Entries in BTOP (5)

Wednesday
Jan042012

A New High Wire Act Along New Hampshire Roads

Sometimes when we discuss the need for broadband in remote or rural areas, it's easy to forget just how much work it takes and how many hours are necessary to complete a fiber build-out. As a case in point, consider New Hampshire, where this winter residents will see more than just snow along the road. There, crews are working demanding hours for Network New Hampshire Now (NNHN), hanging fiber from already-existing telephone poles. Last week, Seacoast Online reported that the BTOP-funded, 750-mile fiber network was “moving into the next phase,” thanks to diligent work and considerable man-hours. But the project is taking time, thanks to a complicated build-out process that involves “stringing cables from pole to pole to pole—over 750 miles in cities, suburban streets and back woods—a lot of hours spent in 'bucket trucks' doing the physical work, but just as many [crew members] figuring out how the cables can fit on the poles, which are owned either by the electric company or telephone company.”

As a public-private consortium, NNHN oversees the $65m project, with $44.5m in grants from the federal stimulus package and $21m in matching funding from other sources. It's an ambitious and far-reaching broadband initiative that, according to NNHN, will “ensure that residents of ten counties in New Hampshire will be able to plug into a powerful future with internet connectivity.”

There are three main components of the network: the middle-mile fiber backbone, last-mile fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP), and a closed middle-mile public safety microwave network.

The middle-mile network will stretch all across the Granite State—from the Seacoast, across the more populated southwest, up to the northwest, and all the way to the remote North Country and mountainous Lakes Region. NNHN says it will “place network access points in or near existing central telephone office locations along the path, allowing all commercial broadband providers to potentially leverage the fiber optic network build across the state regardless of protocol, service or technology.” This portion of the broadband network is being overseen by University of New Hampshire Information Technology—a leader in the initiative.

A variety of partners are coming together to provide last-mile connectivity through what NNHN is deeming an “innovative model called FastRoads,” which will provide fiber-optic connectivity in 35 communities in the southwest part of the state. According to NNHN, these 35 communities translate into 1,300 homes and businesses.

Finally, a closed middle-mile microwave network called NHSafeNet will be made available for public safety, public television, transportation and mobile broadband communications on mountaintops across New Hampshire covering 3,800 square miles.

As with any statewide broadband initiative, the list of partnerships for NNHN is quite long. Last April, Chelmsford, Massachusetts-based Waveguide announced that it would “provide engineering and construction services,” along with New Hampshire Optical Systems, based in Nashua. Additionally, Green Mountain Communications is constructing NHSafeNet, along with other state organizations and departments.

But, despite good planning and an impressive assembly of partners, the issue of actual, physical work remains. And it takes time.

Waveguide president Rob Carmichael described the process of preparing for and hanging fiber to Seacoast Online last week: "We have a right to the space, but the space has to be made available. First we do a survey, walk the pole line with both utilities. We look at the pole, take measurements, engineers in the field decide on this one, power can move up, phone can move down, cable TV can be rearranged, whatever is needed, then you'll have space," he said. "There are no unique issues, other than the timelines. Building 750 miles in this time period is fast.” Completion date for the network is slated for June 30, 2013.

Of course, in addition to deadlines and man-hours in the cold, the network has also faced criticism from existing providers in the area. FairPoint Communications has already built a similar fiber backbone in the area, which it uses to provide its DSL service. In more populated areas like Nashua, in the southern part of the state, FairPoint's FAST provides fiber-to-the-home for residents. But in many “overlooked” regions of the mountainous state, there is no fiber connectivity.

With an impressive scale, NNHN's 750 miles of fiber is just one of many New England fiber builds, as Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine are all stringing fiber to underserved areas of their states. In Maine alone, 1,100 miles of fiber will crisscross the state, connecting businesses and residents who cannot currently get high-speed service.

But just like in New Hampshire, these networks, too, will be completed in difficult terrain, in a variety of weather—one measurement, one survey, and one cable line rearrangement at a time. No faster.

Tuesday
Nov012011

Bad News BTOP: $80.6 Million Broadband Grant Revoked in Louisiana 

Project to Connect Schools and Impoverished Rural Areas Derailed by Delays, Strategic Changes

Over the last six months or so, a situation unfolded in Louisiana that culminated last week with the termination of an $80.6m BTOP broadband stimulus grant. In the aftermath, Governor Bobby Jindal’s (R-LA) administration is catching much of the blame, but a deeper look at this saga shows that the project has struggled to meet its deadlines and goals since the grant was awarded in 2010.

First, some background information: The Louisiana Broadband Alliance (LBA) project, led by the State of Louisiana Board of Regents was a collaboration of 6 state agencies (Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, Louisiana Educational Television Authority, Louisiana Geographic Information Center, and Louisiana State University Agricultural Center’s Delta Rural Development Center). The LBA project was awarded a federal grant for $80.6m to construct over 900 miles of fiber to provide service to a 3,488 square mile area that included “12 impoverished parishes targeted by the state’s Louisiana Delta Initiative” (according to the NTIA’s profile of the project).  The project would provide 10 Mbps – 1 Gbps broadband service to libraries, hospitals, schools and anchor institutions in underserved rural areas to “promote education, research, and healthcare delivery in some of Louisiana’s neediest areas.” The open network would include 38 points of interconnection and serve several Native American communities.

On October 26, 2011, the Louisiana Broadband Alliance project was terminated by the NTIA – this was the largest BTOP grant termination to date.

What possibly went so terribly wrong? Well, for starters, the project suffered ongoing delays and several significant changes in direction and oversight. According to StimulatingBroadband.com, “the Louisiana termination resulted from delays in the environmental engineering phase of the project, and from the absence ‘of a strong deployment plan in place’ a full year after the funding award of March 2010.” Furthermore, the “pattern of schedule delays, uncertainties and contingencies demonstrate a lack of management ability and control by Louisiana to get this project built on schedule and on budget.”

Basically, the project was suffering from delays and a fuzzy vision from early in the process.  Then, earlier this year, the state assumed control over the project and proceeded to propose significant changes.  This was where the real trouble started. Instead of building the fiber network from scratch, as was a key ingredient in the original proposal (and possibly why the grant was so substantial), the state changed course and proposed to “purchase indefeasible rights-of-use (IRUs) from local providers,” according to an October 27 press release by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). StimulatingBroadband.com explained, “Under the stimulus package legislation, the rules of NTIA for BTOP, funds are to be expended for the capital construction of large networks and the telecom equipment to operate them. Funds may not be expended under the program for operating costs, like those included in carrier line rental” (emphasis added).  

StimulatingBroadband.com wrote that Governor Jindal’s Administration essentially “attempted to convert grant funded state owned last mile fiber connections slated for scores of community anchor institutions (CAIs) to investor-owned carrier circuits to be installed by existing broadband providers.” I can’t help but wonder—didn’t the Administration know that this proposal was a violation of the terms of the grant? Apparently the Administration figured that purchasing IRUs would help overcome delays, so maybe their head was in the right place… But wouldn’t it be difficult to justify keeping $80.6m for the purpose of constructing a fiber network when they weren’t actually going to construct a fiber network?

The letter explaining the termination from NOAA Grants Management Division Director Arlene Simpson Porter illustrates that the project team had received plenty of warnings and opportunities to “take corrective action” going back to early 2011. NTIA conducted a site visit in March 2011 and determined that the project was already 9 months behind schedule; and at a follow-up site visit in July, “NTIA staff learned of additional impediments threatening the implementation of the project.”

At that time, Louisiana proposed its course-correction plan of purchasing IRUs instead of constructing the network. NTIA gave the state several more opportunities to explain the new strategy, but NTIA found that the response “did not provide sufficient detail, such as a comprehensive implementation schedule or an adequate business plan.” Louisiana had a final chance to get its affairs in order in October, but NTIA again found that the response was inadequate and insufficient.

Reactions to the news about the grant termination have largely placed the blame on the Jindal Administration. StimulatingBroadband.com spoke with Assistant U.S. Commerce Secretary Lawrence E. Strickling, who reportedly said that NTIA “did all it could to save the large broadband stimulus network project in Louisiana.” Strickling also explained that “NTIA is vigorously overseeing broadband grant projects to ensure they are completed on time, on budget, and deliver the promised benefits to the communities they serve.” A press release by Senator Landrieu expressed frustration with the Jindal Administration: “Despite receiving the green light for more than $80 million in federal funds, the State fumbled the ball;” and “This is yet another missed opportunity to improve the lives of Louisiana residents, particularly rural Louisianans who are often left out of such initiatives.”

What will be the impact of this decision? Surely, the anchor institutions and unserved communities in rural Louisiana who were expecting to be connected to the LBA fiber backbone will suffer as a result of the grant termination, but will private companies step in and build fiber to these unserved locations? Apparently, the funds will be returned to the U.S. Treasury, so there won’t be any opportunity for other worthy organizations to utilize the funds for a similar objective.

What lessons can be learned from this unfortunate situation, particularly for the RLECs who have received federal broadband grants? Clearly, it is probably not a good idea to fall significantly behind schedule, and an even worse idea to drastically change the deployment strategy in order to overcompensate for delays. While processing this story, I kept thinking of the political quotation, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” It also appears, from my perspective anyway, as though the management team made a number of “Project Management 101” faux pas, and possibly fell victim to an unclear strategic direction, especially when the decision was made to abandon plans to construct the fiber network organically.

Unfortunately, delays cannot always be avoided or overcome (especially in a project of this scale and scope), and in at least one case a BTOP-funded project has been halted because the funding from the government has actually been delayed (The ILEC Advisor: More Rural Broadband Loans Announced as Past Recipients Wait on Funds)…So, what do you think – did the NTIA make the right decision to revoke the grant, or should the state have been given more time to course-correct?

Thursday
Sep302010

Broadband Stimulus Deadline Approaching

As $7 Billion Program Ends, a Look Back

The last month has brought nearly $1.4b of grant and loan award announcements under President Obama’s Broadband Stimulus program.  The funding is being awarded under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP)- administered by the Commerce Department’s National Technology and Information Administration (NTIA); and the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP)– administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS).  The nearly $7b program, part of the Recovery Act, was reduced from $7.2b over the summer. 

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced the final 14 BTOP awards on September 27, 2010.  All told, NTIA has awarded approximately $4b in funding to 233 projects nationwide.   The majority of BTOP awards are for middle mile networks that expand high-speed Internet availability to communities and connect community anchor institutions. Other types of projects include public computer centers and sustainable broadband adoption initiatives.

According to a September 13, 2010 RUS press release, RUS has leveraged $2.5b in Recovery Act funding “to provide loans and grants of $3.6b to construct 307 broadband infrastructure and satellite projects in 46 states and one territory.”  It is unclear whether or not RUS will make any further award announcements, but all funding must be awarded by September 30, 2010. 

Barring any large last minute awards, California has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of broadband stimulus funding, garnering more than 6.0% of total funding ($448m).  Delaware received the smallest amount of funding of the 50 states, receiving just $5.1m.  On average, each state or U.S. territory received more than $126m; the average award was $13.9m per project. 

Last month, we noted the largest award to date was $126m in first round grant funding awarded to the executive office of the state of West Virginia for construction of a middle mile network utilizing microwave and fiber technology.  That award has since been topped by $154m grant funding awarded to the Los Angeles Interoperable Communications Systems Authority, which will deploy an inter-operative wireless public safety broadband network across Los Angeles County to serve more than 80 public safety agencies and up to 34,000 first responders. 

The Broadband Stimulus Program has not been without controversy– we’ve seen complaints about everything from companies claiming award recipients are gaining unfair competitive advantage in a particular region to awardees complaining the grant/loan terms are too onerous.  Windstream Corporation (Nasdaq:WIN) announced recently that it is seeking to amend certain provisions of its existing credit facilities because the “amendment is required to permit the signing of rural broadband stimulus grant agreements” with RUS.  WIN has received 16 awards totaling $168m in grant funding to deploy ADSL2+ technology, not including the $17m awarded to recently acquired Iowa Telecommunications

And on September 7, 2010, Connected Planet reported RUS has rescinded a $19m grant awarded to TierOne Converged Networks.  According to the website, RUS used a “clawback” provision provided in the award because the recipient is currently being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for alleged federal securities violations. 

It seems in some instances recipients have withdrawn their requests for funding after receiving awards.  There is little information available disclosing the reasons behind such withdrawals.  For example, round one recipient Allegiance Communications, which was awarded $29m grant funding to deploy more than 680 miles of fiber optic network, makes no mention of the award on its website. Further, although an April 16, 2010 press release from NTIA describes the grant, the applications database no longer lists the project under “awarded.”  As best we can determine, Allegiance Communications withdrew its request sometime after being notified it had been awarded funding. 

With the September 30, 2010 deadline upon us, we expect the focus to shift from applications and award announcements to grant/loan term negotiations, and, eventually, progress updates on the projects themselves. 

Other Broadband Stimulus Developments: Occam Networks announced it has been selected to provide access network equipment to the Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative.  The company was awarded $13.8m grant and $6.2m loan funding to extend fiber optic service from the existing service area to unserved rural areas bordering the telephone company’s current territory……CommScope, Inc. reported it has been selected by BTOP round one award winner MCNC—which received $28m grant funding to build a 494 mile fiber optic middle mile network—to provide all materials related to the project……Infinera announced its partnership with United States Unified Community Anchor Network (U.S. UCAN) on September 7, 2010.  U.S. UCAN received $62.5m grant funding to build a national scale middle mile network to connect all community anchor projects funded by BTOP with each other.

Monday
Nov302009

CAPITAL CORNER: Broadband Stimulus Update and Developments

First Round Slow, Second Round Soon to Go

Over the past four months, many rural ILECs have participated in various aspects of the Broadband Stimulus programs made available by RUS and NTIA through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.The following provides an update of the programs’ progress during the first round of the application process and reviews what we know about the upcoming second round. 

Regarding the status of round one, the agencies acknowledged that the date by which they initially hoped to begin awarding grants and loans, November 7, 2009, “has slipped” to December.Approval of the funding will be on a rolling basis and is projected to end by February.  As of this date, however, to our knowledge only a handful of applications for the RUS Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) funds have moved to the second phase, in which applications receiving the highest scores must produce certain “due diligence” information within thirty days.We are not aware of any applications for the NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) that have moved to the second phase; however, according to recent testimony by the Assistant Secretary of NTIA, Larry Strickling, awards for BTOP grants is expected to begin mid-December.  Applications that do not make it to the second phase will be dismissed. 

Many rural ILECs submitted responses in October challenging whether applications that propose providing broadband services in the ILEC’s broadband service area meets the "unserved" or "underserved" area eligibility criteria.In this process, RUS and NTIA permitted any existing broadband company to file a response.  RUS and NTIA have now posted the names of the companies who submitted the challenges for each application and have included information in the challengers’ summary comments.  These postings can be found through a new “Public Notice Response” link under the applicant’s summary information in the searchable database on RUS and NTIA’s broadband website, www.broadbandusa.gov.  Please note that the link is only posted on applications that had challenges filed against them. 

Regarding round two, NTIA and RUS officials have released a Request for Information (RFI) soliciting comments on changes that should be made in the rules for this round. Comments are due by November 30, 2009.  The agencies have indicated that they will release a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) to begin round two sometime in January after they complete their review of the comments filed in response to the RFI.  They also announced that this will be the last and final round and that the application window for this round will be 60 days.

- Original story written by John Kuykendall  

 

Wednesday
Sep302009

Government Announces Searchable Database of Loan and Grant Applications

Government Database Details BTOP and BIP Loan and Grant Requests

The Government has made available a searchable database of loan and grant applications filed in connection with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP).  As of September 27, 2009 the database includes all electronically-filed BTOP loan and grant applications and BIP loan applications.  The database does not include paper applications or applications received for the State Broadband Data and Development Program. 

The database contains information regarding 2,187 applications filed requesting a total of $22,617,562,000 of grant funds and $5,043,164,000 of loan requests.  Information detailed in the database includes the applicants name, city and state, contact person and phone number, project title, whether the application is filed under the BTOP, BIP or both programs, and a brief description of each project for which funding is requested.    

Middle Mile projects were the most prevalent in terms of funding requests with grant requests totaling $8.2b and loan requests totaling $0.8b.  Last Mile – Non Remote projects are looking for $5.3b of grants and $3.4b of loans.  Not surprisingly, applicants are much more interested in federal grant money than RUS loans.  Grant requests totaled 82% of total funds requested. 

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based RADGOV submitted the largest single application, requesting a $938m grant for RADgov Computer Learning Centers which, according to the RADGOV application, “will be established to offer access to computers and Internet at all our proposed locations for the unserved/underserved communities.  RADgov-CLC will provide e-learning, telemedicine, distance education/vocational programs, electronic library, web seminars, video conferences, workshops, job oriented training, job placements, help reduce unemployment.” [sic]  RADGOV also led all applicants in terms of total dollars requested, filing two applications for total funding od $1.3b. 

Interesting projects include an application filed by GlenMartin, Inc. of Boonville, Mo., which is seeking $158m of grant and $2m of loan funds to provide “two thousand miles of 10 GigE service throughout Missouri.”  GlenMartin, Inc. filed 24  applications for total funding requests of $412m. 

Honolulu, Ha.-based Sandwich Isles Communications is looking for $132m of loans and grants to fund “high speed broadband to rural areas on islands of Oahu, Maui and Hawaii.” 

Cable provider Bresnan Communications is looking for $70m of grant funds for a partnership between Bresnan, “the State of Montana & the Tribal governments of Montana’s 7 Native American Reservations to develop a statewide middle mile fiber optic network connecting the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead-Salish & Kootenai, Ft. Peck, Ft. Bleknap, N. Cheyenne & Rocky Boys reservations and underserved and unserved communities throughout Montana.” 

Germantown, Md.-based Hughes Network Systems, LLC is seeking $150m of loan and grant funds for the “rapid deployment of broadband last mile infrastructure for consumers, business, state and local governments, and critical community facilities in rural and remote areas.  Hugh Networks requested a total of $649m funding in three separate applications. 

Minot, N.D.-based SRT Communications is seeking loan and grant funds of $70m to fund FTTP upgrade to serve 25 of its rural North Dakota exchanges.”  Other RLEC affiliated entities seeking funds for FTTP upgrades include Mayfield, Ky.-based West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative, Rocksprings, Texas-based Southwest Texas Telephone Company, Langdon, N.D.-based United Telephone Mutual Aid Corporation, Dickinson, N.D.-based Consolidated Telcom, and McMinnville, Tenn.-based Ben Lomand Communications, LLC.