Research Roundup: Notes from the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Digital Beat

Research Roundup: Notes from the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference

Dr Revati Prasad
     Dr. Prasad

Last month, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society staff, fellows, former fellows, and friends attended the 51st Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC) in Washington (DC). Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn delivered the keynote, Executive Director Adrianne Furniss awarded the 2023 Charles Benton Broadband & Society Prize, and I had the opportunity to moderate a fiery panel on the politics of broadband policy. Across two jam-packed days, we also learned about some recent and critical research on broadband and digital equity, some of which I highlight in this research roundup.

Directing Broadband Funding 

Like those of us working on broadband deployment and digital equity, researchers are also grappling with the unprecedented amount of federal funding through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and asking important questions about how to design and direct these funds for the maximum positive impact.

Natassia Bravo and Mildred Warner of Cornell University, the winners of the Charles Benton Broadband & Society Prize, focused on how state broadband grants can be designed to play a key role in closing the digital divide. Bravo and Warner used data covering 2014-2020 collected by The Pew Charitable Trusts on 724 grant-awarded broadband projects across 17 states, as well as data from the American Community Survey, the Federal Communications Commission, and Temple University. With all that input, they developed regression models on the impact of state program policies on the allocation of state broadband grants. Shedding light on a variety of funding approaches taken by states to close the broadband infrastructure gap before the pandemic, Bravo and Warner highlight key lessons for how BEAD funds may be structured. They argue for expanding definitions of digital equity to ensure the needs of “covered populations” and underrepresented communities are met. They warn that grant program criteria can hamper connectivity in rural communities that lack resources and expertise to meet grant requirements. Finally, to ensure that broadband markets are viable, they recommend that states focus on strategies to increase adoption so there is necessary demand for service.

Brian Donoghue and Corian Zacher, our friends at Next Century Cities, presented work on local efforts in Texas to accelerate broadband deployment and improve adoption statewide. Donoghue and Zacher highlighted the vital role of local governments and argued that upcoming federal broadband funding opportunities need coordination with local governments in order to succeed.

For state broadband leaders considering how best to direct BEAD dollars in their states, researchers found that shared telecommunications infrastructure increased competition through reduced market concentration, which in turn resulted in a significant drop in the price of mobile connectivity, particularly benefitting rural households and women.

Benton Faculty Research Fellow (and natty dresser) Christopher Ali and his co-author Vikki Katz presented work that draws attention to digital inequality among college students. During the acute phase of the pandemic, students were sent home and lost access to digital resources like campus Wi-Fi and computer labs. Using a national survey of undergraduates in April and May of 2020 and an April 2022 survey of undergraduate students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the University of Virginia, Ali and Katz argue that “higher education gap” among the “presumed connected” has been largely ignored. They offered evidence-based policy recommendations for administrators in higher education to effectively address digital inequality among their student populations.

Mapping, Measuring and Evaluating 

Effectively directing broadband dollars requires a clear and detailed view into the needs for infrastructure at a local level. Amy Stuyvesant and Julia Piscioniere of Michigan’s Merit Network, the runners-up of the Benton Prize, used county-level data from the Michigan Moonshot initiative to demonstrate the value of combining speed measurements, surveys, and spatial analysis to understand the nuances of broadband access. The granularity of detail from the Moonshot data allowed them to compare a respondent’s speed to their neighbors and see how existing infrastructure is (or isn’t) being leveraged.

Stuyvesant and Piscioniere’s work helps establish a baseline of broadband deployment. Researchers also shared work to develop a “before” picture to guide the digital inclusion work necessary in so many communities. Benton Opportunity Fund Fellow Erezi Ogbo—with her co-authors Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Patrice Walker, and Christopher Lawson—presented some initial research on universities—particularly minority-serving institutions—leading coalitions to advance digital inclusion. Ogbo works at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university that was recently awarded a Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and is collecting baseline data to understand the impact of this ecosystem approach over time.

Other researchers are also developing the necessary tools to both guide the field’s work in the coming months and measure its progress. Benton Opportunity Fund Fellows Pierrette Renee Dagg and Greta Byrum co-authored—along with new FCC Chief Economist Johannes M. Bauer, Former Benton Senior Fellow Colin Rhinesmith, and National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s Aaron SchillA Comprehensive Framework to Monitor, Evaluate, and Guide Broadband and Digital Equity Policy. At the conference, Dagg and Bauer presented a practitioner tool, the Digital Opportunities Compass, and a statistical analysis framework that together can inform and improve policy. While the Compass builds on local experience and insights and can inform local and state decisions early in the implementation process, the conceptual and statistical model focuses on the need to develop a longer-term, dynamic approach to policy design, monitoring, and evaluation.

Making Broadband Affordable

One initiative that is being extensively measured and evaluated—in part to make the urgent case for its refunding—is the Affordable Connectivity Program (known as the ACP). Researchers from presented findings that the ACP subsidy is, in fact, being passed on to its intended beneficiaries (and not just pocketed by broadband providers), the customers. Researchers from Connected Nation shared insights from surveys and focus groups in five markets about people’s experience with ACP enrollment and use. Benton Senior Fellow John Horrigan also presented the work he has done with Hernan Galperin from the University of Southern California and Brian Whitacare from Oklahoma State University that underlies the Benton Institute’s  Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment Performance Tool. The three explored the social and community-wide indicators that drive enrollment into the ACP beyond just household eligibility.

While ACP’s future remains in doubt, Rob Frieden from Pennsylvania State University looked further down the road at the Universal Service Fund’s sustainability issues arising when both service providers and subscribers come to bear a higher percentage of ongoing operational expenses and necessary investments in network upgrades. Frieden specified reforms needed, including legislative action, to make ongoing USF subsidy programs sustainable and more effective. (Prabir Neogi from Carleton University offered a comparative analysis between the U.S., Canada, and India on Universal Service and the Digital Divide).

To understand how laws on digital divide issues were passed, Amy Gonzales studied how legislation has been framed. Looking at bills in Congress from 1990 to 2020, she found that bills highlighting privacy literacy programs, educational outcomes, and corporate transparency were more likely to be passed into legislation. Also, bills sponsored by Republicans—which were more often framed around deregulation, privacy programs, corporate transparency, and rural access—were 527% more likely to pass. Democrat-sponsored bills were more often framed around digital skills (such as digital literacy) and educational outcomes.

Understanding the Broadband Market

A number of papers looked at competition and the private market for broadband. Kenneth Flamm and Roberto Gilmore from the University of Texas Austin examined residential broadband pricing using the FCC’s Urban Rate survey. They found that service quality improvement drives the price change for urban residential broadband, but that this quality improvement has been unequally distributed across the service tiers adopted by broadband households.

Andrew Kearns, from the Federal Trade Commission, used data from Seattle to gauge the availability and quality of broadband. He found that although providers have a weaker incentive to improve quality of service under competition, the benefits of competition to consumers—in terms of increased product choice and lower prices—are substantial. His analysis also found that a demand-side subsidy program for low-income households (like the ACP) is significantly more cost-effective than a supply-side policy that subsidizes deployment to address the digital divide.

Brian Whitacre found that a higher tier of service, namely fiber-based broadband, had benefits beyond its use. Analyzing housing transaction data from Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas, he estimated that residential fiber raised home sale prices by between one and two percent in all three states

In order for consumers to make informed choices around service tiers, the FCC has adopted rules for broadband labels. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon examined the design of these broadband labels with a two-phase survey of 2,500 consumers. They found that participants generally struggled to use the proposed label for understanding cost and comparing plans and wanted clearer pricing and performance details. The researchers used these insights to redesign the label.

Connectivity for Incarcerated People

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act identified incarcerated people as one of the eight “covered populations” disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. The exorbitant phone rates and fees charged by monopolistic prison technology companies have created a “digital moat” that makes it consistently difficult for incarcerated people to keep in touch with loved ones, lawyers, and others outside of prison.

Researchers from The Brattle Group presented two papers on the price models for prison telecommunications. The first, Product Bundling and Exploitative Pricing in Prison Telecommunications Contracts, examined how bundling voice and other digital services leads to high voice rates and distorts the choice of contracts. The second responds to the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, which President Biden signed into law this January. The new law is meant to ensure just and reasonable charges for telephone and advanced communications services in correctional and detention facilities across the country. Brattle Group researchers developed an illustrative cost model for prison phone rates for what costs should be considered reasonable as a basis for setting rates in order to provide adequate communication services to incarcerated individuals.

Dr. Revati Prasad is the Vice President of Programs at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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