#RuralIsCool, Volume 1, Issue 55 | January 23, 2020

NTCA Urges FCC to Explore Funding to Sustain Broadband Networks

On January 16, Mike Romano, NTCA senior vice president of industry affairs and business development, and Doug and Ryan Boone of NTCA member company Premier Communications met separately with representatives for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Jessica Rosenworcel, and Brendan Carr to discuss the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) draft order scheduled for a vote by the commission on January 30.

The rural representatives expressed support for the draft order on the whole but voiced concerns about two aspects. 

One concern is the inclusion of a new 50/5 Mbps speed tier which would result in two separate levels of performance below what is available to the average urban consumer. NTCA noted the importance of the “clearing round” provision included in the draft order to help mitigate such concerns and urged the commission to retain that provision in the final order.

The other concern is a “transition issue” that NTCA has previously highlighted. The rural representatives noted that under the order as currently drafted, no ongoing universal service support would appear to be available to recipients of Connect America Fund CAF Phase II support that already deployed service at speeds of 25/3 Mbps. This is problematic because there are many rural areas where the costs of operating a network, even when built to the highest level of performance, cannot be recovered through consumer rates that are “reasonably comparable” with urban rates, as required by law.

The rural representatives cautioned that the draft order would encourage network operators to deploy broadband at the minimum speed required at the time of buildout so that they would remain eligible for the next funding program, which would not be an efficient use of funds.

To address this concern, the rural representatives urged the commission to add wording to the draft order to seek comment on how to determine which rural areas may require ongoing support to provide service at reasonably comparable rates, how to determine an efficient level of support to achieve those objectives and what incremental level of performance might be warranted in excess of prior buildout obligations in connection with any such ongoing support.

Changes needed to the RDOF draft order also were the subject of a blog post by NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield, noting that with some further “tweaks,” the order can be a home run for rural America. 

Bloomfield Advises Senate Committee on Fiber’s Key Support Role for 5G

NTCA Chief Executive Officer Shirley Bloomfield delivered one message loud and clear during testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this week: “5G needs fiber.” Bloomfield noted during the hearing, “The 5G Workforce and Obstacles to Broadband Deployment,” that fiber will need to be installed to 5G small cells or towers, which must be very close to the user, for rural communities to truly benefit from the wireless technologies. She added that the economics of broadband are difficult in many rural areas, which means that ongoing support from the Universal Service Fund will be critical to making a business case for rural broadband.

Bloomfield also noted that certain permitting reforms could help facilitate fiber deployment, including harmonizing agency applications, increasing staffing in local offices for permitting, and relaxing permitting requirements for the installation of communications infrastructure on previously disturbed federal lands. In addition, continued sensible reform of permitting procedures may be required to ensure greater efficiency and timeliness, especially when the work involves replacing or upgrading facilities in existing rights-of-way, she said.

Bloomfield also expressed concern that NTCA members seeking to invoke the “one-touch-make-ready” rules adopted by the FCC in 2018 have encountered a lack of properly trained staff or outside contractors qualified and available to perform all work to prepare a pole for a new attachment.

She referenced several approaches that could help train people to meet this need and prepare them for tech and communications jobs, including:

  • Convening local and regional industry, political leadership and school administrators to identify job and educational opportunities to assess whether local/regional educational curricula meet these needs.
  • Bringing rural providers into the conversation to identify and/or create broadband-enabled responses such as distance education.
  • Developing internship and apprenticeship programs that earn academic credit and can help address current or future workforce needs.
  • Continuing to support competitive benefit plans such as those offered to NTCA members, which can help recruit and retain talent in rural communities.

More NTCA Members Win USDA ReConnect Funding

Five more NTCA members were awarded funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect program, which will cover some costs of bringing broadband to unserved rural areas:

  • Harmony Telephone Company (Harmony, Minn.) won a $2.7 million loan and $2.7 million grant to make broadband available to 577 households, a health care center and a critical community facility spread over 143 miles in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. 
  • Consolidated Telephone Company (Brainerd, Minn.) will use a $5.2 million grant to make broadband at speeds up to 1 Gbps symmetrical to nearly 700 homes and public facilities in Minnesota’s Iron Range.
  • Eastern Nebraska Telephone Company (Blair, Neb.) won a $5.7 million grant to construct 221 miles of broadband infrastructure in the state. The company will use matching funds of $1.9 million to complete the project, which will make service available to 489 rural households, 24 farms and eight businesses.
  • Yelcot Telephone Company (Mountain Home, Ark.) will use a $1.7 million grant and a loan of the same size to upgrade facilities serving 548 households in north central Arkansas.
  • Mountain View Telephone Company (Mountain Home, Ark.) won a $3.7 million grant to upgrade facilities in another part of north central Arkansas to reach 702 households, 15 pre-subscribed farms and a pre-subscribed business.

NTCA Speaks Up for Members on Robocall Rules

On January 14, NTCA staff met with the FCC to discuss the intersection of IP voice interconnection rules and robocalls. While the connection between the two issues is not readily apparent, they are truly “interconnected” in ways that are especially relevant to NTCA members.

As background, unwanted robocalls are often facilitated by illegal “spoofing,” a technique that enables bad actors to trick called parties into answering calls they otherwise would not by inserting into the Caller-ID a telephone number the called party may be more likely to trust. Such practices have allowed these bad actors to perpetrate scams on consumers and generally annoy Americans. President Donald Trump recently signed into law legislation that would require all voice providers to adopt a technical standard called STIR/SHAKEN to combat spoofing. It is here that IP interconnection rules become relevant for NTCA members.

SHAKEN/STIR depends upon the hand-off of calls in IP format between every network along the call path. NTCA members cannot adopt the standard without IP interconnection agreements in place with the carriers with whom they exchange voice traffic. Even where IP interconnection would be technically possible, FCC rules may be necessary. Should the FCC fail to adopt basic “rules of the road,” for the first time ever, the costs of transport for voice traffic to and from isolated rural service areas would be placed solely on small, rural customer bases without any additional universal service support to cover such costs.

In the January 14 meeting, NTCA staff proposed simple rules to address this vital issue and protect rural consumers. The meeting was only the latest in NTCA’s two-year effort to ensure that its members can adopt STIR/SHAKEN (to protect their subscribers from unwanted robocalls) and do so without incurring transport and other costs that would undermine the affordability of voice rates in rural America. Whether it be important industry forums that will set the rules for the adoption of STIR/SHAKEN, or in FCC summits on the issue, NTCA has and will continue to be the voice for its members on this vital issue. For any questions, contact Brian Ford.

Notes in the News

The Utilizing Strategic Allied Telecommunications Act introduced in the Senate last week would provide more than a billion dollars for 5G infrastructure development, with the goal of enabling U.S. suppliers to offer 5G equipment to compete against Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE. Full text of the bill is available here.

CPNI certifications, which service providers must file annually to the FCC stating that they are following customer proprietary network information rules, are due by March 1.

The FCC Consumer Affairs and Outreach Division is going on a Rural Tour through Arizona and New Mexico, Jan. 27-31, and will meet with community leaders and groups to share information and resources about issues that affect their daily lives including the latest scams targeting consumers.

The FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau announced updates to the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council best practices database.

In an editorial published by USA Today, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) argued for the need for net neutrality legislation to provide certainty to the broadband industry while also protecting consumers and spurring innovation. They urged colleagues in Congress to join a bipartisan working group in pursuit of these goals.