Wednesday, February 10, 2021
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As more and more stakeholders express concern that some Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) winners will not be able to deploy rural broadband meeting the service parameters to which they committed, one stakeholder has an interesting idea for what to do about this. Perhaps an RDOF amnesty program would be appropriate, suggested Jonathan Chambers, a partner with Conexon. It’s not clear why some companies allegedly were allowed to bid gigabit fixed wireless and others weren’t. One possibility is that different FCC staffers responded differently to bidders after reviewing their initial applications. The upshot, according to Chambers, is that “you can already see there are companies that seem to be preparing for the great bait-and-switch.” He speculates that some companies that bid to deploy gigabit fiber will try to get the FCC to allow them to use fixed wireless instead. Chambers and other critics have said the FCC should have requested more information from auction applicants prior to the auction. Chambers hopes the FCC will make up for that as part of the long-form application process, which winners are in the middle of now. He believes some winning bids could and should be rejected but that will only occur if the FCC changes the way it reviews things.
Population density has favored the building of Internet infrastructure in urban areas, but there has been little economic incentive to do so in many rural parts of the country. As a candidate, Joe Biden seemed to understand that appealing to rural voters was a political necessity. In his “Plan for Rural America,” Biden promised “to expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American.” As part of the effort, Biden promised twenty billion dollars to build rural-broadband infrastructure, as well as a tripling of the amount of money available to organizations, local governments, tribal groups, and corporations to wire rural communities through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program. The federal covid-19 relief bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in December, allocated billions of dollars to expand broadband access to low-income families, a billion dollars to wire tribal lands, and millions of dollars for distance learning and telemedicine.
A Q&A with Matthew Rantanen, director of technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which runs a wireless network that provides service to 19 tribes near San Diego. He also advocates for policy that will help tribes and said that money is just a baseline. The CARES Act created a $1 billion fund to help tribes build their own networks. It is a good foundational start. But there’s more to be done.
Racial and ethnic minority communities that lack internet access have been left behind in the race to get a COVID-19 vaccine. We are researchers who study health disparities. We are concerned that even when vaccinations are offered in these communities, those at greatest risk for COVID-19 may be unable to obtain appointments without the help of family or friends. This includes racial and ethnic minority communities and older adults, the age group that is currently being vaccinated. Our research suggests that lack of internet access may be an important reason. And for the almost 13.8 million older adults in the U.S. who live alone, asking for help may not be an option.
Now, it appears that internet access is emerging as a new and troublesome determinant of health. This appears to be particularly true for underresourced racial and ethnic minority communities and aging populations. Although people can make appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine by telephone, call centers are frequently overwhelmed. Hold times can be extremely long. Access to the internet, having an internet-enabled device and understanding how to use both have been necessary to sign up for the vaccine. Many advocacy groups and public health experts have begun to see internet access as a fundamental civil rights issue.
To address the internet gap, we believe that policymakers must identify lack of internet access as a barrier and protect against its effects. In addition, health care professionals and organizations can help by teaching patients about government subsidies and internet programs for low-income individuals from internet service providers. They can also provide training on how to use the internet, which would be at least a good beginning for these vulnerable groups.
[Tamra Burns Loeb, Adjunct Associate Professor - Interim; UCLA Center for Culture, Trauma, and Mental Health Disparities, University of California, Los Angeles. AJ Adkins-Jackson Research Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University. Arleen F. Brown Professor of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles]
In December 2020, in connection with a 2016 mandate to draft a report on the State of the Lifeline Marketplace, the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau issued a data request asking wireless providers about customer usage and cost information. While the FCC’s newfound interest in data is commendable, the bureau is asking the wrong questions. Carrier cost data may help the FCC understand what it can get for $9.25/month. But it does not help us understand more fundamental questions such as which Americans are at risk of losing connectivity, why these families struggle, or whether $9.25 is enough to get them online. To determine answers to these questions, the commission must focus not on carriers providing Lifeline service, but the low-income population that the program is ostensibly supposed to help. Given its institutional strengths, it’s unsurprising that the FCC would rather talk to carriers than low-income consumers. But to make the right changes to improve Lifeline, the FCC will have to reach out to the impoverished as well — or transfer the program to a bureaucracy more familiar with the needs of low-income families. Lifeline is a noble cause with subpar execution. It’s time for it to live up to its mandate.
Thirteen years after Minnesota first established a broadband task force to study how to bring the internet to everyone within its borders, COVID-19 has not only highlighted how critical broadband is for rural communities throughout Minnesota, it’s also reinforced how difficult and expensive reaching that goal has become. The Legislature has spent more than $126 million since 2014 on a grant program to address the state’s internet disparities, but the issue has once again become a top issue for many at the Minnesota Capitol. Several plans now being considered would help telecom companies build internet infrastructure across the state, including one with a price tag of $120 million over the next two years. At the same time, Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) has proposed a separate $50 million measure, while federal programs have also promised huge injections of cash for rural broadband. But even as those proposals are debated, the state task force on broadband is considering whether the bar for true connectivity should be set higher than it is under Minnesota’s current grant program.
When Minnesota first created a broadband grant program in 2014, the state had a goal for universal access to service with download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. Now, 92.47 percent of Minnesota has access to internet with 25/3 Mbps speeds, including 83.1 percent of rural areas. In 2016, the state hiked its speed goal, saying it wanted universal access to the internet with speeds of 100/20 Mbps by 2026. As the state focuses on that goal, most projects funded now meet those faster criteria and all are required to be built so that they can be easily upgraded to provide even greater speeds. While projects now must be built to allow them to be upgraded to 100/100 Mbps, the task force report says there is no current mechanism or funding to ensure that the infrastructure is actually changed to meet those speeds. In other words, even if the state meets its 2022 goal — or even its 2026 mark — experts say more will need to be done.
Increased remote work and schooling and aging or sparse internet connections are affecting rural Maine. Video calls drop or freeze. Family members find only one person at a time can use streaming applications. Mainers returning to the state to work and live are finding it a challenge with the slower internet. Faster and more reliable technologies might not be available in certain areas or are not affordable. Those stories also are resonating with lawmakers, who are increasingly hearing how internet limitations are holding back Maine’s ability to grow its economy and workforce. They are starting to respond. The Legislature stalled in the past on investments like a $15 million broadband bond blocked by Republican lawmakers in 2019. But voters passed a $15 million broadband bond in July 2020 as pandemic restrictions revealed the extent of Maine’s high-speed internet shortfall. Last Nov, Gov. Janet Mills (D-ME) awarded $5.6 million in CARES Act funding to update internet infrastructure for rural schools and high-speed internet development is part of the age-friendly plan the Gov and AARP Maine announced recently. “The need for fast, reliable broadband isn’t just a luxury for binge-watching Netflix. It’s becoming a matter of life or death for rural America," said internet publisher and knitting expert Clara Parkes.
As the Arkansas General Assembly recently found in enacting SB74, “without access to voice, data, broadband, video, and wireless telecommunications services, citizens of Arkansas also lack access to healthcare services, education services, and other essential services; and that this act is immediately necessary to allow government entities to provide high quality voice, data, broadband, video, and wireless telecommunications services to their citizens.” As a result, the Arkansas Senate voted 35-0 and the House voted 94-0 to give government agencies substantial new powers to help accelerate the deployment, adoption, and use of advanced communications services and facilities across the State. Designated as emergency legislation, SB74 moved quickly through the legislature and signed by Gov Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) on Feb 4, 2021.
Add the Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association to the list of entities that don't think Starlink will be able to live up to its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund awards to deploy broadband in unserved rural areas across the US. The Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA submitted to the Federal Communications Commission a technical assessment and model in regards to the prospects of low-earth orbiting (LEO) networks meeting the RDOF requirements for rural broadband. The sample analysis conducted by Cartesian, which was based upon current publicly available information, estimated that Starlink would face a capacity shortfall by 2028 and that more than 56% of Starlink’s RDOF subscribers would not be fully served.
The next big spectrum tug of war will play out in the 12 GHz band, where a broad 500 MHz of spectrum could be available for fixed or mobile use, possibly involving 5G and Wi-Fi. The Federal Communications Commission in Jan adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) about possibly changing the rules for the 12 GHz band that could allow spectrum sharing and other changes. The NPRM is likely to generate a barrage of comments including diverse and, in some cases, mutually exclusive, recommendations.
Radio Spectrum Access (RSA) holds spectrum in the 12 GHz band, which the company uses to provide point-to-multipoint fixed wireless in rural areas. Other key license holders in the band include DISH and AT&T/DirecTV, which use it to distribute direct broadcast satellite programming, and SpaceX, which uses it for its non-geostationary satellite broadband. The FCC may consider relaxing some of its rules and restrictions in the band and may consider allowing spectrum sharing – something that Dish has recommended.
Also under consideration for the 12 GHz band: allowing it to be used indoors on an unlicensed, low-power basis, potentially supporting gigabit Wi-Fi using the same approach that the FCC voted in 2019 to allow in the 6 GHz band. Another idea for the 12 GHz band that might build on other FCC spectrum sharing initiatives: allowing unlicensed users to use the spectrum in areas where the spectrum is not in use by the licensee, an approach previously used in the 600-700 MHz band and in the CBRS band. Some stakeholders might wonder whether shared use of the spectrum could support gigabit fixed wireless in rural America in general and, in particular, for winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. Some bidders won rural broadband funding under the assumption that they would use gigabit fixed wireless for their buildouts, but whether the technology can economically support those speeds has come into question. It would seem unlikely that sharing 12 GHz spectrum would be an option for RDOF winners, however, considering that the FCC would first have to vote to allow spectrum sharing and that appropriate spectrum sharing technology would then have to be developed.
Sen Ed Markey (D-MA) wants to see Congress wrap serious money expanding the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate subsidy program into its next pandemic relief package — a key delineation as Democrats plot out both pandemic aid and subsequent infrastructure legislative goals. Sen Markey said this would be distinct from Democrats’ more comprehensive digital ambitions, which would come later, as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure deal-making. Those include $100 billion for a series of broadband infrastructure and digital training investments in a measure led by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC). The top priority for Democrats now is pandemic relief, which could be passed without GOP support if Democrats move forward using budget reconciliation. President Biden didn’t explicitly address such funding as part of his so-called $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Sen Markey cited his own push for at least $4 billion to bolster E-Rate. President Biden backs an expansion of E-Rate “and is happy to work with Congress on how to best address the digital divide for students,” said a White House spokesperson when asked about Markey’s advocacy. But Biden’s initial Covid proposal seeks to address these connectivity challenges not through that FCC program but, as the spokesperson said, through “flexible funding for schools to facilitate distance learning and address the digital divide.”
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), State E-rate Coordinators' Alliance (SECA), Allianced for Excellent Education (All4Ed), Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) and the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) submitted to the Federal Communications Commission an estimate outlining the cost to provide much-needed cybersecurity protections to US K-12 school districts and a petition for declaratory relief and rulemaking urging the agency to expand the E-rate program to cover these protections. Cybercriminals are targeting K-12 schools, leading to ransomware attacks, student and teacher data theft, and the disruption of remote learning activities. The E-rate Cybersecurity Cost Estimate, developed by CoSN and Funds For Learning, organizes industry standard protections into three key categories and estimates the average cost for each bundle: 1) Next-generation firewalls: $0.738 billion; 2) Next-generation firewalls and endpoint protection: $1.606 billion; 3) Next-generation firewalls, endpoint protection and advanced+ security: $2.389 billion. The petition for declaratory relief and rulemaking urges the FCC to help K-12 school districts protect their networks and data by expanding the E-rate program’s cybersecurity coverage. Specifically, the groups call on the agency to strengthen the E-rate by:
- Defining all firewall and related features as “basic” beginning in funding year 2021;
- Increasing the E-rate’s five-year Category 2 budget cap in future funding years to support needed additional cybersecurity investments; and
- Updating the agency’s definition of “broadband” to include cybersecurity.
Donald Trump has been impeached for trying to kill the results of our last election, but we should have no illusions that whatever happens at his trial, the weapon he used is still freely available for others to deploy. It’s a realm called “cyberspace” — where we’re all connected but no one is in charge. Trump, like no leader before, took advantage of that realm to spread a Big Lie, undermine trust in our electoral system and inspire an attack on our Capitol. We need a democratic fix for cyberspace fast. China has figured out how to project its autocratic system and Communist values into cyberspace, to enhance its growth and stability, better than we’ve figured out how to project our democratic values into cyberspace to enhance our growth and stability. And we invented the damn thing! If we don’t figure this out fast, we’re going to fall behind China economically, because the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the digitization of everything, making cyberspace bigger and more important than ever.
Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Executive Director Adrianne B. Furniss named Simmons University Associate Professor Colin Rhinesmith as the new Benton Senior Faculty Research Fellow. Rhinesmith (pronouns: he/him) is the Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons School of Library and Information Science (iSchool). He is also the Editor-In-Chief of The Journal of Community Informatics. Rhinesmith’s research is focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology, particularly in areas related to digital inclusion and broadband adoption. During his 2021-2022 fellowship with the Benton Institute, Rhinesmith will examine what he is calling "digital equity ecosystems" in communities across the United States.
"As the nation considers broadband as an essential tool to address our multiple crises," said Furniss, "the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society will continue to invest in research that aids data-driven policy decisions. We need our best thinkers focused on slowing the spread of COVID-19, rebuilding our economy, addressing inequity, and striving for a more just America. Colin's research helps both policymakers and practitioners design, implement, and evaluate digital inclusion and broadband adoption strategies."
Rhinesmith said, "For the past 40 years, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society has been a champion in promoting equitable access to information and communication technology. It's a great honor for me to re-join the Benton Institute as a Senior Faculty Research Fellow. I look forward to using this opportunity to investigate how digital inclusion coalitions across the country are responding to the triple challenges of COVID-19, growing economic inequality, and racial injustice facing communities in the U.S. without access to broadband internet at home."
Rhinesmith is affiliated with the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, as a member of its Scholar’s Council. Previously, Rhinesmith was a Google Policy Fellow and an Adjunct Research Fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute. He was also a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Information in Society Fellow, a Researcher with the Center for People and Infrastructures, and a Research Scholar with the Center for Digital Inclusion. Rhinesmith is the author of Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives (January 2016), co-author of Digital Inclusion Outcomes-Based Evaluation (May 2017), and co-author of Growing Health Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond (November 2020).
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