Bridging The Digital Divide

Across the U.S., BEAD Program funding aims to expand broadband access, and leading locations remain to be seen.

By Anne Cosgrove
From the September / October 2023 Issue

 

In June, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced how it has allocated funding to all 50 states, Washington, DC, and five territories to deploy affordable, reliable high-speed Internet service to everyone in America. This “Internet for All” initiative is a key component of President Biden’s “Investing in America” agenda.

States, Washington, DC, and territories will use funding from the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to administer grant programs within their borders.

“What this announcement means for people across the country is that if you don’t have access to quality, affordable high-speed Internet service now—you will, thanks to President Biden and his commitment to investing in America,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo. “Whether it’s connecting people to the digital economy, manufacturing fiber optic cable in America, or creating good paying jobs building Internet infrastructure in the states, the investments we’re announcing will increase our competitiveness and spur economic growth across the country for years to come.”

BEAD Program, broadband access
(Photo: Adobe Stock / IMM imagery)

“Whether it’s connecting people to the digital economy, manufacturing fiber optic cable in America, or creating good paying jobs building Internet infrastructure in the states, the investments we’re announcing will increase our competitiveness and spur economic growth across the country for years to come.”

— Gina Raimondo,
Secretary of Commerce

 

“This is a watershed moment for millions of people across America who lack access to a high-speed Internet connection. Access to Internet service is necessary for work, education, healthcare, and more,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communication and Information Alan Davidson. “States can now plan their Internet access grant programs with confidence and engage with communities to ensure this money is spent where it is most needed.”

The BEAD funding will be used to deploy or upgrade broadband networks to ensure that everyone has access to reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet service. Once deployment goals are met, any remaining funding can be used to pursue eligible access-, adoption-, and equity-related uses. (Details on allocations for locations are available on InternetForAll.Gov.)

All locations (“eligible entities”) received their formal notice of allocation on June 30, 2023. Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Eligible Entities have 180 days from the date of that formal notice to submit their Initial Proposals describing how they propose to run their grant programs. Once NTIA approves an Initial Proposal, which will occur on a rolling basis, Eligible Entities will be permitted to request access to at least 20% of their allocated funds.

Broadband Growth Already In Place

BEAD funding and other sources like the federal Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program (more on this below) can be expected to begin transforming internet connectivity in locations around the U.S. in the coming years (BEAD funding is anticipated to begin making inroads around 2025.) In the meantime, there are numerous communities of all sizes that have already seen improvements in digital infrastructure.

Rural communities are most often cited as candidates for improvements. And, those are the communities that may be most eligible for funding. Still, larger communities making strides and offer useful examples. Myrtle Beach, SC and Chattanooga, TN, for instance, showcase different approaches.

In Myrtle Beach, SC, the 2022 announcement of the DC Blox’s Cable Landing Station (see sidebar) poised this area to become a tech hub for the Southeast. This highly specialized facility will provide power to the subsea cables to regenerate the optical signal, host local network equipment associated with the cables, provide colocation space for cable partners and local businesses, and serve as a regional exchange point for communications providers. The Cable Landing Station (CLS) can support up to 5 subsea cables. Google and Meta have announced two subsea cables, connecting Myrtle Beach, SC to Argentina and Spain.

Myrtle Beach, SC is one of a handful of locations on the East Coast with this type of technological based infrastructure. Traditionally, tech companies prefer to locate in the vicinity of data centers and/or cable landing stations due to their reliable, high-speed connectivity and data. Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development (MBREDC) anticipates a tech boom for Horry County within the next few years, already having seen an uptick in tech companies interested in the area.

The DC Blox Cable Landing Station will also establish a dark fiber route from Myrtle Beach, SC to Atlanta, GA.  This is a critical route that will give communities reliable, high-speed internet in rural areas of South Carolina.

In Chattanooga, TN, a fiber optic network was deployed by utility provider EBP with the dual purpose of being the communications backbone for the most advanced, highly automated smart grid energy distribution system in the U.S. which can re-route power around storm damage and other issues to minimize and restore outages almost instantly.

In 2008, EPB’s initial investment in the fiber optic network and smart grid deployment was $169 million. In 2009, EPB accelerated the project because of a federal stimulus grant of $111.5 million from the DOE’s “Smart Grid Investment Grant.” The 2022 increase in bandwidth was made possible by a $70 million network-wide upgrade during 2022-23 to increase the capacity of the core network to 100-gig.

As part of this upgrade, EPB launched EPB Quantum NetworkSM powered by Qubitekk, the nation’s first commercially available quantum network, a space for innovators to test equipment and applications in an established fiber optic network.

Connecting The Middle Mile

In summer 2023, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced nearly $50 million to four organizations to expand middle mile high-speed infrastructure in New Hampshire, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Under the Internet for All Initiative, the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program invests in projects that build regional networks that connect to national Internet networks.

Middle mile Internet infrastructure carries large amounts of data over long distances, increases capacity to local networks, boosts network resiliency, lowers the cost of bringing high-speed Internet service to unconnected households, and helps connect unserved regions to the Internet backbone.

DC BLOX Grows In South Carolina

DC Blox opened its Myrtle Beach Cable Landing Station (CLS) on October 10. Google will have two subsea cables that will land at the facility: The Firmina cable connecting Myrtle Beach to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and the Nuvem cable to connect to Portugal and Bermuda. Edge Holdings (a subsidiary of Meta) plans to land its Anjana cable connecting to Spain.

“As we embarked on this journey, we saw the opportunity to redefine what a cable landing station could be by creating a pivotal hub where companies could colocate and connect, and to fundamentally change the digital landscape of the Southeast,” said Jeff Uphues, CEO of DC Blox. “The grand opening of our new facility opens up opportunities for global and regional communications providers, hyperscalers, and enterprises to more easily participate in the global economy and to leverage this infrastructure to create an AI-driven future. Together, we’re not just meeting today’s needs; we’re pioneering the infrastructure of tomorrow.”

Broadband access, DC Blox, South Carolina
The newest cable landing station on the Atlantic coastline provides global access to the burgeoning Southeast region. (Source: DC Blox)

 

“South Carolina is a growing innovation hub, bringing in new economic opportunities through digital infrastructure and other technology investments,” said Lee Livingston, Director of Partnerships at Google. “We look forward to the continued partnership with our neighbors in Myrtle Beach, and are committed to making sure the Firmina and Nuvem subsea cables deliver lasting benefits to the state.”

“South Carolina is a crucial part of the U.S. and global economy, so Meta is proud to join DC Blox in partnering with the state of South Carolina to bring this crucial connectivity project to Myrtle Beach,” said Meta’s Boh DuPree, Director of Network Investments – Americas. “This cable landing station serves as an important investment that Meta believes will benefit millions of people, communities and businesses in South Carolina and beyond.”

In related news, DC Blox announced that Camp Hall commerce park in Ridgeville would be the site of its third South Carolina data center. DC Blox purchased the land for the 27.5-acre development in Berkeley County from Santee Cooper for $4.8 million. Plans for the site include building four buildings totaling about 200,000 square feet.

Camp Hall South CarolinaUphues said the Berkeley County data center will be an attractive option for “hyperscalers” that need the space and electrical firepower to support applications such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. It will also provide businesses with access to high-speed fiber connections to serve customers either locally or globally.

The plans could change depending on what companies commit to tap into the site, explained Bill Thompson, vice president of marketing and product management at DC Blox. “Typically large companies of the ilk of Google and Amazon look at building facilities with a partner like DC Blox,” he said.

The location is “strategic” and “will encourage and support technology-driven industries and quality jobs” in the region, according to Santee Cooper CEO Jimmy Staton.

The Camp Hall investment will be connected to DC Blox’s Myrtle Beach CLS. It will also serve as a link in a “dark fiber route” that will stretch from the Grand Strand to Atlanta via nine South Carolina counties.

Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the $1 billion middle mile program funds construction, improvement, or acquisition of middle mile infrastructure, along with administrative costs associated with running the program. Middle mile projects do not directly connect end-user locations.

“Middle mile networks are the interstate highways of the Internet, carrying large amounts of data at high speeds to connect entire communities,” said Asst. Secretary of Commerce for Communication and Information Alan Davidson. “These final awards complete the Biden Administration’s nearly $1 billion investment in regional Internet networks that will help us bring affordable, reliable high-speed Internet connection to everyone in America.”

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