Tuesday, January 24, 2023
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Government & Communications
Vermont, one of the least populated states in the US, has to contend with plenty of broadband-related challenges. But state legislation and municipal providers have made bridging the digital divide a little easier. Robert Fish, the Deputy Director of the Vermont Community Broadband Board (VCBB), said Vermont’s issues are the same as those elsewhere in the country. That is, traditional providers have only built out to areas they deem the most profitable, leaving the more rural and low-income areas “to fend for themselves.” Act 71, passed by the Vermont state legislature in 2021, propelled universal broadband efforts in the state. The bill, which also established the VCBB, requires providers, most of whom are communications union districts (CUDs), to serve every single unserved address in their service area. Providers that want to receive funding from the VCBB must be capable of offering symmetrical speeds of at least 100 Mbps. CUDs are the primary vehicle for Vermont’s universal service model. These municipalities are comprised of mostly volunteers from the towns involved, with each town selecting one representative to sit on the CUD’s board.
The Indiana Connectivity Program announced the fourth round of awards on Jan. 11, 2023. The fourth round of the program awarded $925,574 to expand broadband to 254 addresses across 30 counties. Of these addresses, 235 are homes and 19 are businesses. Internet providers carrying out the projects matched over $2.4 million for a total investment of over $3.3 million. The Indiana Connectivity Program aims to connect residents and businesses that lack access to broadband internet service with service providers and assist in the expense of extending broadband to those locations.
Governor Katie Hobbs (D-AZ) released her executive budget priorities with a focus on lowering costs, investing in public education, securing the state’s water future, tackling the affordable housing crisis, and more. Gov Hobbs would put $5 million to support the development of fast and reliable broadband service in schools, $50 million one-time deposit into the newly established Rural Broadband Accelerated Match Fund, and $16 million in one-time funding to enhance broadband infrastructure at State facilities in rural Arizona.
How can a small internet service provider (ISP) compete against the big cable companies? Comcast and Charter together have roughly 55% of all broadband customers in the country, so they are formidable competitors. But the two big cable companies have one obvious weakness – their prices are significantly higher than everybody else in their markets. Every marketing push by these companies involves giving temporary low special prices to lure customers – but those prices eventually revert to much higher list prices. Fixed wireless access (FWA) is clearly competing in price. FWA broadband is not as fast or robust as cable company broadband, but the prices are attractive to a lot of consumers.
The US Department of Labor (DOL) is requesting information on successful approaches related to digital skills attainment and competency development in education and training efforts, the strategies our education and workforce development systems are employing to assess and ensure individuals are digitally resilient, and any challenges the education and public workforce systems are facing. DOL is also requesting information on strategies to advance digital equity and inclusion in the workforce. Attaining and maintaining digital literacy is critical to surviving and thriving in modern society. Digital resilience signifies having the awareness, skills, agility, and confidence to empower users of new technologies and adapt to changing digital skill demands. Digital resilience improves the capacity to problem-solve and upskill in employment, navigate digital transformations, and be active participants in society and the economy. DOL developed this RFI with substantial input from the US Department of Commerce (Commerce), the US Department of Education (ED), and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), as part of its long-standing coordination and partnership with these agencies. The federal government has supported digital literacy and digital equity across a variety of sectors and through a range of programs. Comments are due by February 6, 2023
The Supreme Court asked the Biden administration to weigh in on whether states may bar giant social media platforms from removing certain types of political speech, a major First Amendment case that could determine how the constitutional right to free speech applies to the marketplace of ideas on the internet. The request for the solicitor general's views will delay a decision on whether the high court takes up the issue. At stake is the constitutionality of state laws in Florida and Texas that would restrict platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from blocking or limiting political speech, and require transparency in how such decisions are made. Both laws were championed by Republican lawmakers who charged that social media companies are unlawfully censoring conservative viewpoints, a view that gained momentum on the right after major social media sites suspended Donald Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol. The court’s decision could have wide-ranging effects on the future of democracy and elections, as tech companies play an increasingly significant role in disseminating news and discussion about politics. The companies say restricting their ability to moderate content could lead to an onslaught of hate speech, misinformation and other violent material.
In recent years, a variety of government broadband funding programs have emerged to address what many people living in small towns knew long before: Rural markets were both under-served and under-appreciated by big technology companies, and not just for broadband, but for just about any technology product or service that comes to mind. IdeaTek, a computer services company that was founded in 1999, pivoted in 2005 into providing internet services, initially dial-up and later DSL, and, by 2007, a small number of fiber-to-the-home connections in five small Kansas towns. In 2011, IdeaTek built its first fiber connection for a Verizon Wireless tower and latched onto the booming business of helping to spread wireless coverage across Kansas by providing fiber-based backhaul. In 2015, IdeaTek sold its successful fiber-to-the-tower business and pivoted again to addressing the need for broadband services – and better broadband deals – for Kansas customers. Still largely self-funded through its first decade and a half in business, IdeaTek in 2017 earned its first broadband grant, a $6 million award from the Federal Communications Commission to fund a three-town fiber project. In 2020, it acquired a wireless broadband firm called Skylink Wireless and earned another $13.7 million in federal funding, which it bundled together with $3.5 million in private investment to provide a mix of fiber connections and 100 Mbps fixed wireless access to about 13,000 homes in about 50 markets of various sizes across Central and Western Kansas.
Trust and confidence in representative government is broken. Accountability in federal agencies is nonexistent, so the Biden administration is pushing radical policies to please its political allies. And the American people are paying the price for it – at the pump, at the grocery store, and at the doctor’s office. The Energy and Commerce Committee is at the center of solving the most important issues facing hardworking Americans – lowering costs, promoting free speech, and preserving free markets. Accountability and oversight are also essential to getting answers from an administration gone woke and are foundational to our Constitutional responsibility. Our efforts will strengthen our policymaking and lead to lasting reforms. My commitment to finding areas of common ground whenever possible will not change. Energy and Commerce has a rich history of building consensus to plow the hard ground necessary to legislate. That legacy will continue under my leadership. Serving as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee is a great honor with great responsibility. I am grateful to my colleagues for placing their trust in me to lead on behalf of Eastern Washington and the entire country. Let’s get to work.
With a White House and Senate under Democratic control, passing sweeping legislation may be a challenge for House Republicans, but it’s likely that they will apply pressure on the current and forthcoming tech policy goals of the Biden-Harris administration. Despite Republicans’ concerns with the current administration’s spending, closing the digital divide should be an area of opportunity for bipartisan action, especially since many Republicans have constituents in severely underserved rural areas. In September 2020, the Senate Republican Policy Committee published a policy paper outlining Republican efforts to close the digital divide and improve the accuracy of FCC broadband availability data. In September 2022, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) called for more coordination between tribal, state, and federal governments to expand broadband access in native communities. Although Democrats and Republicans differ on approaches to greater broadband deployment and digital inclusion activities, there should be consensus in this area due to its national import. The future of 5G technology may be another critical policy area that the new Congress will likely focus on. President Biden recently published a rare op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for “bipartisan action from Congress to hold Big Tech accountable”—perhaps one issue where there appears to be some consensus. How Biden proceeds may finally encourage some movement among congressional Democrats, but his efforts may still be stalled by House GOP members.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) leaders are looking to ensure that billions in government funding are easier to access by the rural communities many federal programs are meant to serve. USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small highlighted USDA's ReConnect Program, which is currently seeing more applications than available funding. Undersecretary Small says there are many ways rural development programs can better serve people living in those areas, though Smalls has been pressed by lawmakers to simplify the ReConnect application process. Progress is being made despite concerns from USDA and private sector groups about the accuracy of rural broadband coverage maps; Undersecretary Smalls noted that “we must not rely only on maps to make funding decisions."
The Iranian government's attempts in recent months to stifle protests through internet blackouts, digital curfews, and content blocking have presented a particularly extreme example of how far regimes can go in restricting digital access. But a new report from the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare highlights the stunning global prevalence of connectivity disruptions and their increasing relevance to people and organizations all around the world. In 2022, Cloudflare began publishing reports that compile its internal observations about government internet blackouts and notable outages worldwide. As a content delivery network that also provides digital resiliency services, the company sees an array of signals when a chunk of the internet goes dark. The specific geopolitical context and technical nuances of different digital disruptions can make it difficult, or unhelpful, to make granular comparisons of disparate incidents. But Cloudflare, which operates in more than 100 countries and interconnects with more than 10,000 network providers, is using its vantage point and visibility into the global internet to track broader trends and offer a sense of scale about how pervasive internet shutdowns have become. It was noted that the increased government reliance in many places on digital curfews and intermittent, recurring shutdowns—a trend that seems very likely to continue.
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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