Friday, October 30, 2020
Headlines Daily Digest
Rep Jerry McNerney (D-CA-09) sent Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai a letter following up on the Congressman’s request that the Chairman make publicly available all consumer complaints that the agency has received regarding internet and phone service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rep McNerney asked Chairman Pai for a commitment to do this when the Chairman testified on September 17, 2020 at the House Commerce Committee’s FCC oversight hearing. In response, on October 23, 2020, the FCC posted general information on its website, but did not include any specific information about the complaints and if or how they were resolved. Rep. McNerney requested that the Chairman make the following information publicly available by November 13, 2020:
- For each individual consumer complaint received by the FCC relating to internet or phone service during the pandemic, the text of the complaint (properly de-identified to protect the individual’s privacy), whether the complaint was resolved, and how long it took to resolve the complaint;
- The number of complaints identified above in (1) that were referred to the Enforcement Bureau or other bureaus in the agency and what further action was taken with respect to each referred complaint; and
- With respect to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, the number of instances in which the provider did not keep the promises it made under the Pledge.
The Federal Communications Commission announced the start of bidding in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, which will target up to $16 billion to deploy networks to serve up to 10.25 million Americans that currently lack access to fixed broadband service meeting the FCC’s benchmark speeds. The auction has attracted significant interest, with 386 providers qualified to bid, representing a more than 75% increase over the number that qualified for the Commission’s successful 2018 Connect America Phase II auction.
Eligibility for participation is technologically neutral and open to new providers, and the bidding procedures prioritize bids for higher speeds (up to 1 Gbps). The auction will proceed using a multi-round, descending clock auction format in which bidders will indicate in each round whether they will bid to provide service to an area at a given performance tier and latency at the current round’s support amount. The auction will end after the aggregate support amount of all bids is less than or equal to the total $16 billion budget and competition for support in any given area no longer exists.
I wanted to use my remarks to talk more broadly about the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to connect all Americans. The FCC’s first and foremost mission is to help ensure that every American can access advanced communications. On my first full day in this job in Jan 2017, I convened a meeting of the FCC’s staff. I told them that our number one priority would be closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans. And for good reason. The FCC’s founding statute, the Communications Act of 1934, explicitly directs the FCC to make wire and radio communication "available . . . to all the people of the United States.” And second, the FCC aims to promote innovation and investment across the communications sector. With each new breakthrough, we increase the value of being connected and unlock opportunities to improve the lives of our citizens.
The pandemic has ended any debate about the need to expand Internet access to all Americans. The FCC has been pursuing an aggressive agenda to connect all Americans—an agenda that precedes and will outlast COVID-19.
Comcast now has over 30 million broadband customers, by far the largest broadband provider in the US. Usually, Comcast’s broadband gains overshadow modest broadband performance at rivals AT&T and Verizon. But broadband growth during COVID-19 is shared. Combined, AT&T and Verizon added nearly 500K fiber broadband subscribers during the third quarter of 2020 -- as Comcast added 633,000 customers.
There are several factors at play here helping drive broadband growth during COVID-19, including the massive shift to work from home for white-collar workers during the pandemic. Broadband is an essential service like never before and the largest broadband carriers are benefiting.
Conditions created by COVID-19 are not all great though. There still is a looming issue of non-pays among existing subscribers, millions of whom are facing financial difficulty because of the pandemic. It remains to be seen how the recession will ultimately impact the broadband industry. It certainly won’t go unscathed.
The new fervor for tech antitrust has so far overlooked an equally obvious target: US broadband providers. “If you want to talk about a history of using gatekeeper power to harm competitors, there are few better examples,” says Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn. Sohn and other critics of the four companies that dominate US broadband—Verizon, Comcast, Charter Communications, and AT&T—argue that antitrust intervention has been needed for years to lower prices and widen internet access.
The Institute for Local Self Reliance, which promotes community broadband projects, recently estimated from Federal Communications Commission data that some 80 million Americans can only get high-speed broadband service from one provider. “That is quite intentional on the part of cable operators,” says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School. “These companies are extracting rent from Americans based on their monopoly positions.”
Making US broadband significantly more competitive would require larger and more coordinated action by the White House and Congress. Options worth considering include reversing some of the acquisitions that turned Comcast and others into nation-spanning giants, and mandating that companies allow competitors to use their networks, as is common in Europe, says Joshua Stager, a senior policy counsel at New America's Open Technology Institute. Those would be more notable antitrust actions than seen from the US government in a while, but Stager believes the case is there. “The backlog of evidence is certainly there, and with increasing pressure on the networks, much more could come to the surface,” he says.
Alabama’s Black Belt region is markedly behind the rest of the state when it comes to internet access. Of the 24 Black Belt counties to be part of the region, all except two are below the statewide average of 86 percent coverage, and half are below 50 percent. Further, Choctaw and Perry counties zero percent coverage of 100+ mbps internet (Greene County has a negligible 0.02 percent coverage).
Back in 2017, 5G was a big focus of my remarks. But back then, 5G was largely hypothetical and aspirational. This year, I’m speaking to you just a few days after the release of the first 5G iPhone. Over the past three-plus years, 5G has gotten real—very real. How did we get from there to here? Obviously, many of you in the audience led the way. But I’d like to think the Federal Communications Commission put a tailwind at your back. I’d like to walk through the actions we’ve taken at the FCC to accelerate the arrival of the 5G revolution.
The giant elephant in this virtual room: the completely indefensible proposal to create a government-sponsored wholesale wireless network. For the last few years this “idea” has been floated, rejected, floated, rejected, and just recently floated again. Now, it seems to be under consideration once again by some at the highest levels of our government. While I only have a little time to touch upon it today, I’m here to tell you, with all due respect to its proponents — it’s a horrible idea that must be dismissed. Fundamentally, the government should not be allowed to bestow valuable mid-band spectrum to a favored entity to directly compete with the private sector. It flies in the face of every principle of American free enterprise.
How did stakeholders respond to school closings and the digital divide -- and what lessons can be learned from those efforts to close the digital divide going forward? This report highlights case studies at the state, city, and school district level and concludes that there are three key steps in the still unfinished endeavor of closing the K–12 digital divide during the pandemic.
- Assess who needs connectivity and devices and where they live.
- Determine which devices and connectivity options are desirable and available and how to distribute them.
- Find the money to pay for it all.
Finally, while digital literacy is not a focus of this particular report, we found that another critical component to ensuring high-quality distance learning is a holistic digital inclusion1 approach, including digital literacy, parent and teacher training, and tech support— all of which requires additional planning, staff, and funding.
With the most consequential election in a generation just days away, we continue to ask ourselves: are state and local governments ready for this? With recent cyber intrusions from adversaries such as Russia and Iran, a historic surge in early voting, and fears about post-election disinformation on social media, there’s a lot to be concerned about. While this election will be a monumental task for local officials, Verified Voting’s Interim Co-Director and political scientist Mark Lindeman tells us that there are ways to ensure that every vote is counted fairly. Tune in for a follow up to last week’s episode on the security of our election machinery to hear Mark and Gigi discuss what keeps election experts up at night, and what we can do to help ensure our voices are heard in this episode of Tech on the Rocks!
Current Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has led the agency for nearly four years, and it’s unclear how much longer he plans to stay on. A President Donald Trump win carries a high likelihood that FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr will be selected — not elected — as the next chairman. And his first task will certainly be to regulate social media in America.
Even with a Joe Biden victory, Carr’s position at the FCC means he is likely to lead the GOP’s policy war on Big Tech for the foreseeable future, and he’s prepped and ready for the long haul. He regularly chats with politicians about how to revise Section 230, one of the most pivotal internet speech laws in legislation. “Reforming 230 is just the start. That’s just step one,” Commissioner Carr said. “We need to go beyond 230 reform. We need to strengthen the tools we have in antitrust. We need to adopt new transparency rules that would be outside of the 230 framework.”
He was asked whether these proposals were at odds with mainstream conservatism, as in, does the right’s threats against tech mean that the future of the GOP is pro-regulation now? Commissioner Carr got dodgy. “There is a way to talk about this as a continuation of conservative principles,” he argued. “We stand against concentrations of power that are going to limit freedom and limit individual liberty. You can very neatly draw a thread from traditional, Reagan-era, conservative principles all the way through where we should stand on Big Tech.” And then he conceded a little, before dodging again: “You may describe it as more regulatory. I don’t necessarily quibble with your framing. I can frame it as a rejection of abject corporatism.”
Comcast reported results for the quarter ended September 30, 2020. The company added a record 633,000 high-speed internet customers. Highspeed internet revenue increased 10.1%, due to an increase in the number of residential high-speed internet customers and an increase in average rates. Wireless revenue increased 22.8%, due to an increase in the number of customer lines.
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 Robbie McBeath (rmcbeath AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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