Digital Beat Blog

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FCC Moves Toward Making Broadband More Affordable Through Its Lifeline Program

On June 18, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to again reform modernize its Lifeline program, seeking public input on restructuring the program to better support 21st Century communications while building on existing reforms to continue strengthening protections against waste, fraud and abuse. Established in 1985, the Lifeline program has made phone service – first landline service and now supporting wireless service as an option -- affordable for low-income Americans. Last year, Lifeline some 12 million people. Now, a majority of the five FCC commissioners believe it is time for a fundamental, comprehensive restructuring of the program to meet today’s most pressing communications needs: access to broadband.

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Tom Wheeler - The Halftime Report

Tom Wheeler’s tenure as Federal Communications Commission Chairman is at the halfway point. This is a good time to assess what he has accomplished and what is to come.

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What Just Happened to NSA Reform?

On June 2, 2015, the Senate passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act of 2015. This week’s actions been both celebrated and damned by all points, it seems, along the political spectrum. Is it time to celebrate? Or move to Canada?

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Federal Funding Fosters Senior Digital Learning

Concern about seniors being left behind in the digital divide is not a recent phenomenon. Some efforts date back to the mid-1990s. Others emerged when the federal government began to pay serious attention about a decade ago. A small number of BTOP projects focused on seniors. Here are a few highlights.

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A Most Unvirtuous Circle

It’s shaping up as a great political year ahead—if you are a billionaire with an axe to grind or a broadcast or cable operator. In recent years, special interests and ideologues of both the right and the left have dumped billions of dollars of unaccountable advertising onto the airwaves and cables that we rely on for our news and information. In fact, by most estimates, the majority of campaign money nowadays goes into advertising. It’s great for broadcast and cable. When I was a Commissioner at the FCC and I would ask these industry execs how business was doing, they always had an extra-wide grin as we were entering a new election cycle. For many of them, these ads comprised their largest revenue stream. It’s a virtuous circle for them and the billionaires, but not so virtuous for the rest of us—or for our democracy.

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FCC Moves to Make Broadband More Affordable

Cost. Literacy. Relevance. Time and again research identifies these three barriers to broadband adoption. On May 28, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program to address the first great barrier: cost. Here’s what the proposal looks like.

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Lifeline – Where Is It Going? A Community Perspective

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance is comprised of local community organizations, public libraries and other institutions that are working hard to increase broadband access and digital skills among our neighbors. To improve the daily lives of all community members, we call for public policies for digital inclusion that reflect what we've learned from experience. We offer this expertise to the Federal Communications Commission to aid the reform and modernization of Lifeline.

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Lifeline - Where Did It Come From?

Lifeline telecommunications services have long generated controversy, but over the last few years, critics have been especially vociferous, railing against what they have termed “Obamaphones,” wireless phones with modest free service allotments provided to low income users. (As discussed below, and as this snopes.com explainer says, the term is a misnomer in that the Lifeline program dates to the 1980's and it was expanded to wireless during the George W. Bush Administration.) In the coming weeks, the Federal Communications Commission will likely launch a proceeding considering a number of changes to its Lifeline Assistance program (Lifeline), including an expansion of its coverage to broadband services. Therefore, this is a good time to review the history and legal underpinnings of Lifeline, and how the “Obamaphone” came into being.

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Verizon-AOL: You've Got Privacy Issues

On May 12, Verizon announced an agreement to purchase AOL, “a leader in the digital content and advertising platforms space,” for approximately $4.4 billion. Some may question how the sounds of “You’ve Got Mail” and dial-up modems can command billions in our increasingly always-connected world. But today’s AOL is a reinvention of the early online trailblazer and purchaser of Time Warner. In today’s wireless environment, this deal is about attracting – and tracking – customers and, so, may have huge privacy implications.

GAO Report Bolsters Need for Lifeline Broadband Expansion

The Lifeline program allows our nation’s most vulnerable communities to maintain telephone service that would otherwise be unaffordable – service that is essential for connecting with loved ones, searching for employment, pursuing further education goals, engaging fully as citizens, and calling 911. But a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, commissioned by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) to evaluate the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) reforms to the Lifeline program, quickly drew fire from some Republican leaders. They allege that the FCC should not work on expanding the program to broadband until it addresses points raised in the GAO report. But to call to a halt the FCC’s planned reform efforts based on this report would be to ignore its findings.

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Disadvantaged elders: Least likely to be online

Our previous article noted that only 57-59% of seniors currently use the Internet or go online, compared to 86-88% of all adults age 18+ (Pew Research Center, 2014). This age-based disparity has lessened recently, due in part to 1) efforts throughout the nation to promote senior digital literacy and 2) the initial “cohort effect” of tech-savvy baby boomers who began entering the age 65+ category in 2011.

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What a Difference a Year Makes in the Network Neutrality Debate

At this time in 2014, we reported on the controversy surrounding the Federal Communications Commission’s imminent release of proposed rules to ensure an Open Internet. Many feared the rules FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would propose could allow Internet service providers to charge for faster, better access to consumers. Our question on May 9, 2014: “Will the uprising of opposition be enough to convince Chairman Wheeler to change course?” Well, what a difference a year makes. History was made by unprecedented, grassroots activistism and a FCC leader willing to listen and the courage to change his mind. Today our weekly round-up takes us back to where we were one year ago.

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Missing Charles

Charles Benton has been gone less than a week, but I miss him already. I miss him as friend, as a thoroughly delightful person, and—apropos to this testimonial—a dauntless and effective champion of the public interest. I could not have admired this good man more. Charming and gentle, yes, but tenacious and indefatigable too, he left this world much better than he found it.

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What Can the Government Do to Expand Broadband’s Reach (in 30 Questions)?

These are the overarching questions asked by President Barack Obama’s Broadband Opportunity Council in a Public Notice released this week. The Council, created in a March 2015 Presidential Memorandum, is made up of 25 federal agencies and charged with developing a framework of recommendations to explore ways to remove unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers, incentivize investment, and align funding polices and decisions to support broadband access and adoption. In the Memorandum, the President made it the official policy of the Federal Government to: identify and address regulatory barriers that may unduly impede either wired broadband deployment or the infrastructure to augment wireless broadband deployment; encourage further public and private investment in broadband networks and services; promote the adoption and meaningful use of broadband technology; and otherwise encourage or support broadband deployment, competition, and adoption in ways that promote the public interest. The Departments of Agriculture and Commerce -- which are co-chairing the Council -- are asking the public for input in helping to identify regulations and other barriers that are hampering deployment of broadband. The Council also is seeking recommendations on ways to promote public and private investment in broadband and get a better understanding of the challenges facing areas that lack access to broadband.

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Charles Benton 1931-2015

Charles Benton, the founder and chairman of the Benton Foundation, was a determined, passionate, and agile businessman and philanthropist who, over many decades, pursued a vision of empowering people to use the latest communications tools to improve the lives of all. We regret to report that on April 29, 2015, Mr Benton, 84, died at his home in Evanston from complications from renal cancer. He is survived by his loving wife, Marjorie, daughter Adrianne Furniss, son, Craig, and five grandchildren. Family, friends, and colleagues remember Charles Benton not just for his many accomplishments, but his passion and enthusiasm; his values and persistent vision; his positive attitude, indomitable spirit and continuous optimism.

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The Week The Comcast-Time Warner Cable Deal Died

"Once you get through the hysteria, [this transaction] is pro-consumer, pro-competitive and strongly in the public interest," Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen told reporters in February 2014 when the nation’s biggest cable TV and broadband service provider announced it would purchase Time Warner Cable, the number 2 provider. Fourteen months later – hysteria duly subsided – and it appears regulators may not agree. On the morning of April 24, 2015, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts said, “Today, we move on. Of course, we would have liked to bring our great products to new cities, but we structured this deal so that if the government didn’t agree, we could walk away.” And, with that, the deal was dead. How'd we get here? Here's a recap of what we learned this week.

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Comcast-Time Warner Cable and the Open Internet: One Issue, Not Two

It’s now a two-front people’s crusade to prevent gatekeepers from wresting control of our nation’s communications ecosystem. One front is preserving and protecting the Federal Communications Commission’s historic passage of real net neutrality rules two months ago. The other is stopping the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger in its tracks. Victory on both these fronts is essential if we are to have media that serve the needs of our diverse democracy.

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Does The Net Neutrality Decision Impose Rate Regulation?

Few issues before the Federal Communications Commission have generated as much controversy and partisan debate as Network Neutrality. As opposing sides have jockeyed for position, their goal has not always been clarity. Perhaps the most contentious and confusing aspect of the debate since the FCC voted on February 26 is the question of whether the FCC’s Net Neutrality decision imposes rate regulation. That seems like a yes/no question, but it isn’t.

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Literacy and Access Roles Help Libraries Remain Vital Community Anchors

Perhaps we all grew up thinking of libraries as buildings or rooms within a building with stores of books, magazines, recorded music and video waiting for us to browse and maybe even take home. But for anyone who thinks that in the Digital Age, when so much information is available through our computers and other devices, that libraries are any less relevant than they’ve ever been, new research released this week confirm how vital these institutions remain today.

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Pew Identifies the “Smartphone-Dependent” – What Could It Mean For Lifeline?

Is all broadband created equal? Just last month, the White House announced that 98 percent of Americans nationwide live in areas served with 4G, high-speed wireless Internet. Does that mean the U.S. can afford to give up on efforts to bring broadband everywhere? Mission accomplished? Some recent research indicates that wireless Internet access is a distinctly different service than wireline broadband -- and one that offers a distinctly different experience for users.

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