Friday, January 20, 2023
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The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is developing guidance that will clarify how states should handle the process of distributing Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program funding. Addressing the US Conference of Mayors, NTIA Senior Adviser Sarah Morris said the agency is working to answer many state officials asking how they should manage the distribution of BEAD funding at the local level, including concerns over which projects are worth funding and how to find reliable data. The agency does not yet have a timeline for the release of this guidance. “Congress has told the NTIA that for the purposes of allocation, for the purposes of calculating how much money each state receives, we must rely on the FCC’s broadband maps,” said Morris. Beyond that point, Congress’ directive was less clear, she added.
The Federal Communications Commission is committing over $40 million in a new funding round through the Emergency Connectivity Program, which provides digital services for students in communities across the country. These funding commitments support applications from the third application window, benefiting approximately 100,000 students across the country, including students in Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin. This announcement will fund applications from the third application window that will support over 275 schools, 15 libraries, and 5 consortia.
The Federal Communications Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) announced the conclusion of the Connect America Fund Phase II auction long-form application review. There were 195 authorized applicant state combinations, totaling $1.48 billion authorized in 10-year support, covering 708,494 locations in 45 states. Authorized bids included a range of performance tiers, with more than one-half of the winning bids at 100/20 Mbps or higher. Additionally, 10 applicants were authorized to receive CAF Phase II auction support in conjunction with New York’s New NY Broadband Program totaling $65.49 million in 10-year support, covering 47,200 locations in New York. All Auction 903 winning bids have been authorized or defaulted.
Governor Laura Kelly (D-KS) announced that $44.5 million will be awarded to nine service providers to extend high-speed internet to 18,468 locations in 15 underserved counties across the state. This is the third and final award phase of the Kansas Capital Project Funds (CPF) Broadband Infrastructure Program. The CPF program provides funding to make broadband connections in critical areas of the state that lack access to high-speed internet. The $83.5 million total CPF investment, combined with almost $42 million in matching funds, will result in more than 24,500 homes, businesses, schools, health care facilities, and other public institutions being connected to fast, reliable internet for the first time. The targeted counties have as few as five locations per square mile, which until now has prevented providers from investing the resources needed to deliver a quality broadband option. The CPF Grant Program provides the funding needed to implement high-speed broadband in these areas of the state. [more at the link below]
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe recently was awarded an $18.7 million broadband grant courtesy of the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA.) The grant comes from NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Leech Lake was one of only two Tribes to be a recipient of the program’s new grants, totaling more than $36 million. These grants focus on expanding high-speed Internet service network deployment and digital skills training to improve access to education, jobs, and healthcare on Tribal lands with funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe plans to use the funds to install fiber and fixed wireless to directly connect 4,399 unserved Native American households with qualifying broadband service in remote areas on the Reservation that currently experience connectivity issues. The grant proposal includes 153 miles of planned fiber optic installation as well as the construction of nine new wireless towers in the following communities: Noopiming, Mission, Prescott, Oak Point, Sugar Point, Inger, S. Lake, and Boy Lake, Minnesota.
Time is running out for wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to change the government’s mind about unlicensed spectrum. With pressure mounting, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) CEO David Zumwalt sent a fresh letter to the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) warning its current rules could lead to $8.6 billion in broadband subsidy money being spent on areas that are already covered by fixed wireless access services using unlicensed airwaves. WISPA says NTIA's rule would impact a large subset of WISPs which have long used unlicensed spectrum as a low-cost, flexible option to reach rural areas. By deviating from precedent and marking these locations as unserved, Zumwalt argued, the NTIA could end up wasting as much as $8.6 billion in BEAD money trying to run fiber to areas already receiving 25/3 Mbps or 100/20 Mbps service. The $8.6 billion number stems from analyst calculations that the cost to deploy fiber to each of the 1.92 million locations currently served by unlicensed fixed-wireless access could be as high as $4,500.
Congress already allocated $65 billion for broadband in 2021 via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), but as negotiations over the 2023 Farm Bill get underway some are angling for even more cash to boost rural broadband. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Farm Bill is a sprawling piece of legislation covering agricultural and food programs that are revisited every five years or so. The last Farm Bill was passed in late 2018, meaning it is up for renewal in the back half of 2023. Rural broadband programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been a part of the Farm Bill since 2002. The ReConnect Program is probably the best-known of these, but the USDA also oversees the Telecommunications Infrastructure Program, Rural Broadband Program (RBP), Community Connect Grant Program (CCGP), and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program (DLTP). Despite a seeming glut of broadband funding for other programs like the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program, there appears to be an appetite for more money for rural deployments. Congressman David Scott (D-GA), who is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, named broadband as one of his priorities for the upcoming Farm Bill, stating, "We must ensure that appropriate funding is given to USDA to help us bridge the digital divide between rural and urban America;" Though, it is unclear how much money Rep Scott would consider "appropriate."
Fitting the monthly cost of a broadband subscription into a low-income household budget is difficult, to say the least, because of the costs of competing necessities like lodging, food, and healthcare. These financial pressures—and unexpected expenses—keep too many people in the U.S. from subscribing to home broadband service—or cause them to drop service at times to make ends meet. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress recognized these obstacles for low-income people and created a program—first called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program—to reduce the monthly costs of connectivity. With passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, Congress turned the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program into a longer-term subsidy. Launched in January 2022 with $14.2 billion in funding, the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a critical component of the ongoing federal investment in broadband adoption. Eligible households receive $30/month (and up to $75/month on Tribal lands) to defray the cost of internet service, as well as up to $100 towards the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers. On January 18, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society hosted a panel discussion on ACP enrollment. Drew Garner, the State Broadband Policy Advisor at Common Sense Media, moderated the panel. He began the discussion by noting the three steps low-income households must complete before they begin enjoying ACP benefits: first, they must confirm that their household is eligible to participate in the program; then they must complete an application to be enrolled in ACP; and, finally, they must choose an internet service provider and pick a plan to subscribe to.
It turns out there are two digital divides in America. The first one is the familiar divide between those who have Internet subscriptions and those who don’t. Everyone agrees this is a persistent concern, with about 10 percent of the public lacking subscriptions at the last count. But then we come to the second divide: There is a perennial policy debate over why the digital divide exists and what to do about it. This second digital divide is once again on full display around the latest edition of the biennial Communications Marketplace Report from the Federal Communications Commission. An evenhanded look at broadband data shows that US broadband infrastructure is not the problem; it’s a lack of adoption that’s causing the digital divide to persist. It’s one thing to have access to broadband service but another to “adopt” — to sign up for and purchase — that service. The US has room for improvement when it comes to adoption. Though US adoption rates are not appallingly low, they still lag behind the country’s performance in deployment. In other words, a substantial percentage of Americans, given the opportunity to connect to the Internet, simply chooses not to. While a simplistic policy solution would throw money at the problem to lower prices, that likely wouldn’t make a significant dent in the adoption rate. The US Commerce Department’s Internet Use Survey finds, instead, that the main barrier to connectivity is a lack of interest, with 58 percent of respondents stating so. Meanwhile, the price comes in a distant second, with only 18 percent of respondents putting it down as their answer.
[Jessica Dine is a research assistant for broadband policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.]
Data and Mapping
The Virginia Office of Broadband submitted a challenge to the Federal Communications Commission, pointing to a significant number of locations in Virginia that are currently incorrectly reported on the most recent FCC broadband coverage map. In partnership with Virginia Tech, the Virginia Office of Broadband found that there are approximately 358,000 locations in Virginia that are reported on the new map as being served when, in fact, they currently lack access to broadband. Given that the funding provided to states by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program is calculated based on the number of unserved locations in each state, it’s important that the number of unserved locations is accurately calculated. I hope that you will carefully review the challenges submitted by individual Virginians as well as the bulk challenge submitted by the Virginia Office of Broadband.
It’s rather surprising that despite the fact that billions of dollars are about to be distributed to US states from the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act for the purpose of closing the digital divide, there are no major government initiatives to establish community Wi-Fi in urban areas. The only federal funds currently available to help people access Wi-Fi are through the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides discounts for internet service to eligible low-income households. And there might also be a smattering of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) projects still getting funds for Wi-Fi. Despite the lack of a national vision to provide Wi-Fi to close the digital divide, community Wi-Fi does exist in the US. In locales ranging from New York City to Council Bluffs (IA) to San Jose (CA) some municipalities have established Wi-Fi networks for the benefit of their citizens. And they seem to be successful.
The Federal Trade Commission opened a claims process for former AT&T customers who have yet to claim a refund stemming from the FTC’s lawsuit against the company for misleading consumers about its unlimited data plans. Former AT&T customers may be eligible to claim a refund from the $7 million remaining in a fund created to settle allegations that the wireless provider charged for “unlimited” data plans while reducing their data speeds, a practice known as throttling. The FTC in 2019 required AT&T to provide $60 million for refunds for failing to disclose to millions of smartphone customers with unlimited data plans that once they reached a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T would reduce or throttle their data speeds. Some customers experienced data speeds so slow that many common phone applications, such as web browsing and video streaming, became difficult or nearly impossible to use. AT&T has not been able to reach everyone who was eligible for a refund. The FTC is using the remaining $7 million from the fund to provide partial refunds to consumers who meet all these requirements:
- They are a former AT&T customer;
- They had an unlimited data plan at some point between October 1, 2011, and June 30, 2015;
- They experienced data throttling; and
- They have not received a bill credit or payment from AT&T related to this matter.
Consumers who meet these requirements can submit a claim online at www.ftc.gov/ATT. Consumers can contact the claims administrator by calling 1-877-654-1982 or emailing [email protected] if they have questions or if they would like to request a claim form. Consumers have until May 18, 2023, to submit a claim.
The National Lifeline Association (NaLA) announces the establishment of the National Agent Coalition (NAC), the national trade association for distributors and representatives who conduct in-person enrollment into the Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Programs (ACP). NAC will serve as a voice for agents, who are on the front lines of bridging the digital divide through these programs. They will support the industry by providing resources for agents, increasing agent impact and ensuring eligible consumers are enrolled. The group will ensure enrollment efforts are conducted with the highest level of business standards and will meet on an ongoing basis to develop and maintain a rigorous Agent Code of Conduct, among other agent and distributor resources.
As if household budgets were not already under enough pressure, millions of broadband and mobile phone customers look set to face rises of more than 14% in their monthly bills from April 2023. BT, TalkTalk, Three, and Vodafone are among the big operators that are contractually allowed to increase their bills in line with the previous year’s inflation rate, as measured by the consumer prices index (CPI) in December – plus a further 3%-3.9% on top. If the increases are passed on in full, as many experts expect, it would result in home broadband customers typically paying about £50 ($60) a year more, while mobile phone customers on expensive contracts could face rises of more than £100 ($123). The Office for National Statistics said the CPI rate fell back slightly to 10.5%. It means there is nothing to stop the telecommunications providers from increasing bills by 13%-14.4%. Although suppliers could surprise customers and withhold part of the increase, consumers can start looking forward to a flurry of announcements before April. Companies have to give customers 30 days’ notice of price increases but have so far been tight-lipped as to whether bills will rise by the maximum. Consumer groups are calling on households who are out of the contract to use this as a catalyst to move to a new deal.
The UK government has warned mobile and broadband providers that it is not “right” for them to raise prices by more than 14 percent from April 2023, as customers contend with the surge in living costs. Much of the fixed broadband and mobile and phone market has in recent years implemented price increases in April of each year for new customers and those already in contract. Telecommunications groups tend to base rises on the previous year’s annualized rate of inflation, plus about 3.9 percent. According to official data, consumer price inflation was at 10.5 percent in the year to December 2022, meaning most mobile and broadband tariffs will rise by an average of 14.4 percent. Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, said: “At a time when families are struggling to pay their bills, imposing above-inflation price hikes is not the right thing to do.” The rises will follow scrutiny from regulators and politicians over telecom companies’ transparency with customers — particularly those who are in a contract — about future rises.
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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