Daily Digest 10/26/2022 (A Better Internet)

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
Table of Contents

Digital Equity

High prices, low speeds and fraud plague U.S. aid to keep people online  |  Read below  |  Tony Romm  |  Washington Post

Consumer Information

Regulating Hidden Fees  |  Read below  |  Doug Dawson  |  Analysis  |  CCG Consulting
Benton Foundation
A Consumer-Driven Broadband Label Design  |  Read below  |  Jon Peha  |  Op-Ed  |  Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Universal Service Fund

Americans Need Reliable FCC Commitments, and So Does Starlink  |  Read below  |  Mark Jamison  |  Op-Ed  |  American Enterprise Institute

State/Local Initiatives

Will Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Rules Drive States to Rethink Anti-Municipal Broadband Laws?  |  Read below  |  Joan Engebretson  |  telecompetitor
The California Public Utilities Commission Awards Second Round of Grants to Local Governments To Help Close the Digital Divide  |  Read below  |  Press Release  |  California Public Utilities Commission
Rural Minnesota broadband project leverages towers to connect residents  |  Read below  |  Tim Krohn  |  Mankato Free Press
TDS begins broadband expansion project in New London, several other central Minnesota cities  |  Read below  |  Shelby Lindrud  |  West Central Tribune
Mayor Perkins unveils program to bridge digital divide in Shreveport  |  Read below  |  Gerry May  |  KTBS


FCC Grants 900 MHz Broadband Segment Applications  |  Read below  |  Public Notice  |  Federal Communications Commission
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Remarks at Open Technology Institute NGSO Satellite Event  |  Read below  |  FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks  |  Speech  |  Federal Communications Commission
Institute for Telecommunication Sciences provides technical understanding of 5G and radar altimeter emissions issues  |  National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Platforms/Social Media/Content

Big Tech Seeks Supreme Court Review of Online 'Must-Carry' Law  |  Read below  |  John Eggerton  |  Next TV
‘We risk another crisis’: TikTok in danger of being major vector of election misinformation  |  Guardian, The
Right-wing misinformation and local news mix at Illinois station  |  Washington Post


Remote workers could be the first to go in the next round of recession layoffs  |  Los Angeles Times
Opinion: Remote Work Is Here to Stay. Lean In, Employers.  |  New York Times

Company News

Google Shares Fall as YouTube and Search Ads Take Hit  |  Wall Street Journal
Google will be monitored by compliance professional after the Justice Department said it lost data sought in a US investigation  |  Wall Street Journal
Microsoft Earnings Fall, Stock Slides as PC Demand and Strong Dollar Hurt Sales  |  Wall Street Journal
Spotify Boosts Subscribers and Revenue, Says 2023 Price Increases Likely  |  Wall Street Journal


The (would-be) Senators from Silicon Valley  |  Read below  |  Derek Robertson  |  Politico
Public Knowledge Launches Movement for a Better Internet To Create an Internet That Benefits Everyone  |  Read below  |  Shiva Stella  |  Press Release  |  Public Knowledge

Stories From Abroad

Global internet gaps prompt calls for a US plan  |  Read below  |  Margaret Harding McGill  |  Axios
Today's Top Stories

Digital Equity

High prices, low speeds and fraud plague U.S. aid to keep people online

Tony Romm  |  Washington Post

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress chartered a first-of-its-kind federal effort to help struggling Americans who could not afford to lose access to the internet. The aid proved to be a godsend for millions of low-income families, but it also sent the nation’s telecommunications giants scrambling for the new federal money—unleashing price hikes, service cuts, and fraud risks that hurt customers and taxpayers alike. The story of the government’s roughly $17 billion efforts to close the country’s persistent digital divide is one of great promise and costly peril. Under the program, Washington offered to pay stipends directly to internet providers that lowered Americans monthly broadband bills—potentially to zero. But this simple premise at times brought complicated, undesirable results. AT&T, Charter Communications and Verizon forced customers to accept price increases or slower connection speeds if they wanted to apply federally funded discounts to their bills. The companies’ practices — on top of the government’s flawed application system—also left the program at risk of fraud. To date, more than 14 million households have enrolled in the federal broadband benefit system. But the figure represents about a quarter of the estimated 49 million American households that are eligible for help. Experts attribute at least some of the gap to the multibillion-dollar industry that administers the aid.

Consumer Info

Regulating Hidden Fees

Doug Dawson  |  Analysis  |  CCG Consulting

Big telecommunication companies (telcos) and almost every large cable company use what the industry calls "hidden fees." These fees are not mentioned when advertising for a service but are put onto customer bills. There is a class action lawsuit in California that shows why broadband providers are not worried about using hidden fees. In times past, when the big companies were regulated, they might have been ordered to make a 100% refund of a fee that regulators decided was questionable. But the only realistic remedy against providers that misbill customers are a class action lawsuit or the rare ruling against a single broadband provider by the Federal Trade Commission. There has been a class action lawsuit in California about the ‘administrative fee’ that AT&T charges to wireless customers. AT&T and the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit reached an agreed settlement, and AT&T is refunding $14 million to California wireless subscribers who make a claim. But even in agreeing to the settlement, AT&T refused to admit any wrongdoing and says it fully disclosed all fees. This award shows why big carriers can bill hidden fees with impunity. The typical settlement for a customer that claims this lawsuit will be between $15 and $29, which is far less than the average amount of this fee collected by AT&T in California at $180 per subscriber. The worst part of the settlement is that AT&T will continue to bill the fee, so they’ll recover any settlement from customers over the next year. AT&T also knows that most eligible customers won’t make a claim. Class action lawsuits are not a great tool for punishing bad behavior by carriers. The real solution to holding broadband providers accountable is strong regulation. Hidden fees are an interesting issue because it’s clear that hidden fees give carriers a marketing edge when competing against companies that don’t have hidden fees. 

A Consumer-Driven Broadband Label Design

Jon Peha  |  Op-Ed  |  Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

In January 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), which proposed requiring internet service providers to display broadband consumer disclosure labels prominently at the point of sale. In response to the FCC’s request for comment, the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a large-scale user study to gain insight into what information is most important to US consumers when shopping for broadband internet services as well as what terminology and presentation formats make this information most understandable and useful to consumers. In addition, we examined the FCC’s proposed 2016 broadband consumer label formats and proposed our own broadband consumer disclosure label formats. We surveyed broadband internet consumers in a two-phase online study, recruiting from a diverse pool of 32,000 consumers who had previously participated in Consumer Reports’ consumer initiatives related to broadband internet. Across both survey phases, we received a combined total of over 2,500 completed surveys. In the first phase, we evaluated the 2016 labels to gain insights into what information was most important to consumers and what information caused confusion. We then created new label designs based on our results from the first phase. In the second phase, we compared the effectiveness of our new label designs with the 2016 labels. After analyzing our survey results, we made further revisions to our new label designs. Among many recommendations following the study, one key recommendation is that broadband labels should include a range of information valued by consumers but should highlight the information they value most, including information on cost, speed, and reliability.

[Dr. Jon Peha is a professor of electrical & computer engineering and of engineering & public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and the former chief technologist at the FCC.]

Universal Service Fund

Americans Need Reliable FCC Commitments, and So Does Starlink

Mark Jamison  |  Op-Ed  |  American Enterprise Institute

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission committed to providing Starlink, a satellite internet network operating in 40 countries by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, with $885.5 million to expand broadband in unserved rural areas of the United States. But in August 2022, the FCC announced with almost no explanation that Starlink would receive nothing. Such whiplash must have other broadband providers reassessing their confidence in FCC decisions and in the broadband programs run by the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA).  Among the reasons given were that the agency’s Wireline Competition Bureau (Bureau) had concluded that LEO (low-earth orbit)-based broadband is a “nascent” and “risky” technology, questioned Starlink’s “ability to timely deploy future satellites,” believed that Starlink could not deliver the speeds it promised, and believed that Starlink’s business plans were “not realistic” or “predicated on aggressive assumptions and predictions.” No details were provided. The Bureau’s claims are questionable. LEO-based internet is hardly nascent. The EU is investing nearly $6 billion in developing and deploying LEOs. These conclusions and the lack of transparency are troubling because the FCC knew Starlink’s technology, capabilities, and plans before the auction took place. The agency offered no explanation as to what had changed since 2020, except that the Bureau was unhappy with Starlink’s “inadequate responses to the Bureau’s follow-up questions” and that, according to Ookla data not in the official record, Starlink’s delivered speeds had declined (by an unspecified amount) the first six months of 2022. The FCC owes Americans and investors an explanation. It is hard to have faith in a process that reverses an $885.5 million decision with a vague, one-paragraph explanation hidden away on the ninth page of the FCC’s public notice.

[Mark Jamison is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is concurrently the director and Gunter Professor of the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business.]


Will Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Rules Drive States to Rethink Anti-Municipal Broadband Laws?

Joan Engebretson  |  telecompetitor

The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program has $42.5 billion available to cover some of the costs of bringing broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas. States will administer the program but must first have a plan approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and, as new research from BroadbandNow shows, some states face an important hurdle as they prepare their plans—a hurdle that involves anti-municipal broadband laws. A total of 21 states have laws in place that prohibit or restrict municipal broadband networks, BroadbandNow notes. And those laws are at odds with rules for the BEAD program, which say that states must disclose whether they will waive anti-municipal broadband laws, including laws that either prevent municipalities from applying for BEAD funding or that “impose specific requirements on public sector entities, such as limitations on the sources of financing, the required imputation of costs not actually incurred by the public sector entity, or restrictions on the service a public sector entity can offer.” If a state does not plan to waive the laws, it must describe how the laws will be applied in connection with the application process. According to the researchers, the NTIA has included language in the BEAD rules that could enable municipalities to apply for funding directly if their state will not consider their applications. The upshot, according to the researchers, is that recalcitrant states “will almost certainly delay the timeline for receiving funding.”

The California Public Utilities Commission Awards Second Round of Grants to Local Governments To Help Close the Digital Divide

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has made its largest award of state broadband funds to local governments to date by providing $14 million in broadband technical assistance grants to 28 local governments to support efforts to close the digital divide. These are in addition to grants given earlier in October 2022. There were 7 cities and 21 different counties that received Local Agency Technical Assistance grants from the CPUC as part of a larger effort by the Golden State Connect Authority to build and operate open-access fiber-to-the-home networks in California’s rural counties. The Golden State Connect Authority is a joint powers authority created by the 38-county Rural County Representatives of California for the purpose of increasing access to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet for the residents and businesses of those counties. Each approximately $500,000 grant will be used to reimburse local governments for the costs of network design services for unserved areas in the applicants’ jurisdictions. In a second phase, the applicants will engineer projects that will provide service to households and businesses that, upon completion, will reliably meet or exceed 100 Mbps speed, both uploading and downloading. These projects are planned to be completed within a 24-month timeline.

Rural Minnesota broadband project leverages towers to connect residents

Tim Krohn  |  Mankato Free Press

Broadband internet access and speeds will increase for homes and businesses in and around Madelia, Minnesota thanks to a collaboration by the companies Midco, Crystal Valley Cooperative, and Land O’Lakes. Land O’Lakes and Crystal Valley helped Midco in finding locations to place infrastructure. Rather than laying a lot of new fiber lines to homes and far-flung farm sites, the project uses a system of towers and antennas to get high-bandwidth signals to customers. “The Madelia project is a bit unique, it is a hub site,” said Ben Dold senior VP of operations for Midco. “We were able to put a tower up at Madelia and that tower brings wireless internet connectivity to a bunch of other towers and allows us to beam that high quality, high bandwidth signals to the spoke towers. Then we put up antennas to homes to provide the signal,” he said. Dold added that it's a cost-effective and quick way to get broadband out without putting fiber to every home along the way. The project cost $112,000 and Midco received $67,000 in federal funding from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. The system has 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds. The service costs $100 per month with the first six months free. The Madelia project and others they have done or are doing is the result of federal funding via projects they won in a “reverse auction," where companies bid on projects and describe what they will deliver, the total estimated cost of the project, and the matching funding they will put in. 

TDS begins broadband expansion project in New London, several other central Minnesota cities

Shelby Lindrud  |  West Central Tribune

Residents and businesses in Brooten, Danube, Kerkhoven, New London, Pennock, and Spicer (MN) will soon be gaining access to 1-gigabit broadband connections, thanks to a project by TDS Telecommunications. TDS will connect more than 3,700 properties to fiber broadband service, with the first set of people being able to connect by next summer. TDS Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Drew Petersen, said: “Fiber is the gold-standard technology because it delivers the reliable, fast upload and download speeds people want for remote work, school, health care and to have the best entertainment experience at home.” The launches will continue through the construction period as phases are completed. Construction will include the burying of conduit and fiber cables underground in utility easement areas. TDS recently completed several projects in Minnesota, including around Pequot Lakes, Pine River, Breezy Point, and Jenkins.

Mayor Perkins unveils program to bridge digital divide in Shreveport

Gerry May  |  KTBS

Shreveport (LA) Mayor Adrian Perkins made good on another part of his smart city initiative that he campaigned on four years ago. Mayor Perkins joined library officials and others to launch the start of Universal Digital Access. Mayor Perkins says that by using hi-tech gadgets mounted on the garbage trucks, the city mapped out areas of the city that don't have good internet access. "Many of the libraries are actually within that digital desert. So we were able to bring together this extremely innovative partnership so we can provide internet into areas where the city of Shreveport has never been able to have it before," the mayor explained. So the city is partnering with Shreve Memorial Library to bridge that digital divide. Cellular towers have been put atop three library branches so far, with more to come. The towers will provide free Wi-Fi to homes and businesses within range—perhaps a thousand properties near each hot spot. To take advantage of the program, citizens will need a library card. That's the ticket to getting a kit that contains a free modem, SIM card, window mount, and instructions. They'll be available on a first-come, first-served basis. The administration says $500,000 has spent on the city's cellular network, using American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds.


FCC Grants 900 MHz Broadband Segment Applications

Public Notice  |  Federal Communications Commission

The Federal Communications Commission's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau granted six 900 MHz broadband segment licenses to PDV Spectrum Holding Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Anterix. Anterix is the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum nationwide and has been courting utilities, which are interested in the spectrum for private LTE as they look to modernize and future-proof critical power grid infrastructure. The licenses are in Vernon County, St Clair, Barton, Jackson, and Jackson counties (MO) and Jackson County (KS).

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Remarks at Open Technology Institute NGSO Satellite Event

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks  |  Speech  |  Federal Communications Commission

As a Commissioner focused so deeply on the digital divide, I’m especially thrilled about what a golden era in commercial space could mean for broadband. New satellite broadband systems promise more choice and better performance for many Americans, including those who live, work, and travel in some the toughest-to-serve places. Making space innovation sustainable is a multidimensional problem. They can even improve the reach of terrestrial broadband networks, through satellite backhaul and, perhaps one day soon, base stations flying in low-Earth orbit. Importantly, these systems are also improving the resilience— and agility—of our broadband infrastructure. They’re empowering first responders, survivors, and governments to ad-hoc more powerful and more secure networks more quickly, sometimes mere moments after disaster strikes. But it begins with focusing on competition as a pillar of our strategy in space—including our strategy on spectrum access. Here's how I think we can sustain a competitive environment:

  • First, if we want to attract the investment required to launch, maintain, and upgrade a satellite network, then the satellite spectrum we assign must remain investment-grade. 
  • Second, we must aspire to more than just a few non-geostationary orbit broadband systems in orbit. 
  • Finally, we must keep looking for ways to promote spectral efficiency in satellite.

Platforms/Social Media

Big Tech Seeks Supreme Court Review of Online 'Must-Carry' Law

John Eggerton  |  Next TV

Computer companies and edge providers are asking the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of whether state governments can impose what the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) is branding "must-carry" for online platforms and a "road map" for those wishing to fill the internet with offensive content edge providers would have to carry. Cable operators have long been subject to must-carry rules governing carriage of broadcast stations, carriage those operators have also argued is compelled speech that violates the First Amendment. CCIA and NetChoice—whose members include Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and many others—have been making the same argument against a Florida law that made platforms liable for third-party speech. The groups filed a petition with the High Court asking it to rule on the constitutional issues after the State of Florida did the same.


The (would-be) Senators from Silicon Valley

Derek Robertson  |  Politico

On November 8, America could accomplish another political first: Electing two US senators from the idiosyncratic, increasingly ideological world of Silicon Valley venture capital. But neither one is from California. As a political force Silicon Valley is mostly known for its money, which it donates mainly to Democrats (although those donations have slightly shifted right in recent years). But as a source of political ideas, it’s something different, incubating a nationalist strain of conservatism better embodied by Blake Masters and J.D. Vance — positioned to potentially win Senate seats in Arizona and Ohio, respectively. In a sense, both candidates are testament to one person’s influence: Peter Thiel, the multi-billionaire tech investor who is a business and ideological mentor to both, and who funds their campaigns. But their politics aren’t identical to Thiel’s techno-libertarian views — they’re a new take on conservatism with strong roots in the tech circles from which they come, and decidedly different from your garden-variety Republican in the rest of the country.

Public Knowledge Launches Movement for a Better Internet To Create an Internet That Benefits Everyone

Shiva Stella  |  Press Release  |  Public Knowledge

Public Knowledge joined the Association for Progressive Communications, Creative Commons, Derechos Digitales, Internet Archive, Niskanen Center, and Wikimedia Foundation to launch the Movement for a Better Internet, a diverse community of advocates and activists working together to promote policies that create a better internet for people everywhere. The movement is a collaborative effort seeking to drive policy change based on a public interest vision for internet that benefits us all. As a part of this movement, Public Knowledge is dedicated to collaborating with other members to advance these and other values we will determine together. As one of six Organizing Partners of the movement, Public Knowledge also joins in launching a digital hub at movementforabetterinternet.org to facilitate connection and communication among those striving to build a better internet.

Stories From Abroad

Global internet gaps prompt calls for a US plan

Margaret Harding McGill  |  Axios

Pressure is growing for the US to develop a plan to quickly build internet lifelines for people living in conflict zones or under repressive regimes. The absence of a broadband strategy has led to a reliance on the ad hoc goodwill of private companies, such as Elon Musk's donation of Starlink satellite to provide internet service in Ukraine. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said that the US needs both the ability to quickly deploy internet networks and surge the production of censorship-circumvention online tools in authoritarian countries. Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) introduced a bill in 2021 that would create a strategic plan to deploy technology capable of rapidly delivering wireless internet anywhere on the planet in times of crisis. However, standing up internet infrastructure in a hostile country is easier said than done for technological and diplomatic reasons. Satellite internet connections require dishes or terminals on the ground — which can be logistically difficult to deliver or risky for the user to be seen with one in an authoritarian country. Beyond the internet infrastructure itself, crackdowns on online freedom around the world have shown the need for anti-censorship and surveillance tools. Thus, there's been bipartisan interest in stepping up funding for US efforts to develop new online tools to support democracy globally through a bipartisan bill led by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) that would authorize roughly $125 million in funding for internet freedom programs and tools. The provision could be included in the annual defense funding bill later in 2022.

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Benton (www.benton.org) provides the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events. While the summaries are factually accurate, their sometimes informal tone may not always represent the tone of the original articles. Headlines are compiled by Kevin Taglang (headlines AT benton DOT org) and Grace Tepper (grace AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.

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