Wednesday, November 18, 2020
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Universal Service Fund
From the States
Elections & Media
COVID-19 has turned the floodlights on digital inequality in rural, tribal, and urban communities across the United States. As Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet has noted, because of the pandemic “we need to inject a new sense of urgency into implementing equitable broadband policies.” In support of that goal, we provide evidence in our new report, Growing Healthy Digital Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond, to show how digital inclusion coalitions across the country have responded to the triple challenges of the pandemic, growing economic inequality, and racial injustice facing poor communities and communities of color without access to broadband internet at home. In our new report, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, we present findings from a survey of individuals representing a diverse group of organizations across the United States that have self-identified as being part of either a formal, informal, or emerging digital inclusion coalition. The purpose of our study was to better understand the role these coalitions have played in supporting what we are calling “digital equity ecosystems” in their communities during the challenges of the pandemic.
[Colin Rhinesmith is an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. Susan Kennedy is the Project Coordinator for the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science.]
Governor JB Pritzker (D-IL) and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Office of Broadband announced a new Digital Equity Package, enlisting state, local, nonprofit, and philanthropic support to address gaps in digital access, adoption, and affordability for high-speed internet access. The comprehensive approach is designed to help communities identify and address existing broadband equity gaps, as well as to leverage new and existing sources of funding for long-term broadband equity. New plans to spearhead digital equity for Illinois build on Governor Pritzker's bold Connect Illinois program, a $420 million investment to bring universal access throughout the state by 2024.
This move directs an initial $750,000 to advance these goals through complementary grants and programming to promote broadband planning and capacity building and to aid in the creation of the nation's first integrated statewide network for improving digital equity and inclusion - namely, by addressing gaps in household access to computing devices, hotspot connectivity, and digital literacy skills.
Broadband READY Grants - $250,000
A collaborative effort between the Illinois Office of Broadband and the Illinois Innovation Network, the Broadband Regional Engagement for Adoption + Digital Equity (READY) grants will direct $250,000 to qualified regional entities statewide to explore opportunities for equitable advances in the areas of broadband access, adoption, and utilization. Grant awards of up to $50,000 will identify current digital inequities as well as next steps in creating a digital inclusion ecosystem through regional collaboration among community and economic development organizations, education, local leaders, and other related stakeholders. The program seeks to provide scalable solutions for broadband utilization across all ten Illinois economic development regions - including pressing needs such as telehealth and remote learning. The Illinois Innovation Network will contribute $100,000 to support the effort, which will leverage emerging resources in statewide computer refurbishing and digital navigator capacity.
Illinois Connected Communities Grants - $150,000
A partnership by the Office of Broadband, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, and local philanthropic organizations, the Illinois Connected Communities (ICC) program was first launched in the summer of 2020 to help drive community planning and capacity building. A total of $150,000 in second round state funding, combined with philanthropic dollars that underwrites the cost of expert consultative services, and access to best practice curriculum, will be made available to assist local governments, libraries, schools, and various local organizations with planning and progress around broadband access, adoption, and utilization.
Digital Navigator Collaboration
To support community digital equity needs, the Office of Broadband will partner with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) and PCs for People to establish digital navigator capacity within communities around the state. Navigators will work to address the digital inclusion process - including home connectivity, devices, and digital skills. Digital navigators will assess residents' needs and connect with them to resources that match their households' lifestyles. These navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, healthcare, and more and who will offer remote and socially distant in-person guidance. A cohort of qualified applicants will be provided with expert training as well as the opportunity to work directly with project partners on resource establishment and digital equity mapping.
This report profiles the many innovative options that school districts have pioneered to build or extend wireless broadband connectivity out to student households that cannot afford to purchase high-speed internet access at home. More and more school districts and local governments are concluding that investing in public network infrastructure—including community Wi-Fi networks and private mobile networks operating on public access CBRS spectrum—are a cost-effective way to ensure nearly all students have the broadband internet access they need, as well as to direct access to the school’s network resources from home and other locations. Thanks to recent efforts to open more unlicensed and shared spectrum for public use, an increasing number of school districts are partnering with their local government to extend network access to students at home and, in some towns, Lifeline internet access to the general public as well. Local schools and other institutions know the specific needs of their students and community, and should be empowered to devise their own solutions to the homework gap.
The House of Representatives passed the following bills:
H.R. 6096, the “Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement (READI) Act of 2020,” introduced by Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Pete Olson (R-TX), amends the Warning, Alert, and Response Network Act to classify emergency alerts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a type of alert that commercial mobile service providers may not allow subscribers to block from their devices. The bill also directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt regulations to facilitate coordination with State Emergency Communications Committees in developing and modernizing State Emergency Alert System plans. Finally, the READI Act directs the FCC to examine the feasibility of modernizing the Emergency Alert System by expanding alert distribution to the internet and streaming services. The bill passed on the House Floor by voice vote.
H.R. 6624, the “Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act of 2020,” was introduced by Pallone, Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) and Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) and Doris Matsui (D-CA). The bill creates a new grant program through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to promote technology that enhances supply chain security and market competitiveness in wireless communications networks. The bill passed on the House Floor by voice vote.
H.R. 7310, the “Spectrum IT Modernization Act of 2020,” introduced by Doyle and Communications and Technology Ranking Member Robert Latta (R-OH), as well as Reps. Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Tim Walberg (R-MI), requires NTIA – in consultation with the Policy and Plans Steering Group – to submit to Congress a report on its plans to modernize agency information technology systems relating to managing the use of federal spectrum. The bill passed on the House Floor by voice vote.
Increasing access to the internet and improving the affordability of broadband services has been a long-standing priority for governors; more than twenty states now have dedicated broadband offices to address the digital divide while more have robust governance structures that include task forces, working groups, and committees. Access to high quality, affordable broadband unlocks access to commerce, remote work opportunities, remote and improved education, telehealth, intelligent agriculture, and more. However, 18.3 million Americans, many in rural geographies, still lack access to even basic levels of broadband service and even more are unable to afford the service available to them. While the need for accessible and affordable broadband extends far beyond the current crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a newfound urgency to broadband expansion. Connectivity has become essential for people to follow public health guidelines, school closures, and remote work requirements. As governors increase state efforts to expand affordable broadband access, particularly in response to the ongoing pandemic, several key strategies and best practices have emerged that can facilitate those efforts, including to:
- Establish robust, cross-cutting governance structures
- Initiate partnerships with other state agencies, local and county governments, and other entities to kickstart broadband investments
- Leverage anchor institutions to provide rapid community internet service
- Leverage existing infrastructure projects with dig-once coordination
- Leverage electric utilities’ infrastructure and services to facilitate deployments of broadband networks
- Coordinate and expand broadband affordability programs
- Deploy innovative procurement strategies
- Improve broadband coverage maps
- Identify funding and financing sources for broadband deployment
The runoff for Georgia’s two Senate seats will have implications for a dizzying number of policy issues for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration—including the future of net neutrality. The two Senate seats in Georgia will determine the balance of power in Congress’ upper chamber. Controlling both chambers of Congress and the presidency would give Democrats wide latitude in shaping policy. “Winning both changes the calculus. It changes the calculus likely on appointees, it changes the calculus for sure on net neutrality,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and former Federal Communications Commission counselor. “Obviously I’m going to be overjoyed if the FCC reverses the reclassification decision and either reinstates the 2015 rules or adopts stronger rules. I just think to hedge against the inevitable lawsuit and to hedge against the next Republican FCC that will inevitably reverse this decision, you need congressional action.” If Ossoff and Warnock were to win, it appears that Democrats would have solid votes on a possible net neutrality bill.
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) is taking issue with Verizon’s proposed acquisition of Tracfone. The trade union says Tracfone is one of the largest providers of Lifeline services in the United States, and it fears those services could be jeopardized if Tracfone is acquired by Verizon. CWA also says the prospect of the acquisition raises significant antitrust concerns, which could negatively affect consumer prices and workers’ wages in the wireless industry. Verizon is trying to buy the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Tracfone for $6.9 billion. CWA doesn’t like that the transaction would bring together Verizon, the nation’s largest facilities-based mobile wireless provider, with Tracfone, the largest mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) and prepaid wireless provider in the US. It says Tracfone has been a long-time supporter of the FCC’s Lifeline program, which helps low-income households afford wireless services.
The CEOs of Twitter and Facebook defended their efforts to reduce the spread of online disinformation about the presidential election and the integrity of the US voting system as they faced an onslaught of criticism from Senate Republicans who accused the tech giants of censoring conservative views and favoring Democrats. Testifying before Congress for the second time in three weeks, Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey and his Facebook counterpart, Mark Zuckerberg, told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee that their companies did the best they could in unprecedented circumstances, though they acknowledged making mistakes while moderating content. Senate Republicans were particularly incensed about how Twitter and Facebook handled a story published by the New York Post concerning emails purportedly sent between Biden’s son Hunter and leadership at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, on the board of which Hunter Biden sat. During the final weeks before the election, the Post’s story became ammunition for Republicans claiming that the Biden family was corrupt, even as Democrats and many media outlets questioned the veracity of the emails and framed the story as a coordinated disinformation campaign.
Approving federal judges is a priority for Mitch McConnell during the lame-duck session of Congress, but Republicans shouldn’t dither on confirming Nathan Simington to the Federal Communications Commission. He will be needed to oppose internet regulation early in a Biden Presidency. Simington’s confirmation is in jeopardy because of—who else?—President Trump. Republicans would be committing self-sabotage by scotching Simington’s confirmation. Chairman Ajit Pai is expected to follow long-standing agency tradition by stepping down in January, which is also when Commissioner O’Rielly must vacate his seat. If Senate Republicans don’t confirm Simington in the lame duck, Democrats would have a 2-1 commission majority to start the Biden Presidency so they could immediately get to work. At the top of their agenda is reinstating the Obama FCC net neutrality order regulating broadband providers like utilities under Title II of the Communications Act. Democrats also aim to expand customer discount programs like Lifeline and use FCC spectrum auctions to raise revenue to spend without approval from Congress. Another top priority: Rolling back FCC rules that limit how much cities can charge telecom companies for 5G cell sites. And don’t rule out a revival of the Fairness Doctrine regulating speech. All of this would hurt the economy and slow the rollout of 5G. Confirming Simington would tie the commission 2-2 in January and slow these plans. It took Chairman Pai nearly a year into President Trump’s term to repeal the Obama Title II regulation. Democrats wouldn’t be able to move until they have a majority.
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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