Progress for Prison Phone Rates and Accessibility

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Robbie’s Round-Up for the Week of August 1-5, 2016

The Federal Communications Commission held its monthly meeting on August 4, covering prison phone rates, the FCC’s program for providing affordable communications equipment for people with hearing and vision loss, and new rules to create a pathway for 100 percent compatibility with wireless hearing aid devices.

Prison Phone Rates
The FCC adopted an order that aims to ensure inmate calling service rates are just, reasonable, and fair for inmates and their families, and also ensures that jails, prisons, and providers are fairly compensated for the costs of providing the service.

In October of 2015, under the leadership of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the FCC capped local and long-distance prison phone rates. In response, phone service providers and others filed a petition to review the order, and requested a court to delay implementation of the new rates. The court agreed to delay implementation of the new rates in March of 2016.

With the order adopted this week, the FCC has raised the rate caps to account for jails’ and prisons’ legitimate service costs while also providing reasonable rates for inmates and their families for both local and long-distance service.

The order adjusts the FCC’s 2015 rate caps. The new rates for debit/prepaid calls are (2015 rate caps in parentheses):

  • State or federal prisons: 13 cents/minute (11 cents/minute)
  • Jails with 1,000 or more inmates: 19 cents/minute (14 cents/minute)
  • Jails with 350-999 inmates: 21 cents/minute (16 cents/minute)
"In my 18 years as a regulator, this set-up is the greatest and most distressing type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector." FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, speaking on the issue of prison phone reform.

As the FCC notes, the rate caps adopted are, on average, significantly lower than the 2013 interim rate cap of 21 cents a minute that currently applies to long-distance calls. The new caps will govern both in-state and interstate calling, reducing the price for most inmates of an average 15-minute call by nearly 35 percent. The FCC’s inmate calling rate cap functions as a ceiling, not a floor, and so, does not prevent states where calling costs are lower from reducing rates further.

For more information, you can read Andrew Schwartzman’s article about the October 2015 decision, “Finishing The Job On Prison Phone Calls”. Schwartzman serves as the Benton Senior counsel at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation. He is a leading figure in the legal effort to see reasonable prison phone rates.

The effort to reduce the cost of phone calls to prison inmates has been a long struggle, as the FCC was first asked to address the problem in 2003. The system unjustly exploited inmates and their families, effectively treating them as “captive” sources of revenue. The high cost of the phone calls made it difficult for inmates to communicate with their children, spouses, and lawyers. This isolation contributes to higher rates of recidivism.

A Boost for Accessibility

Making iCanConnect Permanent
The FCC also adopted an order to make permanent its program that provides communications equipment to low-income individuals who experience hearing or vision loss. In 2012, the FCC launched the pilot program, called the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program (NDBEDP) (also known as “iCanConnect”). Thousands of Americans with hearing and vision loss have benefited from the pilot program, which has provided up to $10 million annually to support programs that distribute, install, and educated people on communications equipment.

The order adopted this week ensures a seamless transition to a permanent program. The action makes iCanConnect available to more consumers by extending the program to residents of US territories of Guam, Northern Marinas, and American Samoa, in addition to the 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

The rules adopted:

  • Continue support for national outreach to supplement local outreach efforts of the certified programs.
  • Establish requirements for reimbursement claims, semiannual reports, record retention, annual audits, and other measures to ensure effective oversight of the program and to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.
  • Establish performance goals and direct the development of performance measures for the program.
  • Direct the establishment of a centralized database, which certified programs will use for reporting purposes and may use for generating reimbursement.

Charting a Course for Comprehensive Hearing Aid Compatibility
The FCC also made accessibility progress by implementing new rules to ensure that people with hearing loss have full access to innovative wireless devices. The FCC amended the hearing aid compatibility requirements that are generally applicable to wireless service providers and manufacturers of digital wireless handsets. Specifically, the Commission increased the number of hearing aid compatible handsets that service providers and manufacturers are required to offer by setting two new percentage benchmarks:

  • 66 percent of offered handset models must be compliant following a two-year transition period for manufacturers, with additional compliance time for service providers, and
  • 85 percent of offered handset models must be compliant following a five-year transition period for manufacturers, with additional compliance time for service providers.

These efforts provide a pathway to realize the FCC’s goal of 100 percent compatiblity within eight years.

Twelfth Broadband Progress NOI
The FCC launched a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) aimed at determining whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. In particular, the FCC seeks comment on the appropriate criteria and benchmarks by which to measure whether fixed and mobile broadband services provide access to advanced telecommunications capability.

As part of this inquiry, the FCC seeks comment on whether to update the existing 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed benchmark for fixed advanced telecommunications capability, as well as on whether the Commission should establish a speed benchmark for mobile broadband services and, if so, what that speed benchmark should be. The FCC also seeks comment on the relationship of non-speed performance metrics, including service consistency and latency, to advanced telecommunications capability, and on whether and how to adopt benchmarks for these metrics. Next, the FCC seeks comment on criteria and benchmarks by which to measure advanced telecommunications capability deployment to schools and classrooms, as well as on additional factors that may affect the deployment and/or availability of advanced telecommunications capability. Finally, the FCC seeks comment on the various data sources used by the Commission for the purposes of our annual Broadband Progress Report, and whether additional or alternative sources of data are available to inform the analysis under.

Republican FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly criticized the NOI even though they voted to adopt it. Commissioner Pai promised “this proceeding promises to play out like a 1970s television show: a predictable script that meets a preordained goal.” Why? Because it is predetermined that “Early next year, the FCC will find that broadband is not being deployed “‘in a reasonable and timely fashion.’” Similarly, Commissioner O’Rielly said, “make no mistake, everyone is already in on the larger joke to be played with this inquiry process. We all know the eventual outcome of the final report pursuant to section 706 that will be coming in the future. This seemingly benign NOI does not hide the reality that awaits.”

Interested parties have until September 6 to file comments in the proceeding – and until September 21 to reply to those comments.

Internet Privacy Should Not Be a “Luxury Item”
In a press conference after the FCC meeting, Chairman Wheeler signaled that he was not in favor of having a person’s online privacy depend on whether one has paid an Internet service provider (ISP) extra money. Chairman Wheeler implied that the Internet risks becoming divided into privacy haves and have-nots, if companies such as AT&T and Comcast can dangle discounts in front of consumers in exchange for slurping up their search and browsing histories for advertising purposes.

"I would hope that privacy doesn't become a luxury item," Chairman Wheeler said.

Comcast asked this week that the FCC not restrict the ability of ISPs to adjust a discount-for-data business model. "A bargained-for exchange of information for service is a perfectly acceptable and widely used model throughout the U.S. economy, including the Internet ecosystem," Comcast wrote in a filing.

ISPs claim that a broadband discount could help get more people online who otherwise couldn't afford it. As Brian Fung wrote for the Washington Post, “Cable companies such as Comcast argue they shouldn't be treated any differently from other firms in the Internet ecosystem: Google offers many of its services for free, in exchange for your personal data. So does Facebook, as well as many online news outlets.”

But this business model would put ISPs in direct competition with websites for advertising dollars. And ISPs' ability to see the whole breadth of your online activity — not just what you search for during the day or which videos you watch on Netflix — could give them a big advantage over Web companies, critics say.

What's more, opponents argue, the plans could exacerbate inequality. “By making it more expensive to buy Internet plans that don't mine your personal information, wealthier Americans may be able to avoid the tracking while lower-income Americans must face a growing barrage of ads, offers and promotions — some of which may not be in their best interest,” Fung wrote.

"Low-income consumers have less disposable income with which to pay for privacy-protective plans, and therefore are much more likely to give up their privacy in exchange for access to the Internet," wrote Eric Null, a policy lawyer at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "Low-income consumers should not have to decide between internet access and privacy, but pay-for-privacy forces that decision upon them."

This privacy issue is one of several large initiatives Chairman Wheeler hopes to tackle in the upcoming months. To follow along, be sure to subscribe to Benton’s free, daily Headlines news service.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconDemocrats, Republicans and the Internet (Tim Karr Op-Ed)
coffee iconBig Telecom Wants a DC Circuit Net Neutrality Review. Here’s Why That’s Unlikely (Vice)
coffee iconThe Limits of Net Neutrality (Susan Crawford Op-Ed)
coffee iconTrump’s wish for hacking powers sets up disaster scenario Snowden feared (Columbia Journalism Review)
coffee iconIs the Elite Media Failing to Reach Trump Voters? (Interview with Glenn Greenwald)
coffee iconHillary's 100-day plan will push tech buttons (Philadelphia Inquirer)
    coffee iconSee Also: Video: Clinton wants high-speed Internet in every home (Washington Post)
coffee iconPresident Obama to Leave the White House a Nerdier Place Than He Found It (New York Times)

In Memoriam
Robert Rosencrans, Who Helped Propel C-Span, Dies at 89 (New York Times)
Seymour Papert, 88, Dies; Saw Education’s Future in Computers (New York Times)
Alan Perce, Former Chief Economist at the Federal Communications Commission (Washington Post)

Events Calendar for Summer 2016
Aug 15 -- Local Economies of the Future: How Do Cities Thrive in the Digital Age?, ITIF
Aug 19 -- ConnectALL Summit for Digital Inclusion, White House
Aug 23 -- Open Meeting of the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, NIST
Aug 31 -- Big Sky Broadband Workshop, NTIA

ICYMI From Benton
benton logoBenton and Rhinesmith Continue Digital Inclusion Research Partnership, Adrianne B. Furniss editorial
benton logoDNC 2016: Broadband Platform and Leaked E-mails, Robbie McBeath

By Robbie McBeath.