Ohio Broadband Collaborations
The Ohio Rural Community Assistance Program historically has helped small, rural communities build capacity for the management of drinking water and wastewater utilities. However, the challenges our communities face are beyond a single utility. Increasingly access to high speed internet is needed for communities to continue to be attractive places to live with many economic opportunities. RCAP is working to bring various partner organizations together to bring broadband internet within reach by leveraging a variety of funding sources, identifying areas of opportunity, and mitigating risk.
Communities can face a number of challenges related to broadband. Broadband can be available, but unaffordable, offer inadequate speeds or simply be unavailable. Each situation, the underlying causes, and the community's goals require a different approach. Below illustrates a few options that RCAP seeks to facilitate.
Key Broadband Dynamics
1) Economies of scale are crucial to the affordable expansion of service. The areas that are easy to serve have already been reached. The areas without service are those with insufficient population density to recover the upfront capital costs in a timely manner, around 18 months.
This means that all those communities with insufficient density, and therefore long payback periods, do not attract investment. Subsidies have been a part of telecommunications since the 1930s and they remain important to overcoming the lack of economies of scale.
2) Ease of Market Entry in internet service provision is the norm, but only in the sufficiently dense markets that warrant the risk. This competition helps to keep quality of service high and prices affordable.
Needless to say, rural areas largely do not benefit from this ease of market entry. Furthermore, with the reality of limited subsidy dollars, the government can't afford to overbuild infrastructure to create operational competition. Instead, initial subsidies are rationed competitively.
The quickest way for a community to gain access is often through collaborating with an incumbent provider to extend service. Other times, a different entity must fill the void. Some point to member-owned organizations such as rural electric cooperatives as being strong candidates for subsidies because their mission aligns with a payback period of 15 years, rather than months. Rural electric cooperatives and Rural water districts will be discussed further below.
Subsidies broadly come in two varieties, geography-based reverse auctions and score-based grant applications.
FCC Reverse Auctions
The former rewards the service provider who bids to build out and operate broadband infrastructure at the most affordable price based on a pre-determined 'reserve price', the subsidy amount per customer.
Buckeye Hills Regional Council and Reid Consulting have done critical advocacy on the need for an adequate reserve price. More detail here.
This approach reduces risk through subsidies while encouraging competition for the territory. There is minimal preliminary design and due diligence required to bid.
USDA Score-Based Grants
USDA grant programs, particularly ReConnect are competitive opportunities with specific scoring rubrics whereby applicants do large amounts of preliminary design and due diligence to submit an application that competes with projects from across the country.
This approach reduces financial risk, but involves an application that requires hundreds of hours to prepare.
The State of Ohio recently released a broadband plan that will allow ReConnect applicants in Ohio to prepare a more competitive application. For further information, please reach out to Ben Howard at email@example.com.
If broadband is unaffordable for part of your community, there are a number of cost assistance options available. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance provides a tool to find these discounts.
- If you already have a subscription, check the list of providers that offer discounts here: Digital Inclusion Alliance.
- If you haven’t signed up for a provider or are curious about your full menu of options, check here: FCC Broadband Map.
- Also, the FCC offers internet assistance to low-income homes: FCC Lifeline.
If your community lacks basic access to the internet, improved technology in the fixed wireless internet space has improved its effectiveness making it more widely available. Furthermore, this allows for shorter lead times.
While fiber to the home is the ultimate goal, there's often too much risk to deploy fiber in sparsely populated areas. Broadband is similar to utilities such as water and electricity in the installation of physical assets throughout the community in public right-of-ways. However, it is not a natural monopoly like water and electricity. In fact, it is a hyper competitive market.
Lower cost, lower risk wireless deployments can demonstrate willingness to pay to potential services providers. The creation of a patchwork of communities yet to be served by fiber, but demonstrated demand for service can help make fiber to the home a reality sooner for our communities.
Lack of Affordable, Quality Service
If your community has barriers to market entry in the broadband space and limited economies of scale, prices can be high and service can suffer. Often infrastructure ages without improvements. To address this, it's crucial to identify an entity with the necessary skills and ability to fill this need. Key candidates include rural electric cooperatives, , municipal electric utilities, rural telecommunication companies, and potentially rural water districts.
This proposition has the highest impact, but it is also the highest risk. Through strategic planning and the right partners involved, risks can be mitigated as shown below.
RCAP can provide preliminary GIS analysis to identify geographic corridors for operational synergies when deploying fiber (e.g. substation monitoring to reduce excess voltage) and picking up sufficient customers that appear to be in grant eligible areas according to readily available service data. The dual use of fiber and leveraging available grant funds are keys to reducing risk that allow for the roll out of this infrastructure.
Accurate connectivity data is the foundation for investments in broadband infrastructure. Unfortunately, connectivity data provided to the Federal Communications Commission is often inaccurate and inflated – leaving many rural communities overlooked and disconnected.
RCAP has partnered with the National Association of Counties (NACo), the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) and Farm Credit to develop a mobile app designed to identify areas with low or no connectivity to help ensure adequate funding for broadband infrastructure is provided across the country.
Many funding opportunities have eligibility requirements regarding the current level of access. This tool can help a community demonstrate eligibility.
“TestIT” is an iOS/Android mobile app that leverages a broadband sampling tool designed by Measurement Lab (MLab) to aggregate broadband speeds across the country from app users. With the press of a single button, users will be able to test their broadband speed from anywhere. Additionally, users will be able to compare their internet speeds to the national average and minimum standards established by the Federal Communications System. No personal information will be collected through this mobile app.
Shared Trench Clearinghouse
Many times excavation to install the fiber lines is too high an upfront cost to install fiber. When communities already have pipe being put in for water or sewer, there's an opportunity to make the trench a little wider to accommodate conduit and fiber. This requires early identification of opportunities to allow for sufficient planning. In support of this effort, below is a map identifying communities with water and sewer projects in the planning or design phase. Please reach out to RCAP to coordinate this effort.
MAP RELEASE EXPECTED 2021