Monday, February 11, 2019
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As China and the West race for 5G dominance, two digital powers with very different approaches to technology are staking out their corners. One side, championed in China, is a digital landscape where mobile payments have replaced cash. Smartphones are the devices that matter, and users can shop, chat, bank and surf the web with one app. The downsides: The government reigns absolute, and it is watching—you may have to communicate with friends in code. And don’t expect to access Google or Facebook. On the other side, in much of the world, the internet is open to all. Users can say what they want, mostly, and web developers can roll out pretty much anything. People accustomed to China’s version complain this other internet can seem clunky. You must toggle among apps to chat, shop, bank and surf the web. Some websites still don’t seem to be designed with smartphones in mind.
High-speed internet is not really available where the government says it is. And that misinformation means that a lot of Americans, especially those in poor and rural areas, can’t get access to broadband — a service that is becoming more and more integral to daily life in the US. “Currently in the US, the focus is upon physical infrastructure, not upon people choosing to subscribe or being able to subscribe,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for national broadband access. Broadband usage data from Microsoft — which was released late in 2018 and is based on anonymous data the company collected on how fast its products were actually being used and updated — paints a much bleaker picture. Microsoft’s data says 163 million people don’t use high-speed internet in the US, while the Federal Communications Commission estimates that it’s not available to 25 million Americans. That’s a difference of 138 million people — more than a third of the US population.
“There’s a lot of money tied to this data,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative for Pew Charitable Trusts. “If a community is considered served, in many cases they’re no longer eligible to receive funding. If you have an inaccurate picture of what connectivity looks like at the block level, you may be passing over communities that really do need connectivity.” ISPs currently fill out a document twice a year called Form 477, which provides the basis for the government’s broadband maps. “We’ve known Form 477 sucked for the better part of a couple years now,” said Christopher Ali, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and a research fellow at the Benton Foundation. “But this is the tension between industry and regulation, and industry is winning, to the detriment of rural America.”
In 1996, Congress required incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) to unbundle and resell portions of their networks to upstart companies at discounted and government-set rates. These network-sharing rules applied exclusively to ILECs in an era before there was substantial competition from facilities-based rivals. Twenty-three years later that expected competition is here. (ILEC’s share of residential local voice markets fell from nearly 100 percent to only 11 percent of US households by the end of 2018.) Yet, these old-school regulations remain in place. USTelecom has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to phase out these outdated unbundling and resale requirements on providers, in favor of allowing the competitive and dynamic marketplace to set terms, a change that will reduce costs for consumers, create jobs and unlock new investment. If we are to meet the communications needs of this and future generations with the world’s most reliable broadband infrastructure, regulations and incentives must keep up with the lightning speed of technology and innovation.
[Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom – The Broadband Association.]
New York’s Public Service Commission has approved T-Mobile's acquisition of Sprint with some conditions related to jobs and benefits provided to employees in the fourth most populated state in the country. The state agency determined that the merger is “not expected to cause interruptions or changes in service for existing Sprint wireline customers.” Moreover, as a condition for approval, the commission is requiring the company to continue to operate its relay call center in Syracuse and honor existing contracts until they expire. To offset concerns about job losses in New York, at least in the near term, the combined company has agreed that the number of employees in the state “will be at least equal to the total number of employees of Sprint and T-Mobile employees as of the closing of the merger,” and will continue for three years. The companies also agreed to provide current T-Mobile employees with the same benefits they receive today and to make equivalent benefits available to current Sprint employees. The agency also said it will track the company’s progress on 5G deployments in New York and determine if New T-Mobile delivers on its promise to provide 5G service to the “overwhelming majority” of coverage areas within three to five years of the merger closing.
The companies have now received approval from 16 of the required 19 state public utilities commissions.
AT&T’s decision to label some of its most advanced 4G LTE mobile network as “5G Evolution” has drawn scorn from rivals and some analysts who claim the carrier is misleading consumers about the real arrival date of faster fifth-generation technology called “5G.” Competitor Sprint went a step further and filed a lawsuit to block AT&T from using the term and having a label show on customers’ phones as “5GE.” “AT&T has employed numerous deceptive tactics to mislead consumers into believing that it currently offers a coveted and highly anticipated fifth generation wireless network, known as 5G,” Sprint wrote. “What AT&T touts as 5G, however, is nothing more than an enhanced fourth generation Long Term Evolution wireless service, known as 4G LTE Advanced, which is offered by all other major wireless carriers.”
AT&T is touting its ability to achieve 1.5 Gbps in a field test using its commercial 5G network at the same time it’s defending its use of the “5G E” moniker on phones. "[W]e’re the only company in the U.S. that can test the latest updates in real time on a standards based 5G commercial mobile network," wrote Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's VP of converged access and device design.
More details have emerged from the Vice investigation into carriers selling their customers’ real-time location data, including assisted GPS (“A-GPS”) data intended only for emergency services. The reports are shocking and illustrate both a brazen disregard for consumer privacy on the part of the companies involved and the disturbing, unregulated behavior of the data brokerage industry. The Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, needs to act immediately to enforce what appears to be a clear violation of the FCC’s rules against the selling of A-GPS data with third parties. In addition, Congress must pass comprehensive privacy legislation that forces the data broker industry out of the shadows and stops the persistent misuse of data at the expense of consumer privacy.
A landmark law adopted in California in 2018 to rein in the data-collection practices of Facebook, Google and other tech giants has touched off a lobbying blitz that could water it down, potentially undermining new protections that might apply to Internet users across the country. The fight between regulation-wary businesses and privacy watchdogs centers on CA's first-in-the-nation online privacy rules, known as the California Consumer Privacy Act. The law, which other states are now trying to mimic, is set to grant people the power to learn what information is collected about them and block it from being sold, while promising tough punishments for companies that mishandle consumers’ most sensitive data. “People will recognize who’s supposed to be protecting them because right now, [it’s] no one — there’s nobody,” said CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose role overseeing the new law will make him one of the country’s top privacy enforcers.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined the 2020 Democratic race, separating herself from the pack by talking up her efforts to take on big tech. “We need to put some digital rules into law when it comes to people’s privacy. For too long the big tech companies have been telling you ‘Don’t worry! We’ve got your back!’ while your identities are being stolen and your data is mined,” she said during her launch. “Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the people who are breaking them.” Sen. Klobuchar has made the oversight of big tech one of her banner issues in Congress. She’s scrutinized Facebook, Google, and Twitter as they’ve been forced to explain their policies on privacy and political advertising. She wants to make it harder for big companies to buy or merge with smaller companies.
As a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, Geoffrey Starks said he hopes to make a leading priority of closing that digital divide — that is, the gulf between those with internet access and those without. It's one item on a consumer welfare-centered policy wishlist he said he hopes to push, alongside holding wrongdoers like illegal robocallers accountable and expanding the use of telehealth services. “I’m going to be focused on real solutions,” Commissioner Starks said. “I think everyday Americans expect that as well. Whether you’re talking about Hays, Kansas or Anacostia, people have a lot of the same issues: Why do I get so many robocalls? Why don’t I have the internet?”
Regarding Lifeline, Commissioner Starks said, "I can testify to the fact that I don’t want waste, fraud and abuse," referring to issues that have bedeviled the Lifeline program. "That said, Lifeline is a critical pathway out of poverty for millions of folks. I will be a fierce advocate for Lifeline." Commissioner Starks said he's concerned the same low-income and under-connected Americans who benefit from programs like Lifeline could be left behind amid the transition to ultra-fast 5G wireless networks. “I deeply worry that we could be the generation that causes more division if we don’t start to close that digital divide,” Commissioner Starks said. “With regard to 5G, I want it to be as ubiquitous as possible. I want to make sure that we don’t have that divergence where some folks get more and some folks get further left behind.”
The Federal Communications Commission appoints FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks to serve on the Federal-State Joint Board on Jurisdictional Separations and the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service. In addition, Commissioner Starks becomes a member of the Federal-State Joint Conference on Advanced Services by virtue of his position on the FCC.
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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