Communications Daily Day 2 Coverage

Adam Bender, covering Mountain Connect 2017 for Communications Daily provided the following updates from the Tuesday sessions:

Gigabit Broadband Speeds Should Be US Goal, Conference Told
Gigabit-speed networks could resolve policy issues including net neutrality and the rural-urban divide, broadband advocates said Tuesday at the Mountain Connect conference webcast from Dillon, Colorado. The gigabit network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is driving the city’s economy, said an official from EPB, the municipality-owned power and fiber company that operates the city’s broadband service. FirstNet and AT&T officials stressed their commitment to local and state issues as they prepare to roll out state plans for the national public safety network.

“We’re going to just need a lot more bandwidth,” and slight upgrades to DSL won’t cut it, said Brookings Institution Fellow Blair Levin. “If you’re putting in a new network, you’re going to put in fiber and you’re going to want it to be gigabit-capable.” Levin said policymakers should encourage gigabit speeds, but he’s not saying it must be a required government standard. Gigabit networks may moot net neutrality concerns, said Levin.

One gigabit may be an arbitrary number, but the goal is a network that’s “not slowing us down,” said Institute for Local Self-Reliance Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell. Plugging a communications device into a network should provide as consistent and reliable an experience as plugging an electrical device into a power socket, he said.

Policymakers should encourage electric cooperatives to provide fiber to rural areas, even if it causes other companies like wireless ISPs to struggle, Mitchell said. If policymakers “make sure that no fixed wireless company that’s doing a good job goes out of business, we may be leaving a lot of people worse off relative to their neighbors who live in urban areas or who live in electric service territories where they have done a [gigabit service].” Levin agreed electric co-ops are a good tool because they have assets and financial incentives. He disagreed that subsidizing broadband companies is bad in the most remote areas, parts of the country “where the economics are not going to work.”

Policymakers shouldn’t think of local governments as the enemy, Levin and Mitchell said. Local governments “have not been a hindrance,” Mitchell said. Cities shouldn’t treat telecom companies as “cash cows,” but local taxpayers should get some compensation for their property, he said. Localities can lower costs of deployment, Levin said, but he’s “concerned that the FCC thinks that a fundamental problem in terms of deployment is that cities are somehow overregulating.” FCC pre-emption is “very problematic” and may stop local experimentation that could drive broadband deployment, he said. The FCC has NPRMs to ease possible barriers to wireless and wireline broadband deployment.

The municipal broadband network in Chattanooga may reverse a “brain drain,” said EPB Director-Fiber Technology Colman Keane in a keynote. With the fiber network, many young people are moving to Chattanooga, creating small businesses including tech startups, he said. The gigabit network, in combination with other local policies, also attracted large businesses, he said.

Keane denied claims by muni-broadband critics that the Chattanooga network isn’t a success, or that it wouldn’t have lasted if not for a large grant from the Department of Energy. Keane said EPB used the grant money for energy initiatives and it had no impact on the company’s broadband business plan. A state law discouraging such networks prevents EPB from expanding the municipal network to neighboring areas.

In a separate session, FirstNet and AT&T officials laid out pros of opting in to state plans. First- Net plan to deliver draft plans mid-June (See 1705190025). FirstNet selected AT&T for the contract after three years in close consultation with states and localities to understand their needs, said FirstNet Senior Counsel-Government Affairs Justin Shore. With other providers, it could have taken five years to start the network, but the AT&T contract gives a state access to the carrier’s existing network soon after a governor signs on and before year-end, Shore said.

AT&T will provide coverage even in rural areas where it’s not present by signing roaming agreements, said AT&T FirstNet Principal Consultant Garett Doyle. For the most remote areas, the carrier also can rely on its satellite partner or deploy mobile infrastructure like cells on wheels, he said. AT&T will upgrade the public-safety network over time so it keeps pace with commercial networks, Doyle said. The carrier will have a dedicated cybersecurity team for FirstNet, he said. Doyle pledged the company will charge monthly service rates for public safety that are “competitive” with commercial rates.

Colorado wants “true statewide coverage” including hard-to-serve rural areas, said the state’s single point of contact, Brian Shepherd, in another FirstNet session. That’s especially important in Colorado, where public safety averages five search-and-rescues per day, Shepherd said. Colorado, which issued a request for proposals for alternative plans, awaits FirstNet and AT&T’s state plan, and will seek local public-safety input on how well it could be implemented, he said.

FirstNet and AT&T are committed to earning state opt-ins, Shore said: “No one wants the PR that comes from a $400 million fine of not signing up public safety.”

— Adam Bender

This article is reprinted with permission of Warren Communications News.
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