Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet and H.R. 3994

FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is required to provide public safety broadband in rural America. Recently, AT&T accepted the challenge and committed to invest an additional $2 billion in rural build-out. Meanwhile, as I have mentioned before, there are many grants and low-cost loans available to states and counties to implement rural broadband. These include several administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), many by the United States Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and most recently the Department of Homeland Security. However, as I have also said before, these agencies do not work with each other and they have different criteria. All told, there are more than 25 separate programs administered by five different agencies so progress is really slow. Some agencies are only interested in fiber broadband but some are willing to fund a combination of fiber backhaul and wireless distribution. For many years now, I have been calling for a common organization to take charge of implementing funding for rural broadband. Perhaps H.R. 3994 will be the bill that will create such an agency.

H.R. 3994 Access Broadband Act

This bill “to establish the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth, and for other purposes” was first introduced in the House of Representatives in October of 2017, sponsored by Representative Paul Tonko, a democrat from New York. With additional sponsors, on June 13, 2018, the bill was forwarded by the subcommittee to the full Committee on Energy and Commerce for consideration prior to being presented to the full House. Congress is busy working on a number of issues that many of the Representatives and Senators will say are more important, but to be effective, this bill needs to be moved quickly through the House to the Senate and put into law.

We do have to be careful with this as I am sure some within the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will take exception to the creation of a new Internet Connectivity office since they will feel this is their purview. However, if you look at what has happened over the course of the last few years, you will see that there has not been any coordination within and between the federal agencies. As long as each agency with a broadband initiative feels this is its area of expertise, even though it has not looked at the issue as demanding a coordinated action, we will continue to lag behind in both rural and poverty-level Internet connectivity.

FirstNet and H.R. 3994

If I had input into this legislation, I would ask for the following:

  • FirstNet The Authority and FirstNet (Built by AT&T) should be able to assign employees to this new agency to ensure there is coordination between all government agencies involved in rural Internet access.
  • Perhaps this should be formed as an “independent authority” as FirstNet was and have its own board of directors and employees.
  • Administrative and top employees should be well versed in broadband deployments including costs of both fiber and various types of wireless access relative to required capacity to avoid over-building (i.e., fiber to the home).
  • Educational, medical, and state and local government agencies should be an integral part of this group.
  • All related existing grants and low-cost loan programs should be administered by this organization with the goal of providing as much funding as possible, even using two or more grants for a specific project.
  • Lastly and as important, ongoing operating costs of any resultant networks should be included in any funding grants.

Obviously, there should be close coordination between the private/public partnership that is FirstNet and with existing rural broadband providers. This would include the small but valuable Internet Service Providers (ISPs), local wireless, cable, and fiber companies, rural power companies, and others with a compelling interest to see broadband and Internet available in as many rural and poverty-level areas of the United States as possible.

Ever since the hit movie was released, “The Perfect Storm” has been used to describe how events come together to provide opportunities. In this case we have a unique opportunity to coordinate a sophisticated effort to solve issues facing those who cannot afford or have no access to broadband and the Internet. It does not make sense to me that FirstNet should build out an area to solve the issue for the public safety community but still be constrained by cost considerations from including additional sites that would also serve to provide broadband and Internet access to the citizens and businesses in an area. For example, the FCC’s e-Rate program is highly constrained and restricted to serving education.

Timing

There is also a timing issue here. FirstNet has to meet certain coverage deadlines over the course of the next five years. Yet AT&T, the company building FirstNet, intends to beat these deadlines. This means whatever happens with H.R. 3994 and other measures may go into effect too late and result in both duplicated efforts and wasted money. The federal government is not accustomed to working on short-term issues but in this case, we could be wasting a tremendous opportunity to finally fix the issue of rural-area and poverty-level broadband and Internet connectivity. Perhaps it is time for those who need rural broadband to put some pressure on Congress for this bill to be passed into law.

A number of issues will need to be discussed if this new organization and any new partnerships it forms are to be successful. First, it will need to be viewed as an agency or group unlike a typical federal agency. FirstNet had to work diligently to gain the trust of the public safety community because of its relationship with the NTIA and Department of Commerce but it was able to gain trust by moving forward with what it believed was its charter to get the public safety network up and running. It took a few years but today FirstNet is truly an independent authority, and I believe any new Internet connectivity organization has to be able to establish itself outside the norms of the federal government’s seeming need to over-manage everything.

List of Players

There is a long list of players who would benefit from this type of organization and a working relationship with FirstNet the Authority and FirstNet (Built by AT&T). These include rural and poverty-level citizens, rural businesses, educational facilities (schools, colleges, universities), students, medical facilities, counties, cities, tribes, and many more including larger businesses that want to relocate outside cities but need high-speed Internet access before they can move. Other potential customers for these services include rural wireless companies, Internet service providers, rural power companies, and others, the number and type of which is almost limitless. The NTCA, known as the Rural Broadband Association, has been very vocal in its efforts to persuade Congress to move forward with legislation, and it is dedicated to working with any and all partners to solve rural broadband coverage issues.

Those in Congress who represent districts that experience rural and poverty-level coverage issues would also benefit by the passing of this bill since they could brag that they are providing a practical way forward to solve the digital divide in their district and their state.

Funding

The federal government has money to make this happen, the issue is that this money is tied up in different grants with different requirements and does not include operational funds that will be needed beyond building the network. Compare that to the FirstNet rural build that requires not only building out the network but also maintaining and upgrading it for the next 25 years and it is easy to see why so many one-time grants made by the NTIA and others fall short of achieving their goal. A network, once built, has monthly expenses including a power bill, insurance, tower or equipment housing fees, maintenance, and upgrades. We have to move beyond building networks and walking away from them. FirstNet has to fund these costs as do other broadband network operators, fiber companies, and others. A true network implementation includes not only the network but the funds to keep it on the air and operating for many years to come or a plan to make sure it is self-sustaining.

We have been stressing the use of other federal grants to assist FirstNet with the rural build-out but there are deadlines, they require reams of paperwork, and the decision-making process is slow and cumbersome. Perhaps a newly formed agency such as the one proposed in H.R. 3994 will expedite the expenditure of previously allocated grant funds and jumpstart the effort to provide Internet for all within the U.S. borders. If there is ever an opportunity to bridge the digital divide, it is over the next one-to-two years.

Winding Down

If you are not affected by a lack of broadband and Internet services, why should you care about FirstNet’s rural build-out and this bill? I think the answer lies in the fact that all of us want and need access to information and entertainment. Public safety personnel need the same broadband data tools no matter where they are. Disasters don’t only happen where there is broadband coverage, they happen anywhere and everywhere and we need broadband connectivity in as many places as possible.

Students in rural schools need access to the Internet while at school and at home, medical professionals need access, and doctors are already performing lifesaving operations while thousands of miles from the patient. Broadband and Internet access means more jobs, better education, and perhaps even more income for those who do not have access to broadband today.

FirstNet is charged with providing public safety broadband in rural America but it cannot afford to cover all rural population areas, campgrounds, and similar locations. However, FirstNet as part of a broader initiative to provide rural broadband and Internet services using additional federal, state, and local resources can. There are companies ready and willing to assist in extending the Internet to rural areas and poverty-level citizens.

I hope you will join us and lend your voice to support H.R. 3994. Passing this bill promises to provide the catalyst to finally close the Digital Divide.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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