Access and Affordability Policy for an Open Internet Ecosystem
In this final of four posts (here, here and here) laying out a policy framework for an open Internet ecosystem, I set out my recommendations to ensure that the Internet is accessible and affordable and that broadband Internet access service (BIAS) providers and online platforms are transparent about how they conduct their businesses.
Access and Affordability
Affordable access to the Internet is rarely discussed in conversations about Internet openness. An open network is of limited value, however, if significant numbers of people cannot access it for cost or other reasons. In the United States, fully twenty percent of Americans are not connected to BIAS. For half of those Americans and nearly forty percent of rural Americans, there is no BIAS to connect to in their area. For the other half, cost and other barriers discourage adoption.
The largest programs for addressing broadband access and affordability are the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) program, which provides subsidies for BIAS providers to deploy broadband in rural areas, and the Lifeline program, which provides a small ($9.25 per month) subsidy to low-income Americans to purchase broadband service.
In addition to these FCC programs, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce successfully ran two grant programs, as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, intended to increase access and adoption of broadband. The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) made grants to build critical infrastructure, like middle-mile networks and last-mile networks in rural areas. The State Broadband Initiative made focused grants to community organizations and governments to encourage broadband adoption. Both programs expired once they spent their allotted funds.
Congress should examine making major changes to the CAF program, including whether the billions of dollars in funding should be paid not to rural BIAS providers but to infrastructure companies to deploy infrastructure like fiber backhaul and towers. The record demonstrates that despite the significant funding for rural broadband deployment over the past six years, there are still wide swaths of rural America that remain unserved and underserved. By paying for new infrastructure, the chances for increasing competition, expanding access, and improving speeds and quality of service will be greatly improved.
To promote greater broadband access and affordability, Congress should:
- Clarify the FCC’s authority to provide broadband subsidies to low-income Americans (Lifeline) and rural connectivity (Connect America Fund) by:
- Allowing Lifeline BIAS providers to choose one-stop FCC certification, and
- Reversing the decision to condition Lifeline and CAF subsidies on carriers providing regular telephone service.
- Revive and expand NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative and Broadband Technology Opportunities Grant Programs.
- Ask the Government Accountability Office or the Congressional Research Service to conduct a study on the desirability and feasibility of shifting some or all CAF funds from rural BIAS providers to infrastructure providers.
Without granular data about who has broadband service and who does not, it is a challenge to make targeted and effective broadband policy. The FCC requires that BIAS providers report broadband access on a census-tract level. Thus, if one household in a census block has access, then all residents of that census block are deemed to also have access. This data collection results in a significant over-counting of who has broadband.
A related problem is that it is nearly impossible for consumers to compare broadband prices in those areas where there is more than one BIAS provider because BIAS providers are not required to reveal their prices. To that end, either the FCC or Congress should require that BIAS providers submit block-by-block deployment data and cost of service (not promotional) on the semi-annual broadband deployment survey they are required to submit to the FCC.
The lack of transparency of online platforms strikes at the heart of our democracy. The proliferation of fake political advertisements, fake news, and fake accounts warrant strong and swift action to require disclosure of the sponsors of that content. In addition, the power of algorithms to control what we see and influence what we think calls for greater insight into how those algorithms work and greater accountability for any harm caused by the bias inherent in those algorithms.
To ensure greater transparency and accountability for online platforms, Congress should:
- Require sponsorship identification for all political and issue advertisements.
- Require platforms to explain to their customers in simple terms the procedures followed by their algorithms and why they receive certain advertisements, posts, and search results.
- Hold platforms legally accountable for any economic or other harm resulting from algorithmic bias.
Achieving a policy framework for an open Internet ecosystem won’t be easy and it won’t be achieved in one massive piece of legislation. But small steps can lead to big results. I hope my paper and these posts start a discussion that will lead to action that will restore an Internet that serves the public interest.
Gigi B. Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She is one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable and democratic communications networks. For nearly thirty years, she has worked across the country to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open and protective of user privacy.