Thursday, December 12, 2019
Headlines Daily Digest
Today: Final FCC Meeting of 2019
Stories From Abroad
The US Department of Agriculture invested $7.9 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure to create or improve e-Connectivity for more than 4,000 rural households in North Carolina. Atlantic Telephone Membership Corporation’s Faster Columbus Advanced Connectivity for Communities, Education, Safety and Support (ACCESS) project will use a $7.9 million ReConnect Program grant to bring fiber-optic broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas of Columbus County. The service areas include 4,057 households, 18 businesses, 22 farms, 15 educational facilities, three health care facilities and 10 critical community facilities spread over approximately 150 square miles. The project will facilitate more access to services and information for area residents, and it will improve the overall quality of life for people in this community.
CenturyLink has agreed to pay a $6.1 million penalty after Washington state regulators found that the company failed to disclose fees that raised actual prices well above the advertised rates. CenturyLink must also stop charging a so-called "Internet Cost Recovery Fee" in the state, although customers may end up paying the fee until their contracts expire unless they take action to switch plans. CenturyLink charged its Internet Cost Recovery Fee to 650,000 Washingtonians. The attorney general's office said that "CenturyLink is required to... stop charging its Internet Cost Recovery Fee" in Washington state. CenturyLink says the fee "helps defray costs associated with building and maintaining CenturyLink's High-Speed Internet broadband network, as well as the costs of expanding network capacity to support the continued increase in customers' average broadband consumption." In other words, the fee covers the company's normal costs of doing business but is excluded from advertised rates in order to make CenturyLink's service sound cheaper than it really is. CenturyLink has been charging $1.99 for the Internet Cost Recovery Fee in Washington and continues to charge an Internet Cost Recovery Fee of $3.99 per Internet connection in other states.
Only a third of rural California households have internet access, compared to 78% of urban households, limiting the number of students who can finish online homework assignments, according to an EdSource analysis analysis of California Public Utilities Commission data. While low-income families are the most likely to lack internet access because the additional payment is too much, there's also a lack of service providers and options. The lack of internet access feeds both the homework gap and an achievement gap between rural districts and their wealthier counterparts, though California has invested millions to improve internet access both in schools and communities.
KentuckyWired, a 3,000-mile state-owned fiber network project, is now providing high-speed Internet to its first site, which is the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) in Owenton (KY). Eventually, all state offices and institutions and other properties such as state parks will be connected to KentuckyWired. Deck Decker, interim director of the Kentucky Communications Network Authority, said these sites, once they connect, will have speeds that are five times faster than what they currently have. KentuckyWired’s construction is nearing completion. The network is made up of six “rings”, all of which should be functional by October 2020.
Bluebird Networks, operator of a fiber network spanning several Midwestern states, said it has signed an agreement to purchase Illinois Network Alliance (INA), which operates a network in that state. INA is owned by several smaller Illinois telecom service providers. Bluebird already managed INA but according to an announcement of the purchase plans, “this new ownership role will enable Bluebird to strategically expand its capabilities and offerings between INA and other Bluebird infrastructures.” The company said it will expand further into new and underserved areas. Bluebird sells network services to telecom service providers and to enterprises. The INA assets will bring Bluebird’s fiber route miles to 9,300, according to the press release about the acquisition. The network also will have over 15 points of presence, including some in major cities such as Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. In addition to operating a fiber network, Bluebird also owns an underground data center in Springfield (MO).
Libraries Without Borders sought to replicate its digital inclusion strategy in underserved rural and suburban manufactured-housing communities. The project began in Minnesota, with a town hall-style meeting where residents of the Park Plaza Cooperative Community in Fridley shared their vision for a future partnership between the local library and the community. The need for such a partnership is high. In fact, Park Plaza is home to some of the most economically disadvantaged families in the region: 44 percent live below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and 40 percent of Park Plaza residents cannot afford Internet access or the technology needed to go online. The consequent lack of access to digital and educational resources became clear during the town hall, with residents prioritizing future programming related to technology, financial literacy, homework help, and legal support. In the long term, this program seeks to address these diverse needs by working with local Internet service providers to explore affordable options for Park Plaza and lay the groundwork for broadband expansion.
[Adam Echelman (he/his) currently serves as the Executive Director for Libraries Without Borders]
Back in July 2019, 14 Members of Congress wrote to the Federal Communications Commission with concerns about the proposed rule "Universal Service Contribution Methodology" and urging the Commission not to establish an overall cap for the Universal Service Fund (USF) or combine the cap of any USF programs, consistent with the recent unanimous vote in the House of Representatives. On December 2, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote back saying the Commission launched the proceeding "mindful of our obligation to safeguard the USF funds ultimately paid by consumers, and to ensure that these important programs are funded appropriately." He noted that the proceeding proposes an overall annual budget of $11.42 billion, a figure more than $3 billion greater than current USF program disbursements and one that would be adjusted for inflation.
On Oct 29, various Members of Congress from Texas wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to express concern about potential loopholes with Universal Service Fund (USF) Schools and Libraries Program (E-Rate) that have allowed Federal dollars to be used to overbuild existing broadband networks in Texas. They urged the FCC to reform E-Rate that ensures finite Federal resources are being used efficiently to close the digital divide without overbuilding existing networks, especially networks already constructed with USF or other Federal support. "Instead of duplicating existing networks with limited Federal dollars, Federal projects should work in a complementary fashion to reach areas where private investment is not suitable."
On Dec 2, Chairman Pai responded by noting the lawmakers' specific concern about several TX carriers who filed a petition for rulemaking urging the FCC to prohibit the use of E-Rate funds for special construction of fiber networks that overbuild existing fiber networks. "The Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau sought comment on this petition, and the comment cycle recently closed. Commission staff is now carefully reviewing the record." Chairman Pai also noted that the FCC has sought comment on how broadband maps and datasets can be used to avoid duplicative funding in the E-Rate program. "I can assure you that we will take into consideration the issues and concerns presented by stakeholders in each in these proceedings."
In July 2019, the US Government Accountability Office issued a report recommending that the Federal Communications Commission assess and report on the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making wireless access off school grounds eligible for E-rate. On December 3, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reported to the US Senate that he tasked the Commission’s Office of Economics and Analytics to assess the potential benefits and costs of, and other policy issues involved in, making off-premises wireless broadband access eligible for E-Rate program support. To this end, FCC staff is currently undertaking the analysis of a 2011-2012 E-Rate pilot program, which involved a similar approach. "I will ensure that FCC staff publish a report that evaluates the results of this pilot program... we will evaluate such data for lessons learned (accounting for changes in technology, costs, and student learning over the past eight years) before taking any further steps."
On Aug 2, Reps Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Mike Doyle (D-PA), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Kathy Castor (D-FL), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge the agency delay any future hard launch of the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier (National Verifier) in a state until the FCC establishes connections to Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) databases for Lifeline eligibility verification in that state. "This action would help ensure that Americans eligible for Lifeline are not incorrectly rejected from the program." On Sept 19, Rep Eshoo wrote to Chairman Pai that she was thrilled to read the FCC's announcement that the National Verifier is now connected to the Medicaid database.
On Dec 2, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai responded that as of Sept 17, the National Verified has completed an automated connection with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to verify the eligibility of applicants who participate in Medicaid. He noted that FCC staff and USAC continue to work closely with the Dept of Veterans Affairs to achieve an automated connection to verify Lifeline eligibility for consumers receiving benefits through the Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefits programs.
On September 25, 2019 a half dozen Members of Congress from Iowa wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai with concerns that changes to intercarrier compensation could have profound impacts to rural Iowa local exchange carriers (LECs). Chairman Pai replied on Dec 4 that the FCC adopted a Report and Order that 1) shifts the financial responsibility for paying certain access charges to the access-stimulating carriers that are responsible for generating them and 2) closed a loophole that allowed access-stimulating carriers to profit from high-volume calling even without using a revenue-sharing agreement.
In a straight party-line vote, the Republican-controlled Senate Commerce Committee has favorably reported out an amended bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to auction, by the end of 2020, at least 280 MHz of C-Band spectrum for 5G, with at least half of the gross proceeds, and potentially more, going to the US Treasury and 10% to rural broadband buildouts. Democrats argued that allowing even 50% of the proceeds to go to the satellite operators who would have to give up the spectrum for terrestrial mobile broadband was a payoff to foreign companies (Intelsat and SES (Luxembourg), Telesat (Canada), and Eutelsat (France)) at the expense of using the proceeds to build out rural broadband and aid first responders. Republicans answered that the FCC needs to incentivize satellite operators beyond paying moving costs in order to get them to move off the spectrum quickly and not to tie up the auction in court challenges if they were not compensated for the spectrum.
Next stop for the bill is a Senate floor vote, then a vote in the Democrat-controlled House, or reconciliation with their take on the issue.
The bipartisan leaders of the House Science Committee have requested government investigators examine why federal agencies disagree so starkly about the risks 5G communications technology poses to weather forecasting. In a letter to the comptroller general, House Science Committee Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-OK), the ranking Republican, requested the Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, look into the reasons for the discrepancies between the views of the Federal Communications Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA regarding the potential for certain 5G technology to interfere with crucial weather data-gathering instruments aboard polar-orbiting satellites.
On Aug 7, 2019, House Commerce Committee members Billy Long (R-MO), Fred Upton (R-MI), John Shimkus (R-IL), Brett Guthrie (R-KY), and Jeff Duncan (R-SC) wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to commend the FCC on its progress of the Facilitate American's Superiority in 5G Technology (the 5G FAST Plan). They particularly supported efforts to make mid-band spectrum available for 5G connectivity. They encouraged the FCC to deploy a greenfield buildout of 5G services in the L-band in the very near term, and urged advancement of the L-band proceeding to a final resolution before Labor Day.
On Dec 4, 2019, Chairman Pai responded by saying he directed FCC staff to submit a draft order addressing this band to the Interdepartment Radio Advisory Committee, an interagency group headed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). "In the normal course, federal agencies with equities in this band are supposed to submit feedback to the NTIA, which is then supposed to coordinate the official position of the Executive Branch on the band to the FCC. The FCC then makes a decision on whether and how to proceed on the draft order, as appropriate. We are currently awaiting feedback from the NTIA on the Executive Branch’s position."
On Aug 2, 2019, Reps Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Fred Upton (R-MI) sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai about a recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the 5.9 GHz band, urging the FCC to take a technology neutral approach to allow for testing of the Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) communications platform.
On Dec 3, Chairman Pai responded by explaining that the NPRM takes a balanced approach, which includes an exclusive home for C-V2X technology in the 5.9 GHz band. He notes that his proposal marks a departure from the FCC's recent exploration of allowing unlicensed devices to share the same spectrum with dedicated short-range communications (DSRC).
When it comes to the possibility of home broadband competition, we want to believe. And in the case of 5G mobile broadband, wireless carriers want us to believe, too. But whether or not technological and commercial realities will reward that faith remains unclear. As with 5G smartphones, the basic challenge here sits at the intersection of the electromagnetic spectrum and telecom infrastructure economics. When delivered over millimeter-wave frequencies and their copious amounts of free spectrum, 5G can match the speed and latency of fiber-optic broadband, with downloads of 1 gigabit per second and ping times under 10 milliseconds. But on those frequencies of 24GHz and up, signals struggle to reach more than a thousand feet outdoors. Carriers can fix that by building many more cell sites, each with its own fiber backhaul, but a fiber-to-the-block build-out may not be appreciably cheaper than fiber-to-the-home deployments. And while residences don't move and don't mind wireless antennas larger than a shirt pocket—unlike individual wireless subscribers—residences also have walls that often block mmWave signals.
In November 2019, Members of Congress wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to express concern that the very brief notice, and even shorter window for filing spectrum license applications in the 2.5 GHz proceeding will prevent many tribes and tribal organizations from taking advantage of the priority window. In addition, they said the FCC request that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) expedite its Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) approval of the order may further disadvantage eligible tribes and tribal organizations.
On December 3, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote back saying that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has been working with FCC staff to prepare Tribal communities for the upcoming eligibility window. "And following discussions I personally have had with representatives of Tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, I share your view that Tribes will need sufficient time to prepare and participate in the Tribal priority window. Therefore, on December 2, I sent letters to Tribal and Native Hawaiian leaders, and the FCC also issued a Public Notice, stating that the Tribal priority window will open on February 3, 2020 and close on August 3, 2020. This extended 182-day window is the result of the hard work of agency staff and takes into account NCAI’s recent resolution on this issue. The FCC takes seriously its trust relationship with federally-recognized Tribal Nations, and we share the common goal of closing the digital divide in Indian Country. To this end, it is important that we collaborate to ensure that interested Tribes can take advantage of this unprecedented option."
On June 24, 2019, Reps Gwen Moore (D-WI) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) to raise the concerns of domestic violence victims with the news that wireless customers' real-time location data can be acquired from carriers. On December 3, FCC Chairman replied that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has been working on this investigation, reviewing over 50,000 pages of documents. "Based on the latest update I have received, the Bureau’s investigation is nearing its conclusion, and I am confident that the Bureau will be able to announce the results no later than the end of January. I will provide you with those results as soon as practicable."
Social media platforms will continue to be held harmless for third-party content on their web sites according to the compromise on the US Mexico Canada Agreement trade deal announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
The federal government is working on guidelines to help people keep wireless carrier coverage during emergencies, but California lawmakers worry the agency is prioritizing hurricanes over wildfires. Without proper guidance, lawmakers fear victims of wildfires could be left further disadvantaged and without necessary tools of communication during disasters. The Federal Communications Commission is indicating it does not plan to include information specific to the wildfires that have devastated thousands of Californians. Some California lawmakers, lead by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento), are pushing the FCC to change that.
At the Federal Communications Bar Association's annual Chairman's Dinner, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai delivered a solid set of inside jokes.
- Noting a Philadelphia Inquirer headline that said retiring Comcast senior EVP David Cohen was being replaced by six people, Chairman Pai said that the FCC knows that it only takes five people (as in the five commissioners) to do the work of David Cohen.
- Noting a headline about his decision to free up for 5G some spectrum in the 5.9 Ghz band -- currently licensed for vehicle-to-vehicle communications but mostly lying fallow -- as his attempt to take away spectrum used for transportation. "Used?" he mused quizzically, explaining that was like saying a treadmill was being used because that was where you hung your clothes.
- As to Twitter's decision not to accept political ads, Chairman Pai said National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith urged all his industry's competitors to do the same.
- Chairman Pai talked about his lunch with President Trump a couple of months ago and how some were suggesting Trump was influencing policy. Chairman Pai said that was not true, but, on another subject, said that all the proceeds from the C-band auction would be going to purchase Greenland.
- The chairman was interrupted by a phone call that appeared to be coming from Rudy Giuliani. Chairman Pai tried returning the call but got a robotic voice informing him that the call was being placed on Dish Cellular so the call "couldn't be completed as dialed... or really at all."
- He said AT&T has a new lobbying strategy: If anyone opposes their petitions, AT&T will send their phone records to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
- The chairman said the 5G hype machine was out of control and that they had to be careful that it did not become the most overrated G since Kenny.
- The election is heating up, he said, but pointed out that former chairman Tom Wheeler had done three minutes of Trump jokes at the dinner in 2016: "You know how that turned out for Tom."
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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