Digital Beat Blog

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Where We Go From Here

The Benton Foundation suffered a great loss in 2015 when, as many readers know, we lost our founder and chairman, Charles Benton, to a battle with cancer. For many people, Charles was the foundation. Gene Kimmelman of Public Knowledge said Charles “worked tirelessly to ensure that the poor, the elderly, communities of color, and other vulnerable and traditionally marginalized communities would not be excluded from the digital future.” Anyone who met Charles soon learned he cared about people and the impact that education and communications have on improving lives and making the world a better place. As all of us at the foundation dealt with our personal loss this year, we moved forward together to honor Charles’ lifetime of work. The Benton Foundation remains dedicated to closing the digital divide and supporting digital inclusion, so everyone can participate fully in a diverse media system and in our democracy. With this goal in mind, here are the areas the foundation devoted our efforts to in 2015.

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Poverty and the Cost of Broadband

Much of the research on broadband adoption has focused on understanding the factors that influence whether an individual is likely to pay for high-speed Internet services. These factors have been used to predict rates of broadband adoption. As part of this thinking, the phrase “willingness to pay” has become widely accepted within broadband adoption literature. This phrase focuses on what an individual is willing to pay for high-speed Internet access, while also paying attention to demographic characteristics of the individuals studied. However, my recent research for the Benton Foundation finds that cost continues to be a major barrier to broadband adoption. Successful efforts to bridge the digital divide need to address “ability to pay” rather than “willingness to pay.”

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Net Neutrality’s Busy Week: From Congressional Hearing to the State of the Union, Binge On, Baby

President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address this week. He has regularly used the speech to talk about technology and its influence across sectors, and this year was no different (As Jason Koebler wrote for Motherboard “The State of the Union Was About Tech Because Everything Is About Tech”). This week, in addition to communicating a vision of continuing to innovate to make advancements in energy, infrastructure, and education, President Obama referenced some recent tech policy victories.

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Understanding Broadband Un-adopters

As the Federal Communications Commission seeks to modernize the Lifeline program to include a broadband subsidy for low-income Americans, new research explains why some people drop home broadband service after trying it and recommends policies to help improve adoption rates in these households.

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Information Policy in 2016: Let’s Have Some Optimism

Let’s put some of that holiday cheer and a few of our resolutions for the new year to productive use.

Alan S. Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences.

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Research Shows Cost is Biggest Barrier to Broadband Adoption

As federal policymakers consider ways to improve the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline Program, the Benton Foundation shared with them recent research on digital inclusion and broadband adoption. Although realizing a fully inclusive digital society is a multi-faceted endeavor, the research we shared points to the biggest obstacle we face in making sure everyone is connected.

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Broadband Research and Digital Inclusion

After a two week break, Robbie’s Round-Up returns to highlight some news you may have missed. When we think about closing the digital divide and promoting broadband adoption, we must look beyond just the hard numbers on who has broadband and who does not. It is important to recognize the many facets of digital inclusion, focusing on how people can gain digital access and develop the skills and digital literacy to make use of relevant content and services. Meaningful broadband adoption has the power to strengthen communities and move us towards a more equitable and diverse society. In the past few weeks we have seen important research published on broadband, particularly on access, speed, adoption, and use. Woven together, these findings give us a picture of where we stand as we begin 2016.

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The Complexity of ‘Relevance’ as a Barrier to Broadband Adoption

The digital divide is a complex phenomenon that cannot be boiled down to a single issue. More recently, research on broadband adoption has tended to focus on a single barrier-- lack of interest in the Internet or a perception that the digital content delivered over broadband is not relevant to one’s life (often called simply “relevance”). In doing so we have disregarded how the digital divide is much more. Part of the problem is how we have studied the digital divide. Often our approaches have not allowed us to examine multiple factors simultaneously.

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How the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission Regulate Media Company Acquisitions

Regulating concentration of control in the mass media and related technology companies is a never-ending chore for the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is the first of a two-part discussion of the regulation of media ownership. It will deal with the way in which the three agencies deal with proposed acquisition of media properties. (This blog previously visited this question here.) The second part will address the FCC’s specific rules establishing limits on how many broadcast properties one owner can control and the ongoing (and seemingly endless) litigation surrounding those rules.

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Four Essentials for Digital Inclusion Efforts

Over the last few months, I have been speaking with and visiting digital inclusion organizations across the United States to better understand local efforts to address the digital divide. Digital inclusion is a national priority in the United States. High-speed Internet access is widely recognized as a necessity for full participation in today’s society. Employers, educators, businesses, healthcare providers, and civic institutions expect people to have access to computers and broadband connectivity. However, accessible, reliable, and affordable broadband service continues to be out of reach for millions of Americans, many of whom live in low-income households. This gap in adoption of high-speed Internet and the lack of skills needed to use broadband-enabled tools in meaningful ways continue to be significant problems that policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have all focused their attention on for over a decade.

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The “Omnibus” Appropriations Bill -- What It Means for Telecommunications & Media Policy

On Friday, December 18, Congress gave final approval to a year-end, 2,000-page fiscal package that includes a $1.15 trillion spending measure as well as $620 billion in tax breaks for businesses and low-income workers. President Barack Obama signed the bill later that afternoon, which means the government is funded through October 2016. The House vote was 316 to 113, with 150 of 246 Republican members (61%) and 166 of 188 Democratic members (88%) supporting the bill. The vote was 65 to 33 in the Senate, with 27 of 54 Republican Senators (50%) and 38 of 46 Democratic Senators (83%) supporting the bill. The bill marks the end of recently-elected Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) first trip through the omnibus appropriations process. As the bill marched towards its final passing, numerous “riders” (additional legislative provisions) were attached concerning media and telecommunications policy. While the bill was being debated, some were adopted and others were dropped. Here is a rundown of the significant communications policy elements that have now been adopted.

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EU Privacy Law and Trump's Internet-Closure Flaw

Although the $1.1 trillion spending bill grabbed most of the headlines this week, as we go to press, it is still being considered by Congress. We will report on the bill and the impact it will have on communications policy early next week.

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Time for the FCC to Modernize the Rural Health Care Program

Every day, broadband is playing a bigger and bigger role in health care. Broadband can play a role in eliminating disparities in health care between urban and rural areas, and telemedicine can significantly lower the costs of care for everyone. But gaps in broadband availability, especially in rural areas, are preventing video-based diagnoses, remote patient monitoring, and electronic health record operability. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it gave the Federal Communications Commission broad authority to address broadband needs of rural health providers to remedy these disparities. But nearly 20 years later, Congress’ vision remains unrealized. In a recent filing, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (“SHLB”) Coalition and a consortium of health care providers asked the FCC to initiate a rulemaking to modernize the Commission’s Rural Health Care program so it can help improve the quality of health care available to patients in rural communities and ensure that rural health care providers have access to telecommunications and broadband services.

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Net Neutrality Oral Arguments and Responding to Terrorism

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest attempt at network neutrality rules got a thorough review during three hours of oral arguments at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on December 4. (You can listen to a recording of the argument here.) The crux of this oral argument: Did Congress give deference to the FCC to choose how Internet service should be classified, and is the FCC’s decision to change course now justified?

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Accountable Political Ads Now

Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Campaign Legal Center, represented by the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, filed formal complaints against 18 television stations in four states, asking the Federal Communications Commission to order these broadcasters to make on-air disclosures of the true identity of the sponsors of political ads appearing on their stations. The three organizations also sent letters informing more than 100 other stations of the true sponsor of certain Independence USA PAC ads they had run. It should have been easy for the stations to do this because the founder and sole funder of this organization is Michael Bloomberg.

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NSA Surveillance Program Gets Nixed, and We Visit 1986

At midnight on November 29, the National Security Agency stopped the bulk collection of metadata (phone numbers and call duration, but not the content of a call) from American’s phone calls, bringing an end to the controversial government surveillance program.

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A Guide To Broadcasters’ Obligations During Election Campaigns

Now that NBC stations have reportedly given free air time to five Republican presidential candidates because of Donald Trump’s recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live, this is a good time to take a look at the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of political broadcasting matters. Some of these requirements can get very complicated, so this is necessarily a broad overview which does not deal with many details that arise in the implementation of these principles.

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Charles and the Rainbow

There was a wonderful and inspiring event in Washington, DC last week. It was a celebration to honor the life of Charles Benton who passed away six months ago. This was just one of numerous events across the land that have paid tribute to the remarkable life of this truly extraordinary individual, but it was as impressive an event as any I have attended during my 45 years in the nation’s capital. In addition to family, attendees included public interest movers and shakers and government officials who worked with Charles in one capacity or another over the course of his incredibly distinguished career.

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Paris Attacks and the Communications Policy Ramifications

On November 13, a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, France, resulted in the death of 130 people. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst terrorist attack in Europe in 11 years. The attacks raised numerous issues pertaining to communications policy, including 1) resparking the debate around encryption and government surveillance for national security purposes, 2) the use of social media for emergency communications, 3) Internet censorship, 4) how the attacks will affect the 2016 US election, and 5) criticism of how the media covered the events.

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Levers to Intensify Broadband Competition -- Part III

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