-private arrangements are called public-private partnerships or – P3s.

P3s seldom are actually documented as partnerships and the arrangement  may not even be referred to as a “P3.” However, they all do involve an ongoing legal agreement among one or more federal, state or local governments (public partners) and at least one for-profit or nonprofit entity (private partners), with the goal of constructing and operating a new development or enterprise.  P3s have been used for many decades to construct and operate all sorts of public improvements, everything from arenas and stadiums to water systems and power plants, to toll roads and bridges – even a few high-speed internet networks. They also have been instrumental in bringing major retail or business expansion projects to depressed or underdeveloped communities.      

I believe P3s likely will be used extensively for new broadband projects in underserved communities because much of the funding from the federal government comes with conditions that focus on outcomes over the long-term.  For example, any broadband infrastructure project funded with an IIJA grant will have to achieve minimum levels of performance (download, upload and latency), offer service to all or nearly all of the locations in the project area, meet certain service affordability standards, and once operating, satisfy specified “quality of service” parameters.  The exact requirements remain to be seen, but it seems likely that if federal funding is used, recipients will be required to show not only that project was built as designed, but also that when completed it operates at the performance levels promised, and that the service offered is reliable and affordable. This focus both on construction and the ongoing operation of the project will be difficult for a single entity (government or business) to meet on their own and many will move to seek to share both the risks and rewards of project construction and operation using a public-private partnership. In fact, Missouri’s most recent award of federal funding required that the new projects be completed using a public-private partnership.

Using a P3 won’t necessarily eliminate risk or ensure the project will be a success. My work with communities, negotiating and documenting P3s over several decades, has yielded decidedly mixed outcomes. Many P3s have been unqualified successes, delivering state-of-the-art infrastructure improvements on time, at or under budget. However, others have been financial and operational disasters. There have even been a few situations where initially the P3 failed, but later it was resurrected, modified, and ultimately succeeded. As communities and businesses across Missouri and the United States consider using P3s for broadband, it seemed a good time to share a list of characteristics that I’ve found most successful P3s have in common.

My list is anecdotal; it’s based entirely on my own observations. I compiled it after reflecting on my experience working on many projects over the years. Admittedly my list wasn’t derived primarily from experience working on P3s that were formed to construct and operate broadband networks, but I think the fact that the projects I worked on were so varied (everything from ethanol and bio-gas plants to football stadiums) shows that what is being built or operated is not all that relevant, and at least a couple of the characteristics described actually were illustrated by broadband P3s.

With that as an introduction, my list follows —         

Characteristic 1 — The Partners Think Long-Term

Partners in successful P3s typically organize their arrangement to achieve long-term objectives over many years or even decades. All critical partners share an understanding of the ultimate objective, and each tends to see their individual responsibility to the enterprise through that perspective. For example, if a P3 is used to build and operate a toll road, the construction contractor understands that delivering the road on time and under budget in accordance with the design specifications, means very little if she knows the road hasn’t been properly designed to handle projected traffic volume, or that the material specified in that contract will not stand up to weather conditions and last for the project’s intended useful life. Neither of these concerns are the contractor’s primary responsibility, and if the arrangement was viewed only as a construction contract, the contractor would measure success only by looking at whether the road was completed, on time, within budget, in accordance with design specifications.

However, the true objective for the P3 is to provide a toll road that will improve travel for many years. Certainly, a critical step in reaching that goal is to get the road built and open for operation, but that short-term objective is only part of a much larger long-range goal. If the contractor partner takes this long-view into account, she will raise her concerns, and all parties will consider and address them before proceeding. It may take a bit longer to get the road built, and it might cost more, but it will be much more likely that the project will satisfy the P3’s long-term objective.

This mindset may not come naturally, but it does seem to lead to a better overall outcome – over the long term.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how thinking long-term thinking could benefit communities building a new broadband network. If the long-term objective is to provide the community access to high-speed internet that is affordable and capable of handling the community’s needs over the next 10 to 20 years, the partners in the P3 wouldn’t automatically choose the broadband infrastructure option that could be constructed for the lowest cost.

Instead, before selecting that option, the partners also would consider how much it will cost to operate and maintain the network, and whether the network can be easily upgraded so that it can efficiently operate new internet applications that become available, compared to other infrastructure technologies that are more expensive to install. Looking “long-term” the savings associated with lower operating expenses and avoiding the cost of installing a replacement network in just a few years, may far outweigh the limited benefit of a lower initial installation expense today.   

Characteristic 2 — The P3 Has “Good Partners”

Successful P3s have “good partners” – partners that have three characteristics:  a proven track record, financial wherewithal to weather economic problems, and finally, a “cooperative spirit.” The first two of these seem obvious. Of course, a local government (public partner) would want to find a private internet service provider, contractor, or network operator with a great track record, that was highly capitalized and able to cover unexpected cost overruns and delays. Likewise, a private company (the private partner) would search out a city or county with a team of elected officials and staff that had successfully worked with private businesses on significant P3 projects in the past and that have a reputation for following through on financial and other commitments.

However, identifying and recruiting good partners is not easy. After all, if government or business, acting alone were able to provide affordable access to high-speed internet in the community, that already would have happened. There likely are engineering problems, lack of access to easements and right of way, insufficient access to capital, low population density and demand for service, and many other issues to overcome to successfully construct and operate an economically viable network. The best “partner” candidates often have many options in communities that present fewer challenges and that are less risky. This does not mean recruiting good, –qualified partners — is impossible, but it does underscore the need to carefully evaluate and select the best candidates, and to pay particular attention to each candidate’s experience and financial condition.

Communities need to be especially cautious of firms that offer untested technologies to achieve the P3’s goals. Although it’s possible an entrepreneur may have discovered a great solution, often unexpected problems arise when a new technology is deployed in a real-world setting, and invariably firms promoting these technologies are undercapitalized and find it difficult to weather these setbacks. Certainly, a carefully crafted request for qualifications or request for proposals solicitation process should be followed to identify all available candidates and options. For public partners, this usually will require the help of a financial advisor and perhaps an engineering consultant to assist in evaluating prospective partner candidates and P3 proposals.

A third, less obvious, characteristic of a “good partner” is a cooperative spirit. For the reasons already discussed, a P3 that seeks to provide internet access to underserved communities and improve adoption of internet applications, likely will encounter difficulties and setbacks along the way. In successful P3s, each partner, public and private, understands this, is willing to stay the course and, if necessary, alter their approach to the extent necessary to achieve the P3’s long-term objectives.      

Characteristic 3 — Each Partner Has the Support of its Constituency

Public and private partners have constituencies. Public partners (elected and appointed government officials) must answer to voters, public utility customers, parents of school age children, local business and civic community leaders, and many other groups. Private partners typically answer to their board of directors, investors and, in the case of nonprofits, donors. To achieve success, partners in successful P3s will have taken steps to obtain and maintain the support of their constituencies.

This characteristic is particularly important for public partners. It can be easy for a well-meaning government official or governing body to get ahead of the voters. Even if the P3 contracts are eventually approved over public objections, a future city council or county commission may work to undue the efforts of its predecessor and terminate the arrangement. In successful P3s, written agreements among the partners reflect and evidence the commitment of the community, not just the current government leadership. Of course, no P3 has unanimous public support. There always will be dissenters, but when reflecting on unsuccessful P3s, one often finds it had a critical public partner that entered into the agreement even when faced with widespread sustained opposition from a substantial portion of the community.

In successful P3s, prior to entering into the arrangement, public partners spend time and effort engaged in learning sessions where they carefully explain both the benefits and the risks associated with the P3, and work to address concerns voiced by constituencies. This effort continues throughout project construction and commencement of operations. The public is kept informed of the project milestones as well as challenges encountered along the way that require modifications to the initial plan.   

Characteristic 4  — Expectations Are Kept in Check

Successful P3s have partners with realistic expectations of what can be achieved. Public partner leaders and decision makers understand that calling the arrangement a  “P3” does not somehow guarantee the successful completion and operation of the enterprise, nor eliminate financial risk. Private partners understand that public institutions operate by consensus rather that edict, and they accept and adapt to a decision-making process that takes more time.

Characteristic 5 — The Objectives of All Partners are Well Defined and Understood

Partners in successful P3s take the time to fully understand their shared objectives, and to compromise individual objectives that could otherwise lead to future conflict. In contrast, partners that assume their objectives are fully understood and shared – or worse – conceal their true motivations to achieve a strategic advantage in negotiations, eventually face difficulties. Some underlying problem eventually will expose the problem under circumstances when it will be much harder to achieve an acceptable resolution.

Defining and understanding objectives often does not receive enough attention because it is inconsistent with traditional contract negotiation strategy. For example, if I want to buy a house, my goal – my objective – is to get one that best suits my needs at the lowest possible price. In contrast, your goal, as seller, is transfer the house for cash, free of any future responsibility at the highest possible price. Most would agree that in a traditional negotiation, the seller should emphasize the positive aspects of the house, while avoiding (to the extent the law allows) pointing out any defects that might depress its price. On the other hand, as the buyer, I would do everything possible to emphasize the structure’s defects and shortcomings and initially would offer less than the  amount was willing to pay in the hope of getting the best bargain. Eventually, through a series of offers and counteroffers we would either arrive at the selling price or abandon the effort.

Partnership arrangements involve a much different set of expectations and dynamics. Most are designed to remain in effect for an extended period, and in successful P3s, the parties recognize this, and tend to spend a substantial amount of time at the outset working to understand and clearly define each other’s objectives. It is true that, just as in the buyer-seller example, the parties likely will have some objectives that are incompatible, but if the P3 structure is a viable option, they will also identify some important common or shared objectives.

For instance, a for-profit ISP may be looking to maximize profits by expanding its internet network to homes in an underserved community. At the same time, the public partner may be looking to provide online learning opportunities for residents, or it may want to add residence-based internet sensors and controls for public water, sewer or electric utilities. The common, or shared objective in this case is to expand internet service to every home in the community. While the motivation behind the objective may be much different (profit for the private partner ISP and better delivery of community services for the public partner) the potential exists to create a successful P3 that will enable them to reach this shared objective. For example, the public partner might agree to purchase permanent capacity on the new network capacity to meet its goals, in exchange for the ISP’s agreement to build out service to each home in the community, including those that it otherwise would have by-passed because the lack of customer density created profitability concerns.

Of course, there also likely are some inconsistent objectives as well. The ISP might want to exclude some homes in the community because they could not be served profitably, or the public partner might want the ISP to offer service to low-income households at a reduced rate to encourage adoption of its new public internet-based government services. But even here, if these objectives are identified and understood, a solution probably can be found. For example, perhaps the parties would agree that the ISP could install infrastructure that is slightly less capable, but much less costly to install and operate in marginal areas of the community. To meet its goal of reaching all of the households in the community, the public partner might agree to offer subsidies to low-income subscribers, so that they could afford to pay a market rate for internet service.    

However, before any of these ideas can be explored and developed, the partners must be willing to reveal their underlying motivations and objectives. Stated another way, it’s impossible to find common ground unless you know where you and your potential partners “stand” right now. This can be a difficult shift, particularly for legal advisors and business advisors more familiar with traditional negotiation strategies. It requires a significant investment of time and the development of a negotiating environment designed to encourage free exchange of information and ideas.

Characteristic 6 – The Partners and the P3 Speak with One Voice

This characteristic applies primarily to public partners, and it applies both during the course of negotiations leading to the formation of the P3, as well as after the project commences. Nothing tends to undermine trust and sidetrack negotiations quite like a public partner with multiple spokespersons. Public entities, by their nature, tend to be somewhat decentralized and populated with folks who are eager to take the limelight. Private partners cannot effectively react to multiple inconsistent positions voiced on behalf of a single government, and if the situation is not properly managed, the private partner may eventually decide to abandon negotiations. Successful P3s tend to have public partners that understand this risk. They establish clear lines of negotiation and communication through a single individual, and demand that all parties respect this process.  

What is true for individual partners, is also true for the P3. Most P3s need to contract with others for financial and other resources. When approaching third parties such as a bank or underwriter, or a federal regulator, successful P3s designate a single individual to conduct negotiations.    

Characteristic 7 — The Parties Think “Win-Win”

This final characteristic I borrowed from Stephen Covey’s  “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It may seem altruistic and somewhat naïve, but it reflects a practical difference that underlies all of the six characteristics previously described. Effective partnerships of any kind exist because they can achieve an objective that the individual partners, working alone, could never reach.  From this perspective, if the partnership succeeds, everyone should feel like a winner – because all fared better than they would have had they undertaken the project on their own.

Identifying a path that achieves the community’s core objectives, that provides private partners a fair economic return, and that fairly allocates risks and offers rewards commensurate with each partner’s investment of time and resources is seldom easy. In many cases attempts to establish a P3 fail because there are too few shared objectives or because one or more of the partners was unwilling or unable to engage and negotiate an arrangement that required a long-term investment of time and capital.  In some instances, the P3’s objectives, were only partially achieved, and of course there are some where the P3 failed completely. However, there are many others where the effort proved successful.

That’s the reason public-partnerships continue to be popular and used in a wide variety of situations. It’s not because they ensure success or eliminate risk, but instead it’s because parties know that without them there would be no possibility of successfully completing the project and achieving their shared goals.   

The Broadband DATA Act, RDOF, BEAD, The Long Slog Toward Broadband Access

posted in: Funding, Planning | 0

By Marc McCarty

Happy New Year!

As 2022 begins, it seemed an appropriate time to take stock of progress we’ve made in funding broadband access. This blog checks in on some federal government programs that have gotten quite a few headlines over the past year or two, to see how implementation is going.

The Broadband DATA Act

The Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (thankfully shortened to the “Broadband DATA Act”), doesn’t directly provide any money to build broadband infrastructure, but implementing it may be the key to actually spending the billions of dollars already appropriated by Congress for broadband buildout, and that’s part of the reason why the results to date have been a little disheartening.

The Broadband DATA Act became law March 23, 2020. One of its primary objectives is to once and for all identify – with a high degree of confidence – all areas in the United States where a broadband connection can be installed (a “Serviceable Location”).  Serviceable locations include those in urban as well as rural areas, and arguably should include businesses and institutions, as well as residences. A key provision of the Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to define what a “Serviceable Location” is and to produce a “data set” that would enable folks to accurately locate all of them on a map. This is called the “FABRIC.” Internet providers and the public would then report whether fixed wired or wireless broadband service is (or could be) offered to each of these Serviceable Locations with existing infrastructure.  

Knowing all this is critical of course, because federal funding to assist in building internet infrastructure needs to be targeted to locations that currently do not have service available. Folks just “tuning into” this issue usually are shocked to learn that many billions of federal government dollars have already been directed to build out broadband infrastructure based on maps that everyone acknowledges are not very good. In fact, Missouri was one of two states where this was illustrated in a pilot project commissioned in 2019 by the broadband industry. This project was undertaken to determine the feasibility of creating the FABRIC, and to see how much it differed from the broadband access data that the FCC and others were using to award federal grants and loans.  The results were sobering: In Missouri, 36% of the rural Serviceable Locations identified using the FABRIC were not being reported at all (either as served or unserved) in the existing FCC data.

However, even though the need is obvious, progress in creating the FABRIC has been slow, even as the need for it has become even more critical. After the Act became law, the FCC reported that it could not begin work because it did not have the funds necessary to achieve the objectives of  the Broadband DATA Act. This was finally rectified in December 2020, when an additional $65 million was appropriated to the FCC by Congress.

So, where is the FABRIC? Well, that’s what Indiana Congresswoman Victoria Spartz wondered. So, in late September she sent a letter to FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, asking for a target date for completion of the FABRIC and related objectives of the Broadband DATA Act. It seemed a logical question, as the Commissioner was reported to have testified before Congress in March 2020 that the improved map could be produced in 3-6 months.

Commissioner Rosenworcel responded in early December. She did not provide a date for delivery of the FABRIC but did provide some reasons for delays in 2021. The FCC elected to contract out work to produce the FABRIC to a private company. After a series of false starts, the bid request was finalized in mid-August and the contract to build the FABRIC was awarded in early November. However, before work could start an unsuccessful bidder filed a protest with the General Accounting Office (GAO) and this has delayed any further work until February 2022 while the bidder’s protest is evaluated. Assuming the GAO does confirm the original award, once work commences it will be another four months before a preliminary version of the FABRIC is delivered.

Of course, that’s just the preliminary version of the FABRIC. There are also important policy questions that remain unresolved. For example, should Serviceable Locations identified as part of the FABRIC be limited to residences only, or should some or all all businesses and institutions be included as well. And of course, the preliminary version of the FABRIC will need to be vetted and updated, internet providers will need to report whether they can (or do) offer service at those locations, and this information will need to be verified by the FCC and the public, as required by the Act.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Auction

There are “real world” consequences to delays in implementing the Broadband DATA Act. On December 7, 2020, the FCC announced that $9.2 billion had been awarded on a “preliminary” basis to hundreds of private and public internet service providers to help fund the build out high-speed internet in unserved areas (census blocks) throughout the United States. While the announcement of this award was welcome, in an earlier blog I cautioned not to expect too much too soon because the awards were preliminary, recipients would have to go through a vetting process, and when the grant was finalized they would have six years to satisfy their commitment to build out service in the unserved areas.

However, these observations proved to be far too optimistic. Earlier this month, in response to a written inquiry signed by 19 members of Congress, Commissioner Rosenworcel detailed the challenges that have delayed the FCC in finalizing the awards. At that time, more than a year after the initial announcement, less than 20% of the preliminary award had been finalized and committed.

Because eligibility for grants was based on the FCC’s maps, the Commission determined that over 5000 census blocks that were announced as receiving awards last December needed to be removed because they clearly either had broadband service – or they never should have been included in the first place. Parking lots and international airports were among those receiving preliminary awards of funds in 2020.

While 5,000 census blocks is a big number, there were well over 60,000 census blocks that received an initial award, so there were still plenty of locations remaining. According to the Commissioner, the FCC continues to press on, reviewing details provided by winning bidders, and it will periodically continue to announce more locations and winning bidders that have successfully navigated the review process. Most recently, on December 16th, the FCC announced it would begin to fund an additional $1 billion (over 10 years) of the original $9.2 billion announced last December. That said, it is sobering that distribution of approximately 2/3 of the promised money has yet to begin, particularly in light of the 6-year period the awardees have to complete the required internet service connections.

The IIJA

Of course, by far the most newsworthy new federal funding program this year was the mammoth Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act (the IIJA). This law appropriates $42.4 billion to the new Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (or “BEAD”) Program. As noted in an earlier Blog, rather than the FCC, the agency primarily responsible for administering the BEAD Program is the National Telecommunication and Information Agency (NTIA). In addition, instead of direct federal grants to internet service providers, the BEAD Program contemplates that each state will establish its own program for broadband deployment, (subject to NTIA’s approval) and that NTIA will allocate each state a share of BEAD Program funds based primarily on how many underserved locations are present within the state as compared to the rest of the country. All this is supposed to commence with the publication of a “Notice of Funding Opportunity (or “NOFO”) to all states by May 14, 2022.

“How will NTIA figure what locations are served and unserved” you ask? Well, that will be based on the FABRIC and full implementation of the Broadband DATA Act. And of course, as noted earlier, delivery of the FABRIC and full implementation of the Broadband DATA Act is in the hands of the FCC.

What Comes Next?

A “slog” is a particularly tiring task that requires a lot of effort. A “long slog” describes situations where that effort is required for an extended time. The events of the last year certainly make it clear that this description is going to be appropriate for the process of getting the promised federal dollars necessary to build and deploy broadband into the hands of states, and ultimately to public and private internet service providers.

To some extent, local government, business, and institutions are at the mercy of the federal agencies charged with implementing the RDOF, the BEAD Program, and many other similar grant and loan fund programs; and those agencies must follow procedures mandated by law to account for the proper expenditure of those funds. However, that doesn’t mean it is appropriate to ignore situations where the bureaucracy appears to have run amok. If nothing else, keeping the lack of progress or inordinately slow progress front and center in the public’s mind may ultimately lead to procedural reforms within these agencies and perhaps within Congress as well.

It also seems apparent that it would be a mistake for state and local governments to wait for the FCC to compete the FABRIC. For one thing, it seems apparent that delivery of the final product will extend well into 2022 (and perhaps beyond). But at a more fundamental level, each state needs independent engineering and technical evidence to verify that the data the FCC and NTIA propose to use to distribute federal grants is accurate and complete. Thankfully, Missouri is moving in that direction, and in November awarded a contract for a detailed assessment of fixed and wireless broadband deployment needs, and estimates of the cost to make fixed wired and wireless broadband service available throughout each county in the state. That work should be completed this spring, well in advance of the completion of even the preliminary FABRIC.

Likewise, state and local governments already have funds available through the American Rescue Plan Act to assess community needs and resources available to improve broadband service, with a view and to beginning the process of deploying broadband in their communities. While there are many priorities that arguably need to be addressed with this money, broadband certainly is one of them, and the Governor’s proposal to commit $400 million of the state’s share of those funds to broadband deployment, should serve as an example for counties and cities as they decide how to spend their American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Closing the Digital Divide: Houston, Missouri Finds a Solution

Don Tottingham, longtime Mayor of Houston, Missouri, loved his City and thought it was a great place to raise a family. But he also recognized it had a major infrastructure issue: its residents and most small businesses lacked an adequate, reliable, high-speed internet connection.

The Vision

Mind you, Houston, Missouri, a city of approximately 2100, located in the south-central part of the state, is not entirely without high-speed internet service. Some businesses and many schools, libraries and other public institutions had the money needed to fund special, high-speed internet connections, but upon investigation Houston public officials found that the commercial providers who offered this service to businesses in the City, could not make a “business case” for extending service to all the individual residences and small businesses in the City.

This situation may sound familiar to many small towns, subdivisions, and even some neighborhoods in larger cities. However, what is unusual is that Houston’s local officials decided to do something about the problem. They decided to build a fiberoptic internet network that will offer service to all residents and businesses in the City.

I spoke recently with Houston City Administrator, Scott Avery (via Zoom) to learn more about the City’s vision and lessons learned as the project has moved forward.

When we spoke, the City’s network was under construction:  an 18-mile fiberoptic cable “ring” around the community had been completed, internet access for the City’s new network with two separate providers had been secured, and work was underway on the second stage of a four-stage neighborhood build-out to homes and businesses throughout the City.

Service has been offered to residences and businesses in the completed sections of the City beginning in March 2021, and when the network is finally completed (expected by year-end), every home and business in the City will have the option of connecting to the internet at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second!

Community Outreach – Meeting the Needs of the Community

Mayor Tottingham lost his battle with cancer in July 2019, but by that time the City had already hired an engineering firm to conduct an internet feasibility study. The results of that feasibility study and a key component, a community survey, became available at about the time the time Scott Avery came on board as City Administrator in September.

Scott noted two key findings of the community survey. First, 78% of respondents said they would subscribe to reliable internet service offered by the City. This of course was strong confirmation of public support for the City to move forward with municipal broadband. Second, the survey showed that the overwhelming concern for residents and businesses was to have reliable internet service– meaning service that was robust enough to allow them to connect online and have confidence that the connection would remain stable for as long as it was needed. This led the City to intentionally construct a network designed to be highly reliable and capable of expanding to meet both current and future needs of residents and businesses.

Scott observed that the community outreach effort was crucial not only for Houston’s leaders, but for any community that wants to address the lack of high-speed internet access and adoption. “We could sit here in city hall and guess all the time without actually understanding what services they want the City to provide.” He added, “Having the survey gives you a chance to ‘paint the picture’ to let folks know what you are doing.” and that “helped answer the questions Aldermen had when considering whether to make the investment.”

Houston’s project is closely tied to its municipal electric utility system. Funds from the electric system have financed the expansion; city employee linemen have been cross-trained to install and repair fiber; the fiber is mounted on City-owned poles; and billing and back-office administration are incorporated with those already used for the City’s electric, water, and sewer utilities. Once fully operational, the network is expected to deliver better utility and other government services to the community, as well as provide the City’s residents and businesses reliable high-speed internet. 

“In the Trenches” – Building a Fiber Network

In early 2020, based on the findings from the survey and the feasibility study, the City decided to move forward with a City-owned and operated internet network. It selected a contractor through a request for qualifications process, and secured contracts to connect the City’s network to the internet from two separate providers. Scott’s experience in emergency services, and the community’s concerns about reliability, led to the decision to have a second provider for the City’s network. By doing this, the City has redundant access to the internet, so that a service failure with one provider would not cause the City’s network to go down, as the other provider’s capacity alone was more than that needed to service the City’s users. The City also took advantage of favorable pricing to buy more capacity (bandwidth) from these providers than was strictly necessary based on the engineer’s design. The goal was to build a system that could easily grow to meet increases in demand or perhaps a new business such as a data center that might need much higher levels of bandwidth.

The City published pricing and service levels in 2020 before network construction began. It now offers a range of service options for households ranging from $30 a month for 25Mbps (upload and download) to $90 a month for gigabit level service (1000 Mbps). Business customer options range from $75 to $250 per month but provide the customer priority routing over the network.

When it created the various options and pricing, the City focused on two considerations. First, what was the minimum level of service citizens needed to do most household tasks such a streaming video and working or taking online classes from home. Even for individuals that select the lowest service level, their connections speeds should be sufficient for those purposes.  Second, the service is priced at a level sufficient to operate and maintain the City’s network over the long term, but with no expectation of making a profit. As Scott put it — “the goal, the focus, all along is that a single mom with four kids at home – trying to get them an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I think this fiber broadband and an online education opens doors for people in this community more than anything else because it attaches them to the outside world.”

With this amount of advance planning and help from outside experts, existing right-of-way, poles throughout the City to run fiberoptic cable, and a city staff experienced in operating other utilities, you might expect things would have gone relatively smoothly. Scott was quick to admit that wasn’t the case. “We started construction in March of 2020. I don’t know if you heard what happened in March of 2020, but there was a shut down from this thing called COVID.” As I laughed, he pointed to his graying hair and observed, “I had brown hair when we started this project.”

Joking aside, the COVID lockdown initially stopped and then slowed the progress on the project. Once things began to reopen, the City was faced with labor delays and shortages of fiberoptic cable and related equipment needed to construct the network. This problem is not unique to Houston, it has plagued even the largest internet providers throughout the United States. The City’s network build-out is now 14 months behind schedule, but in large part because City employees are now able to handle fiber installation even if the outside contractor is delayed, they are in a much better position to move forward to complete the build out. The City has also discovered a few “work arounds” to mitigate the supply chain issues. For example, it recently was able to fill a need for 65 “fiber dead-end connectors” by sourcing what was needed from several suppliers that could fill part, but not all, of the City’s order.

These delays also have reduced the number of subscribers from those initially projected, but the City believes this will be reversed once the entire network is complete and folks understand the value of service being offered. Noting the public’s problem with unreliable internet, Scott observed that the City’s new network has not suffered a service outage since it “went live” in some sections of the City in March.

Lessons Learned

A final list of “lessons learned” from Houston’s approach awaits completion and full operation of the new network. One lesson that Scott offered was the need to make certain that engineers and other outside advisors understand that municipal leaders, even those that lead a city’s IT department, likely do not “know what they don’t know” when it comes to designing and constructing an internet network. Open communication is critical to avoid unpleasant surprises for any community contemplating a broadband project. Other lessons he mentioned were more closely tied to the extraordinary challenges of the COVID pandemic. For example, the City’s solution to supply shortages previously described, and the need to develop effective strategies to keep the project moving forward even when contractors are stretched too thin and face severe labor shortages.

What seems equally clear is that any city or county undertaking a project like this needs to have a clear vision of its ultimate objective, a public mandate to move forward, and a tenacious innovative staff that remains calm and focused on the ultimate objective in the face of the unforeseen challenges and setbacks. Here Scott’s experience in emergency services likely was a huge plus for the City. As he put it – no matter how many problems come your way, at least you know nobody is going to die, and that certainly helps keep things in perspective. 

There is also one final “lesson” for other communities facing similar challenges of inadequate internet service that may not be as apparent:  Houston’s approach may not be appropriate or necessary to address the problem. Not every community will have the experience, leadership, and resources needed to construct and offer-high speed internet to every home and business as a municipal utility. Even in communities that do, the citizens may not want their city or county to take on this role.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an appropriate role for local government to play in efforts to close the digital divide. Every city and county in the state has received federal funds to plan and pay for necessary broadband infrastructure. There are variety of contractual arrangements that local governments can use to encourage the expansion of privately-owned high-speed internet for unserved and underserved areas. However, public funds and public support for private internet expansion needs to have a public purpose — it needs to meet needs of the citizens of the community for more effective government, and real improvements to the health, education and economic well-being of the community. The first logical step in that process is to develop a comprehensive plan that identifies and meets the needs of the community.

Helpful Guidance on the Use of ARPA Funds by Local Governments

We’ve written earlier about the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds to pay for broadband infrastructure projects. Besides the cryptic language in the statute (necessary broadband infrastructure) we noted two helpful additional sources published by the U.S. Treasury Department —  the “Interim Final Rule” effective May  17, 2021, and a series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the statute and the Interim Final Rule (the FAQs).

But some pointed to the “Interim” label on these rule – cautioning that the guidance was not final and implying that local governments relying on them might find themselves in a box if the “final” guidance that eventually is issued by the Treasury (a new or updated rule) somehow turned out to be materially different from what is in Interim Final Rule. The concern was that the Federal government might attempt to recoup money from the local government based on the theory that it was improperly spent under new “final” rule, even though it appeared to be permitted under the Interim Final Rule.

Undoubtedly, this has led some local governments to reconsider spending ARPA funds it had on hand, because the Treasury Department recently addressed this very concern directly in an undated “explanation” posted on its website.

The Treasury explanation begins by referring to the guidance already given and noting that ARPA funds were provided to local governments with the expectation that they would be spent promptly to remedy issues caused or made evident by the COVID pandemic. The explanation then cautions everyone not to expect to see a new final rule anytime soon, because the Treasury is now considering almost 1000 separate public comments it received to the Interim Final Rule published this spring.

Given this situation, the explanation goes on to state the following:

“Until Treasury adopts a final rule, and the final rule becomes effective, the Interim Final Rule is, and will remain, binding and effective. This means that recipients can and should rely on the Interim Final Rule to determine whether uses of funds are eligible under this program. Treasury encourages recipients to use funds to meet needs in their communities.

Funds used in a manner consistent with the Interim Final Rule while the Interim Final Rule is effective will not be subject to recoupment.”

What about the FAQs? Again, the explanation is helpful:

“Finally, recipients may also consider FAQs issued by Treasury to help assess whether a project or service would be an eligible use of Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.”

So where does that leave local county commissions, city councils, and boards of aldermen? Well obviously, they can and should consult with their professional advisors for advice in special cases, but clearly the language used in the explanation leaves little doubt that Treasury wants to encourage state and local governments to use and rely on the guidance it has already provided, and not to delay spending ARPA funds for fear that “final” rules may provide something different.

Using American Recovery Plan Act Funds for Broadband Infrastructure — Guidance for Local Governments

By Marc McCarty

Memories are short. As I write this in mid-August, the focus is on the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (the IIJA) that passed the Senate on August 10th. That Bill has made headlines in part because it promises to make $65 billion available for broadband infrastructure and adoption. Even though it still faces additional hurdles and an uncertain future, the IIJA has captured the limelight, and many seem to have forgotten about another piece of funding legislation – the American Rescue Plan Act (“the ARPA”).

Signed into law on March 11, 2021, the ARPA also provided billions of dollars — both to states and local governments (counties, cities, and towns) throughout the United States — that can be used to pay for critical infrastructure needs, among them: broadband infrastructure. Unlike the IIJA, which in its current form will fund investment in broadband infrastructure over several years pursuant to a long-term strategic plan developed by each state, money appropriated under the ARPA is available to local government (and to the State) now, and could complement the longer-term strategy for investment in broadband infrastructure contemplated by the pending IIJA legislation.

The Missouri State Treasurer’s Website contains a comprehensive set of documents and general information related to ARPA funding. This Blog focuses on the use of money appropriated to “local government” — which includes Missouri counties, metropolitan cities (cities with populations greater than 50,000) and other cities, towns, and villages across the State for broadband infrastructure. While not specifically covered here, these same rules generally would apply to the more than $1.3 billion appropriated directly to the Missouri State government by ARPA as well.

ARPA & Broadband Infrastructure

The relevant language in ARPA permits counties, metropolitan cities and other cities, towns and villages to use the appropriated funds for several specific purposes including – “to make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.” These funds must be encumbered by December 31, 2024 and spent no later than December 31, 2026.

Obviously, this is a “big deal” for cash-strapped local governments. It is almost as if the Federal government suddenly deposited money in their checking account, but of course, like anything that seems too good to be true, questions quickly arose about what conditions and limits were placed on the “withdrawal” of that money, particularly broadband — since broadband has only recently been recognized to beinfrastructure.” Certain uses, such as funding public pension shortfalls or using the funds appropriated to reduce or offset taxes are prohibited by the statute itself, but there were other uncertainties that needed further clarification.

For many local government-decision makers who want to use ARPA money to bring better internet service to their community, these questions could be summarized as follows:

  • What is “broadband”?
  • When is it “necessary”?
  • What types of costs can be included as “broadband infrastructure?

What is “Broadband”? and When is it “Necessary”?

Thankfully, many of those uncertainties have been resolved through publication of an Interim Final Rule by the United States Treasury Department on May 17, 2021 and the answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) published by the Treasury Department that were last updated in late July.

The Interim Final Rule defines broadband to include any internet service capable of downloading and uploading data at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (100/100 Mbps). In areas where construction of internet infrastructure capable of delivering service at those speeds is not practical, the Interim Final Rule allows funding for networks capable of providing service at speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload (100/20 Mbps), so long as the network can be scaled up to 100/100 Mbps service or higher at a later date.

To put this in perspective, internet service at this level is between 4 to over 30 times faster than the FCC’s current definition of “broadband“. The Interim Final Rule requires that broadband infrastructure projects be targeted to serve areas that are “unserved or underserved,” which is defined as an area lacking consistent wired internet service at speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3 Mbps).

The Interim Final Rule generally defines a “necessary” investment for broadband to include those designed to provide adequate service to locations where it is unlikely that the investment could be made using only private sources of funds. By way of a practical example, the Interim Final Rule says that the service offered must be sufficient to allow multiple members of a household to work and attend school online at the same time. To avoid duplication of internet service, the preamble to the Interim Final Rule encourages local governments to avoid investing in locations that have existing agreements to build reliable wired internet service at 100/20 Mbps or higher — but only if that service will be in place by December 31, 2024.

What Qualifies as an Investment in Broadband Infrastructure?

The Treasury Department FAQs provide some answers to many other practical issues a local government may face as they determine whether a particular use of funds is an “investment” in broadband infrastructure. In general, the FAQs appear to give local government substantial latitude to structure practical uses of ARPA funds. For example, local government may elect to transfer funds to a special purpose unit or agency of government or to a nonprofit organization or for-profit business, so long as that entity uses the funds for necessary broadband infrastructure. (FAQ 1.3 and 1.8). In addition, ARPA money may be used to fund loans to individuals, NGOs, or business — if the loan proceeds are used for broadband infrastructure (FAQ 4.11).

Unlike some other federal grant programs, so long as the objective of the local government is to prioritize broadband infrastructure to reach unserved or underserved locations, ARPA funds can also be used to improve service in other locations in the project area that already are “adequately served” (that is — locations able to connect through a wired internet service consistently and reliably at speeds of 25/3 Mbps). (FAQ 6.8 and 6.9).

In addition, the FAQs give the local governments wide latitude to determine if a particular area is unserved or underserved, and they need not accept download/upload speeds advertised by ISPs operating in the area if other available data does not support those claims. Instead, local government decision-makers “…may choose to consider any available data, including but not limited to documentation of existing service performance, federal and/or state-collected broadband data, user speed test results, interviews with residents and business owners, and any other information they deem relevant.” (FAQ 6.11)

In evaluating this information, local government also can consider whether the service is available at all hours of the day, and other factors that can affect the performance of internet applications such as latency or jitter, or the fact that the service is being delivered by outdated technologies such as DSL over copper or earlier versions of cable internet. (FAQ 6.11). The FAQs also clarify that funded projects may include “mid-mile” infrastructure — connecting ISPs rather than individual and business end users. (FAQ 6.10).

Finally, the FAQs broadly define investments in broadband infrastructure to include “pre-project development” expenses — expenses that are tied to a broadband project or reasonable expected to lead to a broadband project. This would include among other things, costs such as community planning, engineering, mapping, evaluation of needs and technologies, etc., so long as those expenses were incurred as part of a process intended to result in a broadband infrastructure project. (FAQ 6.12).


Obviously, a blog of this length can’t cover all questions that have been addressed already related to the use of ARPA to fund broadband infrastructure, and additional guidance almost certainly will be needed for special situations. However, the guidance now available does provide an excellent start for local government leaders and their advisors, and hopefully we will soon see some of those appropriated funds being spent on broadband infrastructure planning and construction projects.

August 16, 2021


[1] The information provided is not intended as legal advice and is offered for general informational purposes only based on information believed current as of the date written. Local government decision-makers are encouraged to seek advice from their legal advisors for answers to any specific questions related to the use of ARPA funds.

Rural Access to Industry: Barriers from the Infrastructure Planning Front Lines

posted in: Planning | 0

As part of this research initiative, we conducted a qualitative analysis of 11 semi-structured interviews with the planning community in Missouri to identify what barriers they recognize for the deployment of rural broadband in Missouri. Participants reported that the return on investment and the financing of rural broadband projects constitute the main barriers. Technology was the most frequently discussed barrier in the literature, but the Regional Planning Commissions identified technology as the least significant barrier to rural broadband infrastructure deployment. They understand the required technology is available, but paying for it is the main challenge. The Regional Planning Commissions had had limited involvement in the planning of rural broadband infrastructure as most investment decisions regarding rural broadband infrastructure have been made by private internet service providers. Several Regional Planning Commissions expressed a lack of confidence in managing broadband projects due to their limited experience. On the other hand, they are looking forward to supporting an anticipated statewide planning initiative to be promoted by the Missouri Office of Broadband Development.