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BTOP Recipients Show Gains in Fiber Miles, New Broadband Subs

2011 Q4 BTOP Status Report Details Strong Progress Toward Meeting Goals

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released its quarterly status report on the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) for Q4 2011, and the report shows strong gains in all funding recipients’ areas of focus. Since the 2010 Recovery Act, NTIA has invested around $4bn in 233 BTOP projects in every state, territory and the District of Columbia, including: 123 infrastructure projects ($3.5b), 66 Public Computer Center projects ($201m), 44 Sustainable Broadband Adoption projects ($251m), and 56 State Broadband Initiative projects ($293m). The quarterly status report concluded that “BTOP grant recipients collectively exceeded all performance goals established for FY11. Based on these positive results, NTIA established strong targets for FY12, taking into account progress made through FY11 and expected grant recipient performance through September 2012.”

Included in BTOP recipients’ successful endeavors, “the Program has delivered significant progress in areas such as new fiber-optic infrastructure construction, the opening of new Public Computer Centers (PCCs), and thousands of new broadband subscribers now experiencing the benefits of high-speed Internet services.” Recipients have now deployed 45,196 miles of fiber, up from 8,220 at the beginning of 2011—NTIA reports that 90% of the 2012 goal of 50k miles of fiber has been achieved already. According to NTIA, Mother Nature played a starring role in this achievement: “BTOP recipients benefited from unseasonably mild winter weather, which accelerated construction efforts. In some instances, contractors deployed additional crews to speed up the placement of fiber and underground conduit or the installation of microwave links on towers.”

Projects to connect community anchor institutions have also experienced success: “Last quarter, BTOP recipients connected and/or improved service to more than 2,211 anchor institutions within their project areas, bringing the total number of institutions to 6,374 across 35 states.” NTIA reports that recipients have reached 64% of the 2012 goal to connect 10,000 anchor institutions. Projects to “improve broadband access for the general public and vulnerable populations, such as low-income individuals, the unemployed, senior citizens, children, minorities, tribal communities, and people with disabilities” by installing PCCs reached 84% of the 2012 goal of 35k public workstations. Additionally, projects to increase Internet usage through digital literacy and job training led to “259,446 households and 1,279 businesses to subscribe to broadband services,” and more than 50k new subscribers signed up for broadband in Q4.  

NTIA provided some BTOP success stories from around the country, including:

  • Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) in Washington installed 120 new miles of fiber towards its goal of 830 total miles. NoaNet will “bring broadband connectivity to schools and community institutions in rural areas currently hampered by slow Internet and data connections.”
  • Com Net’s GigE PLUS Availability Coalition in Ohio deployed 140 miles of fiber towards its goal of 700 total miles. This project will ultimately “spur more affordable high-speed broadband access for approximately 737,000 households, 165,000 businesses, 2,900 institutions… [and] 300 public safety agencies.”
  • ENMR Telephone Cooperative in Texas and New Mexico connected 23 anchor institutions out of its goal of 200. NTIA explains, “ENMR will provide new broadband fiber and connectivity service, delivering Internet at discounted rates to local rural schools, state agencies, and other anchor facilities. This new network will also expand distance learning opportunities for students at schools and libraries in rural areas,” with speeds up to 1 Gbps.
  • The Nebraska Library Commission upgraded 126 PCCs at libraries across the state “to provide computer access, employment resources, and assistance with government services for communities with low broadband penetration and median incomes below the national average.” This project increased average speeds from 1.8 Mbps to 7.4 Mbps.
  • The Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth (GPT) connected 64 additional health care sites “providing free access to video conferencing and telemedicine equipment for more than 300 medical facilities, including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and public health departments.” This project includes outreach and awareness efforts like “free online education to rural Georgia physician office employees.”

The BTOP status report also includes information about grant expenditures, and NTIA reports that “BTOP recipients reached a significant milestone in late December 2011, surpassing $1b in total drawdowns…Federal outlays increased nearly 55 percent from the previous quarter, and matching funds contributed increased by more than 37 percent.” NTIA further explained administrative activities like recipient performance monitoring, site visits, and outreach efforts.

Overall, NTIA’s progress report appears to illustrate that the BTOP program is achieving its goals, although it does out provide details on how many new jobs have been created by the various programs. The report does however show that the funds are being used to improve broadband availability and adoption in rural, underserved, and vulnerable populations across the country. NTIA expects continued strong progress in 2012, and it looks like many of the 2012 goals will likely be met or exceeded.


Industry Responds Positively to NTIA Beachfront Spectrum Discovery 

From Carriers to Consumer Groups, Everyone is Excited about 95 MHz for Broadband

On March 27, 2012, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a profound report detailing how 95 MHz of “prime spectrum” in the 1755-1850 MHz band can be repurposed for mobile broadband service by either uprooting the current Federal occupants or letting commercial users cohabitate with them (or a combination of the two). The NTIA explains that the spectrum migration won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be fast—but that hasn’t stopped the telecom industry from praising the report.

The NTIA hasn’t concluded whether the spectrum will be auctioned for commercial users or if some alternative method will be employed to share the spectrum with federal users. NTIA explains that options will be explored in forthcoming agency-industry discussions, and “based on these discussions, the FCC could decide to auction portions of the spectrum at different times over the next ten years. However, those alternatives would need to maintain essential federal capabilities and recognize that certain federal systems operate across the entire band, possibly incurring the full cost of relocation in a scenario where the FCC would desire to clear federal systems from only a portion of the band.” In other words: it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it won’t be fast.

Wireless carriers could be throwing caution to the wind and assuming that the spectrum will be auctioned for commercial mobile broadband, but at this point it is really anyone’s guess what will happen once all of the details are sorted out by the industry, the NTIA, and the FCC. AT&T has been begging for more spectrum by any means possible, so the company is likely anxiously anticipating the decision on how the 95 MHz will be divvied up among carriers and federal users. A statement on the AT&T Public Policy Blog commends the NTIA’s report and comments, “We look forward to…working cooperatively with both NTIA and the impacted government agencies to address reallocation challenges in a manner that will ensure that the identified spectrum bands are made more available expeditiously, while protecting vital government services that cannot be easily relocated.”

Verizon echoed AT&T’s excitement about working with the government “to make the maximum amount of spectrum available for mobile use as soon as possible.” Verizon evp for public affairs Tom Tauke applauded the NTIA report and commented, “The key to continued innovation and growth in the wireless industry is the government’s commitment to ensuring that sufficient spectrum is available to meet the expanding needs of consumers.” Tauke also called the NTIA report “good news for consumers.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski believes that the report identifies “a real opportunity to free up 25 MHz of high-value spectrum in the near future.” Specifically, Genachowski believes that in the 1755-1780 MHz band, “there appears to be a viable path forward for mobile broadband [and] a near-term opportunity to free up spectrum that can help drive U.S. economic growth and our global competitiveness.” Genachowski also nods to the importance of spectrum sharing, which “should be pursued as an alternative to a costly, complex and disruptive relocation effort.”

Consumer advocate Public Knowledge also expressed approval of the report—particularly the spectrum sharing component. Public Knowledge legal director Harold Feld commented, “The report’s recommendation to rely on policies such as spectrum sharing and enhanced efficiency for Federal spectrum users and the accompanying technical innovations marks the first step toward a sustainable wireless future. We hope this approach will be used in the future as more Federal spectrum is identified as a resource to be shared with the public.”

NTIA’s 155-page report lists the federal occupants in the 1755-1850 MHz band—they include Air Force, Army, Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration, Marine Corps, Navy, NASA, and many others; and the spectrum is used for air combat training systems, law enforcement mobile video surveillance, air-to-ground telemetry, land mobile robotic video, unmanned aerial systems, military tactical radio relay, and high-resolution video links. The report identifies alternative bands where these users might find an accommodating new home, and the alternatives range from low-frequency 225 MHz up to 4.9 GHz.


NTIA Finds 95 MHz of “Prime Spectrum” to Repurpose for Broadband

Government Chips in to Alleviate Impending Spectrum Apocalypse, with Some Caveats

On March 27, 2012 the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it has found as much as 95 MHz “of prime spectrum” that “could be repurposed for wireless broadband use.” NTIA evaluated the 1755-1850 MHz band, which is currently occupied by over 20 federal agencies with more than 3,100 individual frequency assignments, and found that “it is possible to repurpose all 95 MHz of spectrum for commercial wireless broadband.”

This is big news, but challenges ensue. For one, “given the growing demand for spectrum by both industry and the federal agencies, it is increasingly difficult to find desirable spectrum that can be vacated by federal users as well as spectrum in which to relocate these federal users.” Furthermore, there are issues of cost and time—NTIA mentions that the cost of relocating federal users could exceed the proceeds from auctioning the spectrum (assuming this particular spectrum is auctioned--which is not yet clear), and it may take more than ten years to relocate some federal users.

The NTIA is also apparently open-minded about federal-commercial spectrum sharing arrangements. The NTIA released a 155-page report, “An Assessment of the Viability of Accommodating Wireless Broadband in the 1755-1850 MHz Band,” which “proposes a new path forward for spectrum repurposing that relies on a combination of relocating federal users and sharing spectrum between federal agencies and commercial users. Spectrum sharing will be a vital component to satisfying the growing demand for spectrum, and federal and non-federal users will need to adopt innovative spectrum-sharing techniques to accommodate this demand.”

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling commented positively about the report: “Today’s report sets a path for putting prime spectrum into commercial wireless broadband use, in support of the Obama Administration’s goal to encourage investment and innovation while enhancing America’s economic competitiveness.” Strickling further commented, “Spectrum is a finite resource in growing demand, and we need to focus on new ways to maximize its use. By working with the FCC, other federal agencies, and the industry, we can make more spectrum available to fuel innovation and preserve America’s technological leadership while protecting government missions.”

This announcement follows an FCC NPRM released on March 21 that proposes to make 40 MHz of spectrum in the 2 GHz Mobile Satellite Service band available for wireless broadband, and a CTIA plea to the FCC and NTIA to make at least 300 MHz of spectrum available by 2015, as directed by the National Broadband Plan. CTIA also urged the NTIA to repurpose 15 MHz of federal spectrum, so CTIA’s positive response to today’s announcement comes as no surprise. CTIA commented, “We are happy to learn that NTIA concludes that they will be able to repurpose the 1755 to 1850 MHz bands.” However, CTIA adds that it will be “significantly concerned if NTIA’s efforts to clear the 1755-1780 portion of the band remain in limbo until relocation of all of the operations in the entire 1755-1850 MHz band can be completed.” CTIA and wireless industry players are already communicating hopes that more spectrum will be auctioned than shared with the government, but the important details of how this government spectrum will ultimately become wireless broadband spectrum will be worked out in the future.

It will be interesting to see if, and how, the NTIA proceeds with its recommendations; whether it prioritizes relocation of some federal users over others; and if all or some of the 95 MHz will be shared by commercial and federal users. There definitely won’t be a mass migration of federal users away from this spectrum any time soon, so we will have plenty of time to analyze the potential impacts, opportunities, and challenges for the rural independent telecom industry.


CTIA Delivers a Blueprint for Broadband Spectrum to FCC

The Wireless Association Pushes an Aggressive Timeline for Incentive Auctions

On Thursday, March 22, 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association president ceo Steve Largent sent letters to the FCC and NTIA expressing the importance of a strict timeframe for complying with the spectrum legislation component of the Middle Class Tax Relief Job Creation Act of 2012 and the 2010 National Broadband Plan’s goal of “brining 300 MHz of spectrum to market by 2015.” CTIA argues, “Prompt and effective implementation of the Spectrum Legislation is vital to addressing the looming spectrum crunch that has been long predicted by CTIA and the Federal Government.” CTIA asserts that releasing spectrum for mobile broadband on its recommended timetable will “generate investment of up to $53b, provide as much as $151b in GDB and create as many as 771,000 jobs by 2016.”

CTIA’s Blueprint for Broadband Spectrum lays down parallel tracks for two auctions and includes responsibilities for both the FCC and NTIA, but the FCC definitely has the brunt of the burden. On one track, the NTIA is responsible for repurposing 15 MHz of Federal spectrum between 1674 and 1710 MHz for non-Federal use. Likewise, the FCC should find, allocate, and auction 15 MHz for a total of 30 MHz for new mobile broadband licenses. Some of the key dates in CTIA’s proposed timetable for this 30 MHz of spectrum include: a Report & Order identifying the FCC’s 15 MHz on December 20, 2012; a Final Procedures Public Notice on May 12, 2014; an auction start-date of August 14, 2014; and licenses granted on February 22, 2015.

The second track is much more difficult—the incentive auction component, which includes reverse auctions to release spectrum from broadcasters and forward competitive auctions to re-license the spectrum to mobile broadband providers. CTIA refrains from commenting extensively on the reverse auction process, but does add that “the rules should be designed in a manner that is easy for broadcasters to understand so as to facilitate participation.” CTIA wants the FCC to make haste with band plans, auction design, service rules, international interference mitigation plans, and the all the other exciting tasks that accompany government-sponsored spectrum auctions.

The timetable for the forward competitive bidding auctions is also aggressive, perhaps more so than the 30 MHz auction. CTIA hopes to see a Report & Order on Forward Incentive Auction Issues by March 26, 2013; a Final Procedures Public Notice by September 6, 2013; and an auction start-date of November 20, 2013. All in all, CTIA would like to see the FCC “meet or beat the National Broadband Plan’s goal of 300 MHz by March 2015.” Considering that is just 3 short years from now, and considering how slow the FCC is to move on important rulemakings, CTIA is certainly not leaving much wiggle room. It will be interesting to look back in 3 years and see if the FCC complied with CTIA’s recommendation, or if we are still waiting for a Forward Incentive Auction Report & Order.

Or, the FCC may bow to pressure from the wireless industry to expedite the 30 MHz and incentive auctions. It is almost a daily occurrence that a major news outlet reports something about the looming spectrum crunch, the wireless crisis, or (my personal favorite) the cell phone apocalypse. CTIA’s letter feeds the spectrum crisis frenzy by closing with the comment, “The wireless industry is at a critical crossroads—the long warned spectrum shortage is at an inflection point. The Commission has the opportunity to step forward and respond to this looming spectrum crisis in an effective, expeditious manner.”

Not everyone agrees that the spectrum crisis is indeed at apocalyptic proportions, and some experts are quick to point fingers at the wireless industry for causing its own spectrum crisis. Naturally, CTIA’s letter has received some backlash already. The National Journal reported, “The National Association of Broadcasters, whose members must now decide whether they want to give up their airwaves, has been skeptical of the wireless industry’s claim that a spectrum crisis is looming and chided CTIA’s proposed timeline, ‘Conveniently, CTIA left off its FCC list of proposed timetables the most important of all: a deadline for a complete inventory of warehoused spectrum being hoarded by CTIA members,’ NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.”

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong about the spectrum crisis, there is one other spectrum-related crisis not addressed by CTIA: spectrum license concentration by the largest carriers, where small carriers face tremendous barriers in acquiring more spectrum. Small independent wireless companies (fixed and mobile) might want to start formulating their auction strategies and petitioning the FCC for small business bidding credits and other proposals to ensure that the impending auctions are not dominated by the Big Four, Three, or Two.


LightSquared Files Opposition to FCC's Proposal to Terminate its Authority

Source: LightSquared Press Release

LightSquared announced that it has filed its opposition to the FCC's proposal to terminate the company’s authority to launch a nationwide wireless broadband network that uses the same frequencies as its mobile satellite service.

LightSquared said its plans had been supported by two successive presidential administrations over a period of seven years. This proposed action to strip LightSquared of its longstanding ATC authority not only raises constitutional issues, it jettisons decades of FCC precedent and will inevitably lead to the kind of regulatory uncertainty that discourages needed investment in this nation’s wireless infrastructure. The FCC can and should continue to facilitate the build-out of the LightSquared’s 4G LTE wireless network. In a very short time, LightSquared demonstrated that it is feasible to resolve the interference issues which are the heart of the FCC’s unjustified proposal.

The company asserts that if the FCC reverses its decision to permit LightSquared to move forward, it will be a bait and switch by the federal government of historic scale. Based on a build-out requirement imposed by the FCC, LightSquared invested more than $4 billion to prepare for the construction of its network. If the FCC now changes its mind, it will strand billions of dollars of investment capital and cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of wireless innovation. Its proposed action violates LightSquared’s contractual and constitutional rights.

LightSquared says the FCC and other parties have been well aware for more than seven years that LightSquared plans to build a nationwide terrestrial network. In 2004, the GPS industry told the FCC that LightSquared “is to be commended for its proposal to use its spectrum in a responsible manner that ensures the continued utility of GPS receivers operating in the vicinity of [its base] stations.” Now, certain federal agencies and a small group of GPS manufacturers are standing in the way innovation, lower prices and greater competition for millions of Americans.

The technical problems raised by the NTIA and other government agencies are based on a deeply flawed and biased testing process of an entirely theoretical network that did not even resemble LightSquared’s actual network in basic respects. The study therefore provides no meaningful insight into the feasibility of real-world co-existence between LightSquared’s network and GPS receivers.

Click here for the filing.