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Cable Tech

Sparklight 'persisting' with grant challenge to Conexon in Louisiana

As states hand out grants to build broadband networks, neglected communities are a step closer to having access to reliable, affordable Internet service. But how states write rules for their grant programs impacts how and whether communities get connected.

One example of this is playing out in Louisiana, where the state's broadband office, ConnectLA, awarded $130 million in broadband grants in late July for 67 rural broadband expansion projects. Since then, however, several of those projects have been put on hold due to challenges from incumbent providers.

What started as 28 challenges has since dropped to 16, with some incumbents withdrawing their protests, according to reporting from the Louisiana Illuminator and confirmed to Light Reading by Jacques Berry, director of policy and communication for Louisiana's Division of Administration.

Cable One's Sparklight is one of the incumbents still mounting a challenge in response to a $4 million grant for Conexon Connect to build and deliver a fiber broadband network to 851 locations in East Carroll Parish.

While other challengers have relented, Trish Niemann, Cable One's VP of corporate communications, told Light Reading today that the company is "persisting with the protest we filed regarding the East Carroll Parish grant via the process outlined by the state, as the company currently services East Carroll Parish with high-speed Internet, offering plans with speeds up to 940 Mbit/s download and 50 Mbit/s upload."

Niemann added that for the purposes of the state's grant program – Granting Unserved Municipalities Broadband Opportunities, or GUMBO – "the only areas eligible for the grant are those that are not receiving a minimum of 25 Mbit/s download and 3 Mbit/s upload. As you can see, Sparklight offers speeds well above the minimum requirement – and has for some time now. As a result, we strongly believe that public grant funds should only be used in other communities throughout Louisiana that do not already have access to broadband."

Community and Conexon dissent

Sparklight's East Carroll protest has received vocal pushback from Conexon, the grant recipient, and Delta Interfaith, a local advocacy group that has been working toward closing the digital divide in East Carroll throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The group had gone door to door to collect speed test data and petitions to bring in a provider that would be willing to build out affordable, high-speed broadband to the residents of East Carroll. That process led them to partnering with Conexon.

Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon, told Light Reading that Cable One's challenge is preventing one of the poorest counties in the country from receiving high-speed broadband, and that Conexon's fiber build could have otherwise been finished by now.

"They want to block a pittance of money to the poorest place in the country to have a chance, just to have a chance to better their lives," he said in a conversation with Light Reading. "That's the hill they want to die on."

According to US census data, East Carroll Parish is 68.4% Black or African American and has a 37.6% poverty rate, with a median household income of $24,551. Census data also shows that 46.9% of East Carroll Parish residents have access to broadband; BroadbandNow puts that number at 64.4%

"You know, people can't access telehealth in East Carroll. You have to drive an hour and a half for most medical needs. A lot of times that can be avoided," said Nathanael Wills, a spokesperson and organizer with Delta Interfaith. "Mental health, we have almost zero access, which could be remedied by this. I mean, people keeping jobs... all of it is magnified and amplified by not having access to the Internet."

Both Conexon and Delta Interfaith also argue that Sparklight's challenge data is inaccurate.

While Conexon submitted its rebuttal to the state last week, "it was a difficult thing to rebut, since the information was so pathetic," said Chambers of Sparklight's challenge data.

Indeed, he argued it's "inconsistent with reality" and doesn't add up with the data Sparklight recently submitted to the FCC for its broadband data collection effort, which is currently undergoing its own challenge process amongst ISPs and local governments.

"It is riddled with holes and it is inconsistent with the filings they just made with the FCC," said Chambers of Sparklight's protest. "That is to say they are lying to somebody. They're either lying to the FCC or they're lying to the state of Louisiana."

In response to questions from Light Reading about its challenge data, Cable One's Niemann refuted Conexon's argument and chalked it up to potential confusion.

"This is the first time we are hearing this argument from Conexon, and where they may likely be confused is as follows – the previous FCC form 477 filings made by Cable One provided data at the census block level as required by then existing FCC regulation," said Niemann. "Congress required the FCC to begin collecting location-specific data (as opposed to census block level) beginning September 1, 2022." That data is what the company submitted for its "GUMBO protest(s)," she added.

Further, she said, "if Conexon is saying our data doesn't match, it is because they are comparing two different types of filings – census block specific and location specific."

According to Conexon's rebuttal filed with the state – obtained by Delta Interfaith and the Providence Journal through a public records request and shared with Light Reading by Delta Interfaith – there are multiple census blocks where Sparklight claims to serve roughly double the households that exist. In one case, writes Conexon, "census has 37 households; Protester claims to serve 72." In another, it says, "census has 23 households; Protester claims to serve 52."

Conexon's rebuttal also alleges that, based on over 350 speed tests conducted throughout the protested area "more than half returned speeds below the minimum threshold." And it claims that Sparklight "not only fails to meet the speed requirements ... but also to meet the affordability metric that is key to providing these unserved locations with Internet service that will give them parity with their urban counterparts."

Delta Interfaith's Wills said that while the process is now up to the ISPs and the state, the group is collecting affidavits to try to prove inaccuracies in Sparklight's protest.

"We've got the anecdotal evidence and now we're mapping out all the addresses that they said that they serve and are gonna pick away at each one of those. We think the whole thing should be thrown out right away because there's just full of inaccuracies," he said.

'Pernicious' process

Part of the issue in Louisiana is that its GUMBO program allows for challenges after grants are awarded, in addition to during the application process. (Though the state has since amended this to allow for one challenge process in the 30-day period after grants are awarded going forward.)

Chambers called Sparklight's choice to launch its challenge after Conexon's award was made "pernicious" given that the company did not challenge its application, nor did it apply for funding in the area itself.

Delta Interfaith echoed this in a letter to Governor John Bel Edwards and Commissioner Jay Dardenne: "Instead of engaging with the community or filing a protest during the initial application phase, Sparklight waited until the last moment to try to thwart months of community efforts to improve broadband in the area. This is a company flexing its bureaucratic muscles to protect its market dominance," the group said.

But as Chambers noted, these challenge processes generally favor incumbents, who often have influence over legislators writing rules for state grant funding.

"The challenge process is just a 'no overbuilding' process, which is a way that incumbents protect themselves by convincing legislators and then legislatures and then public service commissions and broadband offices that the precious public funds ... you'd better not spend a dime where somebody – wait for it – doesn't provide service, but claims to provide service," said Chambers.

He added that Conexon's grants were challenged in Kentucky as well, but that state doesn't disclose who the challengers are.

'People are suffering'

As the federal government works toward rolling out over $42.45 billion in funding through the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, how states write their broadband plans for distributing that funding – and how state legislatures restrict those plans – will influence how quickly the least connected in the country get access to service.

Chambers said a smoother process would see states solicit data from companies up front and then produce a map of remaining areas eligible for grant funding. He also said states should use census blocks to map out service availability with "partially served" as a parameter for available funding.

"The only states that get this right are the ones that weed out a challenge process before the applications," he said. "These are easy programs to run if you anticipate the mischief."

Delta Interfaith hopes the dispute around East Carroll's grant will call national attention to such "mischief" before BEAD and other programs start rolling out.

"We want to shine a light on this on the larger scale because there is so much money coming down," said Wills.

Louisiana's Jacques Berry told Light Reading that it would be "inappropriate to comment on the merits" of a protest, one way or the other, with regard to questions about how the state may rule on this one. But he noted that all participants and potential GUMBO participants "not only knew the rules and the scoring criteria and all that but had all the opportunity to comment on it during rulemaking process itself, let alone during the legislative process, and they all knew how they would be scored, and what the scoring mechanism was." However, he added, he expects the legislature to make "tweaks each year to the process."

In addition to hoping the state throws out the challenge to Conexon's grant, Delta Interfaith also met with Sparklight last week in hopes of pushing the company to drop its challenge, which it so far has decided against.

"We still want to figure this out with them," said Wills. "Like, we understand business decisions. But you know, we also understand that they affect real people," he said. "People are suffering because of the business decisions."

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— Nicole Ferraro, editor, Light Reading, and host of "​​The Divide" podcast.

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