Entries in Broadband (16)

Wednesday
Dec212011

May – July 2011: The Summer of Consensus and Questionable Reports 

Genachowski’s Potemkin Rural Visit; RLECs and ILECs Suck it up and Play Nice

Part 2 of “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review.” The summer months had a fairly slow start, with some tepid FCC activities and a short lull in the USF/ICC Reform chronicle.  Drama with AT&T/T-Mobile was ongoing, with controversies coming to light regarding AT&T’s paid-for support of the merger. Organizations completely unaffiliated with the telecommunications industry nevertheless waved the AT&T/T-Mobile flag with pride; which rose more than a few eyebrows and even led to a few shakeups and firings in said organizations.  Given the news yesterday that AT&T and T-Mobile will drop the merger completely, it is actually a little funny to look back at the year and all of the bickering and moaning that occurred over this doomed betrothal (more to come on that topic the next installment). The stand-out event of the summer was without a doubt the ILEC-RLEC “Consensus Framework” for USF/ICC Reform, which like AT&T/T-Mobile, seemed like a sure-bet to the parties involved at first but slowly dissolved largely due to the FCC’s stern agendas.

May 2011: May was a big month for USF/ICC Reform reply comments and ex parte filings, but little else. Republican FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker announced early in the month her intent to leave the Commission for a lucrative lobbying position at Comcast, just months after she voted in favor of the Comcast-NBCU merger. Naturally, watchdogs cried foul and even demanded a Congressional investigation. The “revolving door” is nothing new as prominent FCC staff circle back and forth around the DC telecom lobby scene, but Baker’s announcement definitely had a bitter taste given the large public opposition to the Comcast-NBCU deal.  In her official farewell statement, Baker explained that she had not been contacted by Comcast until mid-April, long after the deal was done, and “I have not only complied with the legal and ethical laws, but I have also gone further. I have not participated or voted any item, not just those related to Comcast or NBCUniversal, since entering discussions about an offer of potential employment.” Meanwhile, the revolving door keeps spinning…

Chairman Genachowski’s May 18 trip to Diller, Nebraska topped my Hot List for the year, but largely because I was endlessly entertained by the big kerfuffle made out of this beltway-insider visiting fly-over country for all of a couple hours. “It’s Nebraska, not the moon,” I said. In late 1700s Russia, the story goes that “Potemkin villages”—fake settlements with all the bells and whistles—were constructed for the sole purpose of impressing Empress Catherine II when she visited the rural countryside. Genachwoski’s visit was the opposite of a Potemkin village—it was a Potemkin visit. The whole ordeal seemed like the FCC’s way of satiating the rural telecom industry (and rural Americans) by saying, “Hey, we understand what you are going through every day, and your unique needs, because we visited one of your communities!” Personally, I saw right through the façade, but nonetheless it was a nice effort. Genachowski visited locally-owned businesses and an RLEC, where he even posed for photo-ops in the CO. His overall messages was that rural businesses require broadband in order to succeed, which is absolutely no surprise for the RLECs who have been providing broadband to local businesses for years.

June 2011: The month with the longest days can basically be summed up in one word: reports. In the span of a few weeks, the FCC released three “big” reports of varying significance and quality. The first, “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age” (by Steve Waldman), I admit I did not pay much attention to. The gist was that broadband is important for a vibrant media experience and “a free democracy comprised of important and empowered citizens.” In response to this report, resident media champion Commissioner Copps proclaimed that “it is imperative that the FCC play a vital role in helping to ensure that all Americans have access to diverse and competing news and information that provide the grist for democracy’s churning mill.” Copps zoomed in on an alleged “crisis” identified in the report that “more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news whatsoever to their communities of license.” Basically, we need more local news and more ways to protect local media from Big media—Copps explained, “Localism means less program homogenization, more local and less canned music, and community news actually originated in the market where it is broadcast.”

The June 22 report, “Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Update to Report on a Rural Broadband Strategy” was more relevant to RLECs but generally lacked substance.  This 29-page document from the FCC and USDA was a Congressionally-mandated update to a much more comprehensive 2009 report “describing a ‘comprehensive rural broadband strategy.’” Again, the gist of this report was fairly straightforward—all Americans should have access to broadband, and we just aren’t doing a good enough job in rural America despite making “significant progress” in the last two years. The key take-away of this report was that it provided some extra ammunition for the FCC’s USF/ICC Reform decision, as it self-served the FCC’s reform principles of accountability, fiscal responsibility, and market-driven incentives.  Genachowski proclaimed that it was “not acceptable” that 28% of rural Americans lack broadband, as found in the report.

Ending the month was the ironically-titled “Fifteenth Annual Mobile Wireless Competition Report,” where the FCC made no definitive conclusion (in 308 pages) about the state of competition in a report where the FCC was explicitly directed to make a definitive conclusion about the state of competition in the wireless market…. So much for that goal… Nevertheless, the Big 4 (and others) used the report to prop up their own agendas—be it proof that the industry is totally competitive or totally not competitive. AT&T cherry-picked certain data from the report to depict a vibrantly competitive wireless industry to boost their assertion that the merger with T-Mobile would not be anticompetitive. Lack of conclusion aside, this report did contain some interesting factoids about the wireless market in general. (The ILEC Advisor: How do You Measure Wireless Competition?).

July 2011: July was all about reaching an industry consensus for USF/ICC reform. The FCC asked for it, and RLECs/ILECs delivered, albeit too late for the FCC’s impossibly high standards of time. At the beginning of July, it still appeared as though a consensus was a million light-years away—reply comments, ex parte filings, and a series of high-profile events on the topic in DC did little to ease my mind even though a comprehensive “Consensus Framework” kept being promised. Mid-month, the Rural Associations came out swinging with a far-reaching advocacy campaign called “Save Rural Broadband,” aimed at getting consumers to contact their Congressional offices  with their concerns about being left behind in the Great Broadband Race of the 2010s. (The ILEC Advisor: Comments Show Little Consensus on USF Reform Issues, Rural Associations Launch “Save Rural Broadband”).

On July 29, the long-awaited Consensus Framework was finally released for public inspection. Called America’s Broadband Connectivity Plan (ABC Plan), this proposal was the baby of the 6 largest price cap ILECs, but “supported” by the Rural Associations.  It presented what the involved parties believed was a reasonable and appropriate framework for price cap ILECs, if used in conjunction with the RLEC Plan for rate-of-return companies. Both sides made compromises—including the Rural Associations’ reluctant acceptance of a $0.0007 access rate. The ABC Plan was widely criticized by basically any party who wasn’t directly involved in its creation. (The ILEC Advisor: Price Cap Carriers Release “ABC Plan” for USF with Rural Support).

Finally, the FCC attended one of those pesky consumer issues in July- “mystery fees,” and “cramming”—“the illegal placement of an unauthorized fee onto consumer’s monthly phone bill.” The FCC proposed rules that would require telecommunications providers to clearly notify consumers how to block third-party charges on their bills, among other measures. Between the mystery fee crackdown, July proposals to improve VoIP E911 availability and reliability, and the December rules barring uber-loud TV commercials, the FCC certainly stepped up in response to various consumer pressures throughout the year.

Coming up next in “2011: The Regulatory Year in Review,” we will reminisce about all the fun we had in that tumultuous time between when the Consensus Framework was released and the USF/ICC Order was approved—you don’t want to miss this!

Sunday
Dec182011

The PSTN: Sunset, Transition, Rebirth, or Just Leave it Alone?

“Sunset the Phrase ‘Sunset the PSTN’”

The first thing you should probably know about the FCC’s second “The PSTN in Transition” workshop, held on December 14, is that it was long—I’m talking 8 hours of economic, technical, legal and regulatory perspectives, debates, statistics and countless questions along the way. More importantly, it was extremely engaging and interesting. I was glued to my computer the entire day, opting not to sit in the FCC Open Meeting room in a suit with a short-lived laptop battery for 8 hours. Keeping this in mind, it was quite challenging to narrow down the key take-aways from the day, but there were certainly several important underlying themes as well as particular questions that rural providers might want to think about, including:

  • Regulatory lag is a notorious problem, so would an FCC mandate for a PSTN sunset cause more harm than good considering how far along we are in the transition already?
  • Are we assuming that IP is the end-all-be-all for communications networks, and we won’t possibly evolve beyond IP in the next decade or so?
  • What minimum speed, capacity, and quality of broadband will be good enough for a ubiquitous, non-discriminatory, affordable IP network? What basic services and applications should it support—Facebook? Over-the-top video?
  • What are the consequences for locking-in a particular technology, or “picking winners and losers?”
  • How will we manage the conversion to IP and the coexistence of technologies during the transition?
  • Should the end-date for the PSTN be targeted toward the early adopters or the hold-outs?
  • Does there need to be a “termination fund” to support the transition? If so, how on earth will that be funded? How would you convince Congress—and taxpayers—to support a fund that essentially kills the network that the very same taxpayers (as well as the industry) have spent billions of dollars building? Personally, I think this could be the greatest challenge.

Now that you have some food for thought, let’s look at some stand-out points by specific speakers.

In the first panel, “Impact of the Transition on the Technology and Economics of the PSTN,” Richard Shockey (SIP Forum) and Joe Gillan (Gillan Associations) both expressed frustration with the term “sunset the PSTN.” Shockey noted that the term is confusing, and should instead be a “renewal of our communications systems.” He also added, “We are not taking away grandma’s phone.” Gillan recommended that we “sunset the phrase ‘sunset the PSTN,’” and rather think of it like a “rebirth.” Dale Hatfield (University of Colorado) and William Lehr (MIT) continued the theme of the first workshop by stating that the definition of the PSTN in this context is really unclear. Hatfield asked if the PSTN was a service, a network, a regulatory construct, or a social contract; and he recommended creating multi-stakeholder groups to rely on the industry as much as possible to come up with solutions. He also warned against picking technology winners or losers.  

The third panel, “Implementing the Transition to New Networks,” brought thought-provoking comments from participants from Verizon, Comcast, Carnegie Mellon and XO Communications. David Young (Verizon) pointed out that even if companies, technologies and markets are in transition, regulations and laws do not usually transition very rapidly or easily. Marvin Subu (Carnegie Mellon) argued that transitions take time, for example the IPv4 to IPv6 transition will likely take decades. Therefore, it is important to manage technical aspects like conversion and coexistence, but also let market forces determine the pace of the transition. Young later added that some remnants of the PSTN will likely hang around for a long time, but there is no real reason to pick an artificial date to kill them—they will probably just go away on their own once they become too costly to maintain.

There was a very creative and apropos analogy in the fourth panel, “Expectations, Emerging Technologies and the Public Good.” Kevin Werbach (University of Pennsylvania – Wharton) applied transitioning the PSTN (“the death of an old friend") to the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, broken down as follows:

  1. Denial: We can’t plan for things we don’t anticipate. Werbach recommended that the FCC initiate a proceeding to identify conflicts, opportunities, ambiguities, and what should be preserved.
  2. Anger: Werbach predicted that there would be indeed losers in the process, and some “will throw themselves across the tracks.” Objections should be addressed sooner, rather than later.
  3. Bargaining: Werbach warned that “those who can game the regulatory process will do just that.” It is important to know upfront what should be mandatory and what is up for negotiation.
  4. Depression: Knowing something is going to happen doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. We should have “energy and enthusiasm” and a “bias for action.”
  5. Acceptance: Werbach recommended developing a common visulaization for ending the PSTN, which will help the goals become more tangible.

The final panel, on economic issues, brought a forceful perspective from Lee McNight (Syracuse University)—he recommended a rapid “graceful exit,” from PSTN regulations as soon as 2015. He argued that creative destruction is driving the transition, and there is no point in delaying the obvious. Regarding the PSTN, McNight provided a short eulogy: “It’s been a nice run. It’s over…Thanks for the memories. It’s been nice. Let’s have a big party.”

Should we celebrate the swift demise of the PSTN or allow it to gradually shrivel to insignificance, and then yank out the cord to the respirator? Will the PSTN end with a whimper or a bang? I’m not sure these workshops helped answer the fundamental questions of when, why and how this needs to happen, but they certainly provided plenty of fodder for the coming months while the industry and regulators try to figure out the path forward.

If you have 8 hours to spare, it is well worth the time to watch the full workshop, available here.

Thursday
Dec152011

The PSTN is Already in Transition… What is the PSTN, Anyway? 

Panelists Discuss Challenges for Public Safety, Disabled Individuals and Rural Networks

The FCC held two informative public workshops on December 6 and 14 to help itself and the industry better understand the recommendation that the PSTN ultimately be transitioned to an all-IP network. The FCC gathered around 50 experts to share insight on the transition from the perspective of ILECs, RLECs, mobile and fixed wireless, cable, consumer electronics, numbering, public safety, disability services, consumer protection, home security, VoIP, economics, engineering, academia, backhaul, and many more. If you think this sounds complicated with so many stakeholders—it was. But, it is necessary to understand how transitioning the PSTN will impact all of these industry sectors, because each one is deeply involved.

The first workshop, on December 6, included four sessions. The first two covered public safety and disability access issues, the third discussed rural network challenges, and the final session was focused on edge device functionality. This workshop set the stage for some of the broader, high-level issues that carriers and consumers will face if the PSTN is transitioned at a specific date—2018 was the popular target initially. Many of the panelists stated what their respective companies or organizations provide, what their customers or constituents need in terms of communications, and how their customers or constituents would be impacted if access to the PSTN vanished.

The public safety panelists seemed to agree that although many public safety networks are already transitioning to IP, many are still deeply entrenched on the PSTN. Allan Sadowski (North Carolina State Highway Patrol) explained that public safety is not necessarily about having the newest communication technology, it is about first response. Networks and communications equipment must be extremely reliable in every possible emergency situation, and public safety entities also face budget constraints as well as technical staff constraints. Challenges aside, the public safety panelists seemed excited about and interested in dynamic IP communications technologies that will benefit the public safety community. Brian Fontes (National Emergency Number Association) added that he approves of the 2018 PSTN sunset, but 911 services must continue to be available and reliable.

The disability services panelists were generally more concerned about how transitioning the PSTN to all-IP would impact their constituents—individuals who are blind, hearing impaired, physically challenged, elderly, etc., who might not willing or capable of adopting new technologies by a specific date.  Jenifer Simpson (Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology) explained that there are 15 million people who rely on disability communications services, and “most don’t know what the PSTN is.” There seemed to be some fear that the individuals in the disability community would be left behind in a PSTN-to-IP transition without proper consumer education coupled with easily available and affordable IP technologies. However, it was also acknowledged that there will be numerous new technologies for disability communications that are much better than today’s PSTN technology.

The third panel, “Technical Capacity, Capabilities and Challenges Facing Rural Networks” included representatives from ViaSat, Rural Cellular Association, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, Vantage Point Solutions, Midcontinent Communications and OPASTCO; and it was moderated by Commissioner Anne Boyle from the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Although the panelists covered a wide range of rural communications perspectives, a few did not dig very deep into the issue at hand—transitioning the PSTN to IP networks. Rather, some focused more on promoting their respective services. Steven Berry (Rural Cellular Association) discussed the importance of ensuring basic interconnection “regardless of technology.” Berry added that “The PSTN as we know it is probably going away;” and “The future is coming faster than we otherwise may think.” He is also concerned about how such a transition would impact competition, because “some may view this as an opportunity…to essentially eliminate competition.”

Larry Thompson (Vantage Point Solutions) provided some interesting input about the engineering challenges and opportunities for small rural providers. He asserted that the transition will not work if narrowband POTS service is still the only option in some areas, and broadband IP networks must be completely deployed end-to-end. Tom Simmons from northern midwest rural cable provider Midcontinent also added that broadband adoption is “a big part of the equation,” especially in very rural areas that have a high population of low-income and Native American households.

John McHugh (OPASTCO) argued that it is not really important to set a “date certain” to end the PSTN because the transition of technology is natural and “occurs on an orderly fashion.” He described how many rural carriers already have softswitches and extensive fiber networks, over 90% of OPASTCO’s members provide broadband, and RLECs “have gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide their customers with the latest technologies.” McHugh noted that some challenges in the transition include public safety, ensuring all consumer devices are IP-enabled, and converting the customers who simply don’t want broadband. He also added that it is financially and strategically challenging for RLECs to build broadband to everyone and then the consumer decides to get VoIP service from a 3rd party instead of the traditional telephone company.

The final panel focused on transitioning edge functionalities and consumer devices.  One question that was asked repeatedly throughout both workshops—and was never fully answered—was “What is the definition of the PSTN?” Brian Daly (AT&T) insisted that this is a fundamental question that must be addressed before the transition can occur. Once this is determined, we can look at all of the other aspects on the user end, like devices. Daly explained that many alarm systems, ATM machines, faxes, credit card transactions, pay phones, and other devices still rely on the PSTN and will continue to do so for many years, even if their numbers are low. Harold Feld (Public Knowledge) argued, “There will always be surprises” and “you have to design any transition mechanism to handle surprises,” such as the wireless microphone debacle in the digital TV transition.

Overall, this first workshop was a good introduction to the myriad issues at hand, and an insightful look at where certain industry sectors stand on the debate over whether or not the PSTN should be transitioned at a specific date. At an industry workshop I attended back in July, I got the impression that most of the participants were in favor of sunsetting the PSTN in 2018. However, I got a slightly different impression from both of the FCC’s workshops (the second workshop will be recapped tomorrow). The bottom line is that there needs to be a specific definition of the PSTN before the PSTN can be killed, and the longer this fundamental question goes unanswered, the longer the transition will take. On the other hand, if the transition to IP is indeed well underway already, do we really need a specific end date? What do you think? How do you define the PSTN?

You can watch this FCC workshop here.

Thursday
Nov172011

NARUC Committed to Broadband-Boosting Merger Commitments 

Resolution Stirs up Thoughts on USF-Related Merger Conditions

Are recently-merged Internet service providers meeting their various public interest commitments to deploy broadband and increase adoption? We know that Comcast is certainly working hard, with great fanfare, to offer broadband to low-income households for $10 per month—this was indeed a merger commitment, not a “warm fuzzy” gift to the public. Comcast’s required move into affordable broadband for low-income households has been applauded by FCC Chairman Genachowski, who also recently unveiled the FCC’s low-income broadband initiative Connect to Compete. Now, many other large cable providers are jumping on the $10 per month broadband bandwagon—including companies who are not obliged to do so due to a merger condition.

Comcast’s slightly fulsome, PR-friendly efforts aside; are other recently merged telecom providers (large and small, cable and DSL, wireless and wired) meeting their merger conditions to deploy broadband to rural, low-income and other unserved populations? The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) is concerned that “some commitments to deploy additional broadband infrastructure made to secure merger approvals are not being fully met.”

On November 16, 2011, NARUC approved a resolution to “Request that the [FCC] undertake a public inquiry to assess the extent to which public interest broadband deployment and adoption obligations imposed on previously approved merger applicants are being met.” NARUC’s Resolution on Accountability for FCC Imposed Merger Public Interest Commitments to Deploy Broadband Infrastructure and Adoption Programs recognizes that the FCC can (and often does) impose obligations that merged companies increase broadband adoption and deployment, sometimes with an aggressive deadline. The resolution also recognizes that the FCC can require merged companies to use private capital to meet these obligations, “without reliance on federal Universal Service Fund (USF) financial support.”

This resolution stirs up some interesting, and slightly touchy, ideas about whether the FCC should prevent merged companies from receiving USF post-merger to meet public interest requirements. According to the NARUC resolution, “Some carriers have made voluntary public interest commitments to deploy broadband infrastructure on the basis that USF financial support would enable them to satisfy the FCC approved merger obligation and the FCC has approved those commitments.”

NARUC resolved “That the FCC consider, on a case-by-case basis whether to approve the use of federal financial support from the Connect America Fund or the Mobility Fund for expenses related to supplementing an applicant’s public interest obligations in the FCC order approving such applicant’s merger to deploy broadband infrastructure and/or to implement broadband adoption and usage programs.”

On one hand, two companies’ demonstrated need for USF to deploy broadband in rural areas is not likely to change significantly just by a merger. Their service area’s geography and demographics certainly don’t change due to a merger, and the reasons that small companies decide to merge are diverse and not always just because one company has a stockpile of cash. The addition of a lofty build-out commitment may make the case for needing USF even stronger, especially for capital-strapped rural carriers. On the other hand, one can’t help but think that if companies have enough money to afford a merger, then perhaps they should use that money to pay for broadband deployment. This argument may apply more strongly to large companies, for example AT&T. It would be hard to argue that AT&T should be allowed to receive Mobility Fund support if the T-Mobile merger is approved—which will quite likely include major rural deployment conditions (if it is approved by the FCC, that is—a big if!).

Whether companies should receive CAF or Mobility Fund support to help finance merger commitments is probably best determined on a case-by-case basis, like NARUC recommends. A blanket restriction on support may serve as a significant deterrent for small companies who wish to merge—which might be the exact opposite of what the FCC wants. The FCC has repeatedly dropped hints throughout the USF Reform proceeding that it wishes to encourage RLEC consolidation, so tactically speaking the FCC probably would consider taking a cautious approach to restricting support. Furthermore, the FCC is strongly committed to improving rural and low-income broadband deployment and adoption, so a merger obligation to extend services in low ROI areas without any federal support seems contradictory.

Then there is Connect to Compete, which adds a layer of complexity to the USF-or-no-USF merger condition debate. National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) members will offer eligible, school-lunch program families two years of cable broadband service for $9.95 per month with no installation, activation or modem rental fees. This program apparently will enable 15-25 million Americans to have high-speed broadband, but keep in mind this is in large cable company territory. Whether Connect to Compete will extend into RLEC territory is unknown at this point, but it is definitely an issue to watch. RLECs competing with Connect to Compete cable participants might encounter some challenges with retaining their low-income consumers.  

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the FCC takes up the NARUC-approved challenge to conduct on inquiry into how well companies are meeting merger commitments and if they should be using CAF/Mobility Fund support to meet said merger commitments. Are these various market and regulatory forces a deterrent for RLEC mergers? What do you think about merged companies using CAF or Mobility Fund support to help finance broadband deployment and adoption requirements?

The NARUC resolution is available here, on pages 7-8.

Wednesday
Nov092011

Paul Bunyan Communications Bets on Broadband 

As Traditional Services Decline, Cooperative Says Broadband is THE Future

As our Richelle Elberg reported last week, telcos providing broadband serve about half of all broadband connections in the U.S.—numbers that, so far, are holding steady against cable-provided broadband connections. In the same study, Richelle predicted that ILEC broadband connections would overtake the number of access lines as early as 2015, as ILECs increasingly are deploying fiber and upgrading their broadband offerings.

As a case in point, Paul Bunyan Communications in Minnesota has aggressively incorporated broadband into its business strategy and is about to complete its final year of a fiber-to-the-home upgrade for its entire 4,500-square-mile service area. The cooperative's broadband initiative has been well-received, too, with take-rates at 60%, representing some 17k subscribers.

But Paul Bunyan isn't just a small company benefiting from a forward-thinking business plan; it's an ILEC that attests to the collective power of a cooperative to implement broadband buildouts and forge strategic partnerships with local electric co-ops.

In fact, the Minnesota cooperative has made broadband a focus of service for many years, according to Brian Bissonette, marketing supervisor for the company. Paul Bunyan first started offering broadband in its service areas in 1999, and now Bissonette says that 100% of its service area has broadband access. In the majority of its service area, Paul Bunyan is the only provider of high-speed Internet. “In rural areas [of the state], there are no real competitors. Wireless and satellite service is available, but it's much more expensive, with slower speeds, and less reliability,” Bissonette said.

Paul Bunyan's service packs a good punch too, with speeds up to 10Mbps for both upload and download, and up to 25Mbps service and higher available. The co-op's extensive fiber build has allowed it to offer digital and high-definition television services to all its customers as well, complete with DVR and On Demand. According to Bissonette, these television services have about a 50% take-rate so far. The company now uses vendors like Calix, Minerva, ADB, and Clearfield, but Bissonette said television services will be transitioning to offer the Microsoft Mediaroom IPTV platform.

Last month, Minnesota received some press for the release of Connect Minnesota's Consumer Broadband Adoption Survey, which reported that “only” 28% of Minnesota's consumers do not subscribe to a broadband service. Among those who don't subscribe, the majority said they don't need broadband or that there isn't content relevant to them on the internet; the second reason was that it was too cost-prohibitive. But while that 28% figure is lower than the national average of 35% non-subscribers, once again there was a marked gap in broadband availability in rural communities versus more populated areas. In rural parts of the state, 39% of Minnesotans do not have broadband, usually due to lack of availability, not lack of desire.

Because Paul Bunyan's service area is primarily rural, Bissonette said its diverse services and broadband deployment are even more dependent on federal stimulus monies. Just this year, the cooperative was awarded a $19.7m Rural Utility Service (RUS) grant through the USDA, and will use the funding to expand broadband FTH service into two more underserved areas—rural areas of Park Rapids and Trout Lake.

Overall Paul Bunyan has seen a steady increase in broadband subscribers and revenue, something Bissonette credits to the “millions of dollars” the company has invested in “upgrading and expanding our network to offer broadband services. And they have been well received.” He says that back in 1998, the company had just 8k access lines and no broadband Internet customers. “Today we have more than 28k access lines and more than 17k broadband subs,” Bissonette said. But even while noting these gains, he added, “This could be radically affected by access and universal service reforms if they are unfavorable to high-cost-to-serve rural areas.”

According to Bissonette, service availability is overwhelmingly contingent on sustained FCC funding. “The biggest challenge we face is intercarrier compensation and universal service reform,” he said. “The majority of our service area is rural and high-cost to serve. If these mechanisms are eliminated or drastically reduced, the result would be much higher costs for the services to consumers. That would create a significant barrier to receive the services that most [of our customers] consider essential. We'd also be unable to continue to expand our broadband services to those rural areas, and that includes our planned expansion with the recent $19.7m RUS loan.”

As a cooperative, Paul Bunyan has also realized the advantages that come from local and regional partnerships. Bissonette cited one such example in Paul Bunyan's alliance with Beltrami Electric Cooperative. Together, the two formed Cooperative Development, “a construction company that serves both cooperative's network expansion and replacement needs,” Bissonette said. “This greatly reduces the need for both cooperatives to outsource this work and provides dozens of full-time local jobs during the construction season.”

Paul Bunyan has also partnered with seven regional electric co-ops to form Northern Safety and Security—an entity that provides security systems, smoke and carbon monoxide sensors, a latch-key feature, gas leak monitoring, agricultural environment sensors, camera systems, and more, along with a 24/7 response center. Together, Bissonette said the group “shares investment costs and a resource base providing a variety of services to 52k co-op members and 150k households throughout Minnesota and eastern North Dakota."

Going forward, the cooperative is planning on taking advantage of cloud services for its data hosting and online backups, which it already provides for some of its larger customers. Ultimately, Bissonette said it all returns to broadband and its potential—be it for cloud services, high-speed internet, or IPTV. Facing the current reality for telecommunications providers, Bissonette stated, “We anticipate that wrapping more service around our broadband will be important in the future, as our traditional services decline.”