Friday, November 4, 2022
Headlines Daily Digest
Elections & Media
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded Albany State University (ASU), a Historically Black College and University in Georgia, $2,997,777 as part of the Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program. ASU Global is the university’s fully online college. It exists to create and offer degree and certificate programs in a fully online format that can be completed at a distance. Through ASU Global the university will develop and expand its offering of accelerated, accessible programs for remote students; expand broadband internet access, connectivity, and digital inclusion in the community, and build the institution's capability to provide asynchronous and synchronous educational instruction and learning opportunities. This federal investment in this project will generate a substantial economic impact for Albany, Dougherty County, and southwestern Georgia. Specifically, Albany State University will use the grant to expand access to remote learning by expanding broadband internet access, and connectivity, and promoting digital inclusion in the community.
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has awarded Long Beach City College, a Hispanic Serving Institution in California, $2,999,978 as part of the Connecting Minority Communities (CMC) Pilot Program. Long Beach City College (LBCC)'s Student Technology and Resources (STAR) program will address equity gaps created by historically marginalized students' lack of access to internet broadband and technology. The main goals of the program are to increase persistence of students receiving technology (e.g., laptops/hotspots) and increase enrollment in LBCC's non-credit courses offered at two partner locations within the City of Long Beach (Centro CHA and the North Long Beach Center for Higher Education). Achieving these goals will support students who are experiencing barriers to their education and leverage community partners to expand the scope and scale of support to non-traditional students.
The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) submited the federal Universal Service Support Mechanisms fund size and administrative cost projections for the first quarter of calendar year 2023 (1Q2023). USAC projects a consolidated budget of $67.28 million for 1Q2023. Direct costs for all support mechanisms total $33.88 million. Joint and common costs (including billing, collection, and disbursement activities) total $33.40 million.
This report, mandated by the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, details the work of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Office of Minority Broadband Initiatives (OMBI) in expanding access and identifying barriers to high-speed internet service for students, faculty, and staff at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBU), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU), and Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) and within anchor communities. Examples of OMBI’s key 2021-2022 accomplishments highlighted in the report include:
- Administering the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program (CMC) and granting over $20 million in the program’s first ten awards
- Collaborating with federal, state, tribal, and anchor institution stakeholders through interagency outreach, partnerships with national advocacy organizations, and support of NTIA’s Digital Equity Leaders Network re-launch
- Building the capacity of anchor institutions and their communities through ongoing technical assistance activities exceeding 2000 participants
TekWav, Nextlink, and Plains Internet won Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) funding in the December 2020 reverse auction. Two of the three providers were quoted as saying that the cost to build the networks to satisfy the RDOF obligations has doubled since they won the award – the third said costs have risen materially. Most providers I’ve been working with estimate the increase to be between 15% and 30%, differing by region and the planned technology. However, there are a few issues related to the cost of building broadband that isn’t talked about a lot. One issue that is not being widely discussed is the availability of loans. One of the things that always happens when interest rates increase is that banks drastically curtail making loans to new customers. They may still offer higher interest rate loans to existing customers, but an ISP looking for a new banking relationship is going to hit a stone wall. The difficulty in getting bank loans creates a dilemma for a provider trying to fulfill an obligation to build a broadband solution with specified construction deadlines. The other issue is the time lag between the cost of a new network and the revenues needed to pay for them. Most providers have historically expanded organically in the past. They add new territory and customers each year that are partially funded by the cash flow from the existing business, supplemented with short-term loans. A provider trying to grow fast must abandon the organic growth model. This means spending a lot of money before there is any new revenue. The bottom line is that RDOF winners will either have to absorb these unexpected costs or default on the subsidy. There is a fairly minor penalty for defaulting on RDOF funding before any funding has flowed or construction begins. But I would suspect the Federal Communication Commission will level much bigger fines on somebody who has already taken funding, and the fine would likely include returning everything they’ve received.
All across the country, state governments are scrambling to beef up their broadband offices and stand up new grant programs in anticipation of millions in funding from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Chad Rupe, the former administrator of the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, has advice for states looking to make their broadband programs a success. According to Rupe, there are a few lessons states can take from the success of the ReConnect program as they navigate the path ahead. Among other things, he urged states to prioritize future-proof solutions despite potential sticker shock, allow for a robust challenge process of eligible locations early in the award process, and carefully weigh issues operators might face in terms of construction timelines and financing requirements. Rupe added an early challenge mechanism is key for broadband programs looking to implement a fair process. Allowing operators to challenge locations deemed eligible for funding can help avoid overbuilding and wasteful spending, he said. And running this process before awards are made avoids confusion after the fact.
This study focuses on broadband deployment over the years 2014- 2020 in Tribal and non-Tribal census tracts using the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data to quantify progress. This “Tribal Gap” is measured as the difference in average broadband availability between Tribal and non-Tribal census tracts. Unmatched and matched samples are used, and a sample of census tracts within 30 miles of a Tribal area is also analyzed with and without matching. In all cases, the gap between Tribal and non-Tribal census tracks has been getting closer to zero over time and by 2020 (the last year's data are available) the Tribal Gap was near zero in all cases, especially when the deployment differences are conditioned on a few covariates. Indeed, the Tribal Gap is nearly fully explained by differences in demographic characteristics. These results are encouraging and suggest efforts to close the Tribal Gap are meeting with some success, though many factors that determine deployment largely are beyond regulatory remedy (e.g., population density). These results are largely encouraging and suggest efforts to close the Tribal Gap are meeting with some success, though work remains to be done. These results do not imply that broadband is ubiquitous in either Tribal or non-Tribal areas; instead, these results simply demonstrate that the difference in availability between Tribal and non-Tribal areas is shrinking and that this difference is mostly explained by a few demographic characteristics.
Many residents of affordable rental housing nationwide continue to lack access to broadband in their homes, but effective use of a long-standing federal tax credit can help close the gap in those housing units not funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Recognizing the critical importance of high-speed internet access, a HUD rule effective since 2017 requires that broadband infrastructure be installed in new and rehabilitated federally assisted multifamily housing. This rule is an important step toward improving broadband access for households in affordable rental housing, but HUD-funded units represent only a fraction of new affordable housing. States set threshold requirements for new developments and then identify additional priorities through a scoring system in the states’ qualified allocation plans (QAPs). For example, Massachusetts awards additional points for climate-resilient design. QAP requirements heavily influence what affordable rental housing gets built and that means this process presents an opportunity to address broadband needs. Many states include broadband and digital literacy incentives in their QAPs, though the specifics vary. Among the approaches are incentives for in-unit wiring, provision of ongoing service, common area access (such as computer labs for residents), or digital skills training. These features can be requirements for new Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) developments or encouraged by providing additional points in the plan calculations. While updating QAP requirements can ensure all new LIHTC properties have broadband access, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funds will be essential to connecting existing properties that are not connected or under-connected.
The U.S. jobs market remains hot—“overheated” in the words of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. Simply, the demand for workers far exceeds the supply. With billions of dollars in investment coming to improve America's infrastructure, will we have trained workers in place to build the broadband networks of the 21st century? Here's what is in the works to ensure we do. The telecommunications industry, and particularly the wireless segment, has been warning of impending labor shortages for several years. More recently, fixed-broadband providers have flagged labor shortages as a key challenge as they press ahead with large-scale network expansion efforts. The influx of federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—as well as state, local, and private investments—is expected to exacerbate the situation as more players compete for finite resources. In February 2022, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said broadband funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act alone is expected to create between 100,000 and 200,000 jobs. To help fill those positions, she said, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is allowing states to use their Broadband, Equity, Access & Deployment Program (BEAD) money to do apprenticeships, job training, and recruiting.
The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) proposes to commence a rulemaking proceeding to address certain deceptive or unfair acts or practices relating to fees. The FTC is soliciting written comments, data, and arguments concerning the need for such a rulemaking to prevent persons, entities, and organizations from imposing such fees on consumers. The FTC is exploring a rule to crack down on junk fees proliferating throughout the economy. Junk fees are unnecessary, unavoidable, or surprise charges that inflate costs while adding little to no value. Consumers can get hit with junk fees at any stage of the purchase or payment process. The agency is seeking public comment on the harms caused by junk fees and the unfair or deceptive tactics companies use to impose them. Companies charge junk fees in a wide range of contexts, including cramming in hidden fees to which consumers did not consent, misrepresenting optional services or upgrades as mandatory, and charging for products or services with little or no value. The types of junk fees the FTC is seeking comment on include: Unnecessary charges for worthless, free, or fake products or services; Unavoidable charges imposed on captive consumers; and surprise charges that secretly push up the purchase price. While the agency has been active in addressing junk fees, it generally lacks the authority to seek penalties against first-time violators or the ability to obtain redress readily for consumers in instances in which fees violate the FTC’s prohibition on unfair or deceptive practices. The FTC can seek such remedies when a company violates a rule promulgated by the agency, which is why the agency is exploring a junk fee rule.
Twitter CEO Elon Musk led a call with civil rights groups in an effort to assure them that he would curtail hate speech — and stop the spread of misinformation ahead of the midterm elections. Musk said that Twitter employees responsible for election integrity who had been locked out of their moderation tools during the company’s acquisition will have their access reinstated soon. Musk also said that users banned by the platform — including former President Donald Trump — will remain off the site “for at least a few more weeks.” The gathering was part of Musk’s effort to set up a “content moderation council,” which would presumably police users and content on the platform — and help ease concerns from worried advertisers. Musk said that he wanted his council to “include representatives with widely divergent views, which will certainly include the civil rights community and groups who face hate-fueled violence.” Participants on the Zoom call included Free Press, the Anti-Defamation League, the Asian American Foundation, Color Of Change, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the NAACP, and the former CEO of LULAC, a nonprofit representing Hispanic communities in the US. Musk also discussed his idea of creating a “council” to review content and policies related to potentially harmful material, but he did not lay out any specific next steps. However, the groups reminded Musk that any such organization should include those who are targeted with hate-filled online language.
Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is planning to reorganize the FCC to better support the needs of the growing satellite industry, promote long-term technical capacity at the agency, and navigate 21st global communications policy. Under this plan, Chairwoman Rosenworcel will work to reorganize the FCC’s International Bureau into a new Space Bureau and a standalone Office of International Affairs. These changes will help ensure that the FCC’s resources are better aligned so that the agency can continue to fulfill its statutory obligations and keep pace with the rapidly changing realities of the satellite industry and global communications policy. The FCC licenses radio frequency uses by satellites and ensures that space systems reviewed by the agency have sufficient plans to mitigate orbital debris under the authority of the Communications Act of 1934. By establishing a stand-alone Space Bureau the agency aims to better fulfill its statutory obligations and elevate the significance of satellite programs and policy within the agency to a level that reflects the importance of the emerging space economy. By separating satellite policy from the “International Bureau,” the agency acknowledges the role of satellite communications in advancing domestic communications policy and achieving US broadband goals. Lastly, the goal of establishing a stand-alone Office of International Affairs will allow relevant experts to focus specifically on matters of international communications regulation and licensing as we enter a new era of global communications policy.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently short a commissioner, and the Biden administration and Senate Democrats just can’t seem to get that seat filled despite having nominated an amazingly qualified person. Her name is Gigi Sohn. The inability to get Sohn confirmed at the FCC has left the commission deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans. That means the commission in charge of regulating all telecommunications in the United States, including how you get your internet service, is unable to get much done. And the Biden administration can’t accomplish some of its biggest policy priorities, like expanding rural broadband and restoring net neutrality. President Biden first nominated Gigi Sohn to the FCC over a year ago, but the full Senate vote to confirm her just hasn’t happened. This story has strange crisscross alliances, behemoth bad actors, shady politicking, and even some good old-fashioned family drama. But most of all, it reveals a lot about the huge problems plaguing politics and policy in the United States today.
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.
© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2022. Redistribution of this email publication — both internally and externally — is encouraged if it includes this message. For subscribe/unsubscribe info email: headlines AT benton DOT org
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society All Rights Reserved © 2022