Monday, February 1, 2021
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As President Joe Biden fills out his top administration posts and his digital agenda, advocates are rushing forward with ideas for just how his team and the Federal Communications Commission should proceed, touting structural reforms and emphasizing equity concerns. And several recommendations are for potential permanent agency chairs, a key post that President Biden hasn’t yet settled on. The National Urban League’s new broadband plan calls on the FCC and executive branch to better measure issues of digital equity, overhaul the Lifeline low-income subsidy program, and create a new Office of Digital Equity to increase broadband adoption. Edward “Smitty” Smith, a telecom lawyer on the Biden transition’s FCC review team, helped spearhead the effort, along with other former FCC officials including Blair Levin. The league’s resident telecom expert, Clint Odom, is a former staffer for Vice President Kamala Harris. Gigi Sohn, a former Obama-era FCC adviser and senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, called for better use of broadband data to guide more precise policy-making. “The US can’t repeat the mistakes of the past — investing billions of dollars in the wrong places using technologies that will become obsolete,” she warned. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who some want to see made permanent FCC chair, put those equity concerns front-and-center during his own speech at State of the Net: “When we focus on broadband in America,” he said, “we must focus on the smoldering front that communities of color constitute in our battle against internet inequality.
[Also see Benton's Recommendations for a National Broadband Agenda]
A coalition of more than 30 advocacy groups are calling on President Joe Biden and congressional leadership to fill the final vacancy at the Federal Communications Commission immediately. While President Biden recently named Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel the acting chairwoman of the FCC, the agency was left with a vacancy when former Chairman Ajit Pai stepped down on Inauguration Day. 32 advocacy organizations argued in a letter to the Biden administration and members of the Senate that there needed to be a "speedy nomination and confirmation of a fifth commissioner" to the FCC so it can tackle issues like the digital divide, which has been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, and reclassifying broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. "We ask you to ensure that these critical efforts are not stalled in a deadlocked FCC by seating a fifth commissioner as soon as possible," the letter reads, later adding: "Leaving the agency in charge of charting the course for affordable communications access and infrastructure impotent to pursue the bold action required at this time would be a serious failing."
The groups signing the letter included: the ACLU, Center for Democracy & Technology, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Free Press Action, Media Justice, the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Public Knowledge, among many others.
As Jessica Rosenworcel transitions into the role of acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, rural broadband leaders are expecting her to maintain her criticism of the agency's broadband coverage maps and keep a focus on identifying gaps in high-speed internet service. Mike Romano of the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association expects improving rural broadband access will be an area where the FCC can move ahead. “One of the things Chairwoman Rosenworcel has been interested in from the start is making sure every American, rural or urban ... has the ability to get robust and affordable broadband,” said Romano. He said docket orders relating to rural broadband have been moved in the past by both sides. Romano also said with Chairwoman Rosenworcel leading the commission during the interim, it provides continuity for the agency. “The fact is that the FCC has processes already underway to improve the maps," Romano said. "It’s clear that she would have liked these processes to move much faster than they have, but the pieces are now in place for things to move — specifically, the FCC will be able to start gathering new, more granular reports from providers in coming months, and it has the funding now to create better underlying maps on top of which those reports would sit." He noted while he could not weigh in on her anticipated agenda as a whole, he thought it safe to say, given her strong focus on mapping concerns in the past, that moving on these implementation pieces will presumably be near the top of her agenda.
On Jan 15, the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Indian Affairs released the National Tribal Broadband Strategy (NTBS), a work product of the American Broadband Initiative. Designed as a roadmap for the Federal Government and the private sector, the NTBS highlights the strategic components to broadband deployment and expansion, and the necessary actions needed to spur investment within American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities. The Strategy was developed in collaboration with the White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA). The strategy focuses on seven strategic areas for development and proposes 28 actions for the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, and Interior, as well as the Federal Communications Commission, IMLS, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The strategic areas are:
- Coordination: Grow a Community of Practice
- Data: Improve Data Collection, Analysis, and Reporting
- Network Building Blocks: Expand Backhaul, Middle Mile, and Spectrum Resources
- Funding: Promote Public and Private Investment
- Permitting: Reduce Complexity and Delays
- Adoption: Bring Broadband into Homes and Businesses
- Economic Development: Leverage Broadband for Greater Impact
The strategy considers the diverse ecosystem for tribal broadband development, including more than 20 federal agencies; hundreds of local and national internet service providers; state, local, and tribal governments; schools, libraries, and cultural centers; banks; community financial development institutions; advocacy groups; and many others.
Critical to building a “Hawaii 2.0.” economy, as Gov. David Ige (D-HI) termed it in his annual State of the State address, is building out a broadband infrastructure that was not, in officials’ estimation, prepared to support the needs of widespread remote work, telehealth, and virtual learning. “A critical part of re-programming our economy is also the creation of a healthy statewide broadband network,” Gov Ige said. “During the pandemic, the importance of broadband to everything that we do was made all too real. All of us dramatically increased online activities, such as online learning, telework, telehealth, and workforce development and training.” Hawaii made some investments in broadband and internet access thanks to federal pandemic spending programs, said Burt Lum, the state’s broadband officer. But many of them were modest — such as using about $130,000 in CARES Act funding last year to buy software to support virtual health appointments — or paid for temporary infrastructure like mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. But as the health crisis has dragged on, it’s made clear that the state needs to make permanent investments.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to figure out how to operationalize the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and early in Jan 2021 released a Notice of Inquiry to ask for public comments. While we applaud the Benefit Program, the FCC must ensure the eligibility and enrollment requirements are streamlined and build a path to make the benefit permanent through Lifeline. The FCC must not only clarify but take the lead on three key points: eligibility, responsibility, sustainability.
- Eligibility: For this benefit ultimately to be successful, verification and ease of use for providers is necessary. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), in the past, has had minimal success in driving coordination on eligibility and take up without the support and bully pulpit of the FCC.
- Responsibility: It is folly to believe that those who qualify for the program in April, may suddenly be able to afford an average broadband subscription in September. As a result, billing and program transparency is required and participants should be notified of these conditions in plain language.
- Sustainability: We join those who argue that the FCC must increase the Lifeline Program to $50/month and increase eligibility. Moreover, all broadband providers should be required to provide a low-cost subscription tier. Jonathan Sallet at the Benton Institute suggests that such a tier should cost no more than $10 a month and offer 50mbps download/50 mbps upload. A mandated low-cost tier would go a long way to increasing subscriptions and making these subscriptions sustainable.
An FCC that cares to bridge digital divides must use the full authority of its pulpit to help people through the pandemic and beyond if we are to truly build back better.
[Harin Contractor was the former Economic Policy Advisor to the US Secretary of Labor. He also founded the Data Analytics team at USAC. Christopher Ali, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and Benton Faculty Research Fellow. He is author of the forthcoming book with MIT Press, "Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity."]
SpaceX in the waning weeks of the Trump administration won preliminary rights to $886 million in government backing to provide rural broadband service via Starlink, its system of low-Earth-orbiting satellites. The federal government is now planning a final round of vetting before it bets big that Elon Musk’s technology can help close persistent gaps in US high-speed internet service. The FCC is requiring SpaceX and others in line for subsidies to demonstrate their financial and technical wherewithal to build out a network, and Jan 29 was the deadline for submitting those plans.
Rivals of SpaceX for subsidy dollars are calling on the FCC and its new leadership under the Biden administration to give those plans a closer look, and they are drumming up support for their cause on Capitol Hill. More than 150 members of Congress wrote the FCC on Jan. 19 urging it “to thoroughly vet the winning bidders to ensure that they are capable” and to “consider opportunities for public input on the applications.” The letter, which didn’t mention SpaceX or other companies by name, was subsequently promoted online by two trade groups that have competed for the federal subsidies: the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Rural Broadband Association.
Mediacom is telling heavy uploaders to reduce their data usage—even when those users are well below their monthly data caps. Mediacom's fastest Internet plan offers gigabit download speeds and 50Mbps upload speeds with a monthly data cap of 6TB. But the ISP is "reach[ing] out to a growing number of its heavy uploaders and telling them to reduce usage or face a speed throttle or the possible closure of their account." Mediacom is contacting heavy uploaders "more frequently than before" because of increased usage triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company said that heavy uploaders "may be under their total bandwidth usage allowance but still have a negative impact on Mediacom’s network."
Charter's broadband subscriber adds were down in Q4 when compared to Q3, but the company attributed that slowdown to its previous success. The first three quarters of last year were above the first three in 2019 by 900,000. Charter now has 28.9 million residential and small business internet customers. Charter added 246,000 broadband subscribers in the 4th quarter of 2020, which includes residential and small business customers. That was down by 93,000 when compared to the 537,000 net adds in the previous quarter.
Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel visited Whitman-Walker Health in Washington (DC) to highlight the importance of connectivity in healthcare and learn more about how the facility is using telehealth to serve patients during the pandemic. Chairwoman Rosenworcel was joined by her colleague FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr for a tour of the facility, including its pharmacy and mental/behavioral health division, and met with Naseema Shafi, Whitman-Walker Health CEO; Dr. Sarah Henn, Chief Health Officer; and Rachel McLaughlin, Senior Director of Population Quality.
Founded in 1973, Whitman-Walker provides community-based health and wellness services to approximately 20,000 unique patients and clients each year, with a special expertise in LGBTQ and HIV care.
All over the country people in the over 65-year-old age group are having issues registering to receive the vaccine. As states and municipalities launch rollouts through shiny portals on their websites, it appears that the seemingly mundane issue of basic internet use and access threatens to bring vaccine distribution to a halt in many communities. This goes beyond technical bugs, or even the ‘usability’ of the websites. It’s about access — to the hardware, to the software, to the knowledge of how to interact with technology, to a robust internet connection and to Wi-Fi.
The digital divide doesn’t just affect our ability to schedule vaccine appointments. In a world dominated by COVID-19 precautions, almost everything depends on knowing how to use and having access to the internet — healthcare via telehealth, education via remote instruction, commerce, food delivery, entertainment. Even our social and religious lives are now conducted in cyberspace. This divide is real and it reinforces existing, long lasting and deep, inequities. Ultimately, closing the digital divide is about more than COVID-19 — even more than about health. The pandemic has only underscored the urgency and importance of achieving universal internet access, which now impacts access to healthcare, education and employment, among other domains. In this day and age, access to the internet is a human right.
[Dr. Ranit Mishori is a professor of Family Medicine and interim chief public health officer at Georgetown University and senior medical advisor at Physicians for Human Rights.]
Federal support for expanding broadband access – long considered one of the biggest barriers to telehealth adoption in rural and underserved areas – is one of the few bright spots for connected health in recent months. Neither the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ 2021 Physician Fee Schedule nor the latest relief bill went as far as many had hoped in promoting telehealth access and coverage beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Rural, remote and underserved populations often have problems accessing telehealth because they don’t have reliable broadband and/or lack the resources to acquire the necessary technology, and healthcare providers won’t see success in those parts of the country if they don’t have a reliable platform on which to deliver care. The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that then-President Donald Trump signed in late 2020, sets aside $3.2 billion for the program, which aims to expand broadband and connected health resources during the coronavirus pandemic.
Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a speech explaining his company’s upcoming privacy changes, which will ban apps from sharing iPhone user behavior with third parties unless users give explicit consent. And he made plain that these new policies were designed at least in part with Facebook in mind. Speaking as part of a conference convened for International Data Privacy Day, Cook excoriated the social media business model, which is based on monitoring people’s behavior in order to target ads to them. Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency framework, which was first announced summer 2020, takes direct aim at any company that makes money by following users across the internet. Beginning sometime this spring, every iOS app that wants to “track” a user—that is, share their behavior and data with other apps, websites, or data brokers—has to first get their express permission. That would be bad news for Facebook, who track users to provide advertisers "lookalike audiences". Facebook has complained that Apple is using its dominant position in the mobile phone market to unilaterally impose a major change to how user data is tracked and shared online.
Relying on Sec 230, tech companies increasingly pull the plug on disfavored posts, websites, and even people. Online moderation can be valuable, but this censorship is different. It harms Americans’ livelihoods, muzzles them in the increasingly electronic public square, distorts political and cultural conversations, influences elections, and limits our freedom to sort out the truth for ourselves. But does the 1996 Communications Decency Act really justify Big Tech censorship? The key language, Section 230(c)(2), provides: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of . . . any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” The companies take this as a license to censor with impunity. That understanding is questionable. Law is rarely as clear-cut as a binary switch. As litigation comes before the courts, they will have to decide the limits of Section 230 and the lawfulness of privatized censorship. In the meantime, some state legislatures will probably adopt civil-rights statutes protecting freedom of speech from the tech companies. Recognizing that such legislation isn’t barred by Section 230, lawmakers in several states are already contemplating it. One way or another, Section 230 does not, and will not, bar remedies for government privatization of censorship.
[Philip Hamburger is a professor at Columbia Law School and president of the New Civil Liberties Alliance}
Facebook is looking externally for a new US policy chief as it moves Kevin Martin, a Republican and former Federal Communications Commission chairman who now holds the job, to lead the firm's global economic policy team. Facebook is moving on from the Trump era in which Republicans held most of the power in Washington and Facebook was particularly eager among tech companies to forge warm relations with GOP policymakers.
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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