Under the Radar Broadband Policy

Benton Foundation

Friday, July 19, 2019

Weekly Digest

Under the Radar Broadband Policy

 You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of July 15-19, 2019

Robbie McBeath

Nearly drowned out by all the Big Tech hearings and unPresidential tweets this week were developments in broadband deployment. We learned of more funding for rural broadband and a proposal to improve broadband deployment data collection. But we were also reminded of the problems and challenges that still exist in reaching the most disconnected areas.

FCC Authorizes Latest Wave of Rural Broadband Funding

On July 15, the Federal Communications Commission authorized over $524 million in funding over the next decade to expand broadband to 205,520 unserved rural homes and businesses in 23 states. The funds are the third wave of support from the FCC's Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) -- the Universal Service Fund program which provides money for telecommunications companies that provide services to high-cost areas. Last fall, the FCC allocated $1.488 billion in support to expand broadband to more than 700,000 unserved rural homes and small businesses over the next 10 years. Monday’s action brings the total authorized funding to nearly $803 million, or over half of the $1.488 billion. 

In the coming months, the FCC will be authorizing additional funding as it approves remaining applications.

Recently, Chairman Pai proposed extending CAF through a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, aiming to provide at least $20.4 billion over 10 years to expand broadband to additional, unserved rural areas. The FCC will vote to launch a rulemaking to establish the fund at its August 1 meeting

Better Broadband Maps

Also on the August 1 FCC meeting agenda is a Report and Order on the Digital Opportunity Data Collection, which would collect geospatial broadband coverage data from Internet service providers and make targeted changes to the existing Form 477 to reduce filing burdens. The FCC will seek comment on enhancing the new data collection, incorporating mobile voice and broadband, and improving satellite broadband reporting. The FCC seeks to incorporate more public input via crowdsourcing. 

Free Press is cautiously optimistic about the proposed reforms to broadband data collection, as they should address the most common complaint about the FCC’s current efforts: overstating deployment in certain rural areas.

Free Press praised the proposal for retaining the current census block-level reporting methodology and full public dissemination of that information. Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner said:

Maintaining the existing methodology will ensure that researchers and advocates can continue using the FCC’s deployment data in conjunction with the census’ demographic information. That lets us monitor deployment in low-income communities over time and track other important changes.

But Turner also highlighted flaws in the proposal:

Chairman Pai’s proposal doesn’t address longstanding needs such as the collection of pricing information, and it doesn't give researchers access to the related Form 477 subscriber data — both of which are necessary to study broadband affordability and competition. And as some recent studies have suggested, there’s a continued disconnect between the quality of broadband services deployed, and the adoption and actual speeds of those services.

Accurate deployment data in cities and in rural areas is essential to addressing some aspects of the digital divide, but so is information on price. The FCC and Congress need that and other quality data to help close the largest digital divide of all, for people who have high-speed broadband connections right outside their door in urban and rural areas alike but who can’t afford to pay for them. Free Press research shows that there are persistent racial disparities in broadband adoption, likely owing to the lack of affordable options and other types of systemic discrimination.

New America's Open Technology Institute this week released The United State of Broadband Map (USBB) which attempts to fill the gap in understanding between the FCC’s data on broadband access vs. the actual speed experienced by Americans. The USBB is based on billions of speed tests conducted through M-Lab’s platform (almost 900,000 people run M-Lab tests per day in the U.S. alone). 

Measurement Lab is led by teams based at Code for Science & Society, New America's Open Technology Institute, Google, and Princeton University's PlanetLab

The USBB map shows data both collected through the M-Lab platform, and collected by the FCC through Form 477. You can compare the datasets at the census tract, county, zip code, State House, and State Senate levels by zooming in and out. You can challenge FCC data, determine trends, and identify problem areas. Try it out.

House Hearing on Rural Broadband

The House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit held a hearing on Building Opportunity in Rural America through Affordable, Reliable and High-Speed Broadband.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman David Scott (D-GA) said: 

I wanted to have this hearing so that we can see what’s being done well, what of those successes can be done in other communities and what work remains. I also know that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai plans on releasing an order very soon requiring increased reporting in an effort to improve the current failing broadband map system. It is very important that rural America weigh in on these policy changes at the FCC and here in the halls of Congress as we continue to talk about proposals to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. I know that all of us on this subcommittee agree, both Democrats and Republicans, that it is essential that rural broadband is an integral part of any infrastructure package.

Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss of the Havasupai Tribe in Supai (AZ) testified, saying that rural areas are “in jeopardy” of being left behind without high-speed internet access. “These services that ordinary Americans have been using for the past 20 years are still not a reality for my entire community, but this is the first glimmer of hope we have seen for decades,” she said of gain the tribe has made recently after decades of effort.

Aerial View of Supai Indian Reservation
Aerial View of Supai, AZ

The Havasupai live on the floor of the Grand Canyon in an “extremely isolated” area that is only accessible by horseback, helicopter, or an 8-mile hike – with a trailhead that is 67 miles away from the nearest town. Watahomigie-Corliss called it “the definition of rural.”

But besides the 398 people who live year-round in the village of Supai, the community and its waterfalls attract 35,000 tourists a year, which requires the ability to provide efficient healthcare and emergency services.

“We do not have good emergency communication capabilities to the furthest gorge that tourists like to visit, and their safety is our responsibility,” said Watahomigie-Corliss. “Navigating the canyon can sometimes be a life-or-death situation if someone gets lost.”

“The disparities felt by my community may be of the most extreme examples felt by rural tribal nations, but the disparity of the digital divide [is] being felt all across the Indian Country,” Watahomigie-Corliss told the subcommittee.

Puerto Rico Excluded from U.S. Broadband Deployment Report

On July 16, Public Knowledge commented on the Pai FCC’s strategic exclusion of Puerto Rico’s data from the 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. The FCC failed to include very important data about the status of broadband availability in the U.S. territories affected by a variety of 2017 natural disasters. In 2019, the FCC specifically said it chose not to report from disaster-stricken areas “so that such damage does not artificially deflate progress in deployment and that we can continue to track progress in rehabilitating such networks.”

Public Knowledge noted:

[T]he choice not to include disaster-stricken areas is indeed that -- a choice. It’s a choice to artificially inflate the current status of broadband. It’s a choice not to work in the public interest. And moreover, it’s a choice to continue this administration's self-congratulatory streak while those on the island fight to be seen as just American and just as worthy of strong broadband infrastructure as those who live on the mainland...It is necessary that the Commission release the status of Puerto Rico’s broadband infrastructure.


Broadband policy news may not have dominated the headlines this week, but there was certainly developments of note. You can be sure to stay informed of broadband policy by subscribing to our daily emailed Headlines newsletter

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

July 2019 Events

July 23 -- Can 5G Technology Create New Opportunities for Competition?, Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy

July 23 -- Oversight of the Enforcement of the Antitrust Laws, Senate Antitrust Subcommittee

July 24 -- Nominations Hearing, Senate Commerce Committee

July 24 -- Executive Session, Senate Commerce Committee

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

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Kevin Taglang
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By Robbie McBeath.