Monday, February 15, 2021
Headlines Daily Digest
A panel was assembled at the Federal Communications Commission to discuss the implementation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. Among the panelists were non-profit organizations, service provider associations and service providers. Open items discussed included how to qualify participants for the program, how to maximize service provider competitiveness, and how to prepare for the program phase-out.
Some participants, including Erica Myers, who is Microsoft’s lead on the Airband rural broadband program, suggested that the online process of enrolling in Lifeline may be too difficult and a call center should be created to help people enroll. Mike Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs and business development for NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association, said the FCC should use the Lifeline verifier database to certify EBB applicants but said the program needs a self-certification option as well and should include some form of virtual assistance.
Several panelists said they hoped providers would not restrict EBB participants to lower speed service and several argued that the participants would have the greatest choice if more providers were to join the program. Steve Morris, vice president and deputy general counsel for NCTA—The Internet & Television Association, urged the FCC to establish a single start date for all service providers participating in the EBB program so that the providers would all be on a level playing field. A key concern for multiple panel participants was that there is no clear expiration date for the EBB program. Instead, it will simply end when the money runs out.
Congress provided $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which will provide discounts of up to $50 a month for internet service, and up to $75 on Tribal Lands. It will also provide eligible consumers an opportunity to receive a discount on a computer or tablet. I believe in the urgency of now. We are stronger when we are all connected and this program is a powerful way to help make it happen. So we need to make the hard choices that are required and get it up and running. This means outreach efforts not only by this agency but also by all of our partners in this program and everyone represented here today. It means policies that encourage robust participation by providers. It means wrestling with the privacy challenges under the law. And it means making sure that participants have clear and easy-to-follow rules of the road.
There are lots of details to work out, but the two biggest issues we face in setting up the Emergency Broadband Benefit program are both on the agenda today: First, how will we get the word out? We need a broad, collaborative outreach effort that must coordinate across the federal government and also include state and local governments, broadband providers, nonprofits, philanthropy, educators, and direct service providers. It also means making the sign-up process as straightforward and simple as possible.
The second issue is maximizing the number of broadband providers who participate. We will only succeed in reaching every eligible community if a wide variety of providers—big and small—join the effort. My conversations with broadband providers over the last year give me confidence we can meet that goal. Many of them responded to the pandemic with programs to support their communities. The Emergency Broadband Benefit should expand, extend, and amplify those efforts—and bring new providers to the table. I look forward to hearing from today’s panelists on how we remove any unnecessary hurdles to provider participation and ample consumer choice.
The NARUC board of directors unanimously approved: Resolution on the Federal Communications Commission’s Review of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction Bidders Long Forms
Resolution urges the Federal Communications Commission to closely scrutinize the long-form applications and subsequently filed technical, financial, and managerial information of provisional RDOF support winners to ensure that each provider does, in fact, have the technical, financial, managerial, operational skills, capabilities, and resources to deliver the services at the speeds and latency tiers they have pledged for every American they plan to serve, regardless of the technology they usee; and be it be further; Resolved that NARUC encourages the FCC to seek and incorporate opportunities for input into its RDOF long-form review so as to ensure the success of the program and to minimize the possibility of waste, fraud, or abuse of USF funds.
LTD Broadband garnered the largest award of any company in the Federal Communications Commission’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction. As part of its RDOF pledge, LTD will provide broadband in parts of 15 states at speeds of at least 1 Gbps down and 500 Mbps up. And it’s promised to lay fiber when necessary to achieve those gigabit speeds, which may mean it will primarily be laying fiber with its RDOF money. Corey Hauer, CEO of LTD Broadband, said LTD plans to deliver on its promise of fiber to rural areas, and he doesn’t seem daunted by the cost, even though the expense of fiber has humbled large companies in the past, such as Verizon. He said it’s hard for providers to lay fiber in urban and suburban areas because there is a lot of existing infrastructure to contend with such as natural gas lines, sewer pipes, water systems and buildings. “Our theory is that it’s going to be easier to do in rural areas,” he said. “Fiber is primarily a labor proposition." He said his company will be able to deploy fiber faster and cost-effectively in rural because there are less obstacles. He said LTD will probably lay fiber using both methods: in-the-ground and aerial on existing infrastructure such as telephone wires.
Sufficient access to and utilization of broadband is an ongoing concern for rural economic development. Using a rural region in Northern New York, we consider the investment and operational costs of a broadband cooperative and determine service prices for which it is financially viable. Service prices need to increase 75%–131%, depending on grant restrictions, relative to existing market prices for a new broadband cooperative to become financially feasible. Put differently, the cooperative would not cash flow at market prices unless there was at least 14 potential subscribers per mile at a 62% take rate. For a cooperative, the grant restriction that providers offer a minimum level of speed at a maximum price results in a high level of subsidization by high-speed to low-speed members to support the business. Given grant funding and member equity investments, financial infeasibility has little to do with construction costs, than with annual operational and maintenance costs required to sustain the system long term. More reasonable feasibility scenarios occur for existing utility cooperatives expanding services into broadband, particularly areas with a high proportion of high-speed, year-round users and strong take rates. Consideration of public benefits of broadband arguably needs to be added to the equation, particularly surrounding access to healthcare and educational purposes, and as a prerequisite to supporting taxpayer-funded public-private partnerships to expand broadband services. Policy levers to eliminate or subsidize property taxes and pole rental costs reduce cash flow prices considerably; however, feasibility is highly sensitive to assumed take rates.
As many of the nation’s pupils close in on a year of virtual remote learning, public policy analysts are highlighting the scope of the digital divide and ways in which policymakers can close it. While policymakers have made efforts to expand access to computers and broadband since the COVID-19 pandemic began, analysts say up to 12 million K-12 students remain underserved. Digital inequity is most pronounced in the southern states and rural areas like Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi. The divide also severely affects Black, Latino and Indigenous students, who make up about 55 percent of disconnected students, while representing about 40 percent of total affected students. Sixty percent of disconnected K–12 students’ families are unable to afford digital devices, and about 25 percent, many of them rural and Native American, lack access to reliable broadband service entirely. Approximately 40 percent also face “insufficient digital literacy or language barriers.” Schools across the country received $1.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding last year to help close these gaps as schools pivoted to virtual learning amid school closures. States also took the initiative to mitigate the divide with limited resources. Addressing tech adoption and affordability gaps for students nationwide will require an additional $6 billion to $11 billion in the first year and $4 to $8 billion annually after that. Funds will need to go toward installation, service fees, devices, repairs and support for Internet connectivity and e-learning devices. Additional funding will be needed to connect all students with broadband infrastructure capable of 100/100 Mbps.
Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and John Thune (R-SD) sent a letter to to Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission Jessica Rosenworcel raising concerns about the Universal Service Fund’s (USF) long-term sustainability as a mechanism to close the nation’s digital divide. With the USF contribution factor now at 31.8 percent and since the FCC recently issued a Public Notice seeking comment on potentially reinterpreting Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow a potentially drastic expansion of the E-Rate, the senators asked for answers to the following questions by February 26:
- Has the Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) calculated the amount of additional funding that would be required to support distance learning? Although the Public Notice anticipated that more funding would be required, it failed to estimate a specific figure. Has the Commission calculated the impact on the contribution factor if these petitions are granted? If OEA has not made this calculation, we ask that it be done and an answer provided to the Committee.
- Over the course of the pandemic, Congress has provided tens of billions of dollars in aid for K-12 education, often expressly allowing the funds to be used to support distance learning. Given that the Commission has worked with the Department of Education to allocate those funds, please provide an update on the implementation of those initiatives. Have you determined that these funds will be insufficient? With the bulk of COVID-related education funding recently provided in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, are you coordinating with the Department of Education to ensure available funding is used before increasing the burdens on the USF?
- In addition to funding expressly for schools, the billions of dollars made available through the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program are intended to help connect families that could otherwise not afford broadband. Is there any reason to believe this program will fail to connect families with school-aged children? If so, please explain how E-Rate expansion could succeed where the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program fails. In addition, how will you account for the funding provided by this program when making decisions regarding E-Rate expansion?
- In order to constrain skyrocketing expenses, would funding to now-empty schools be reduced and redirected to their remote students? If not, please explain why the Commission continues to spend money on broadband to shuttered schools while expanding the E-Rate program to fund connections to students whose schools have not yet reopened.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently advises that schools may begin to reopen with certain safety precautions in place. The ongoing rollout of vaccines should also lead to schools reopening at a faster pace. If the Commission chooses to reinterpret Section 254 of the Telecommunications Act, how quickly do you anticipate the E-Rate program could be transformed to support spending for internet services outside of traditional classrooms? Additionally, how quickly do you anticipate the funding could be disbursed by the Universal Service Administrative Company, and students obtain access to broadband services in their homes? How would the Commission prioritize the funding and would schools that have safely reopened be eligible for the additional spending? Will a potential expansion of the E-Rate program meaningfully help manage the impact of the pandemic in a timely manner as schools reopen across the country? As this expansion is intended to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, what is your plan for winding down this additional spending once the pandemic has been brought under control and students and teachers return to classrooms?
- With the contribution factor climbing to an all-time high, are you considering safeguards such as a cap on the contribution factor to ensure that the burdens of these programs do not fall on those who can least afford them? If not, please explain how you would protect Americans from ever-increasing fees.
- Given the inherent differences of providing service to students’ homes instead of classrooms, what rules would you need to implement in order to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse? Do you plan on following current Commission precedent of making any proposed rules available to the public prior to a vote?
Section 230 of the Communications Act has been dubbed the “twenty six words” that created the interactive free expression of the internet: No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. This simple piece of legislation provides immunity from liability as a speaker or publisher for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who host and moderate information provided by third-party users. It applies to major platforms like Twitter and YouTube, newspapers with comment sections, business review sites like Yelp, and every other online service or website that accepts material from users. Public Knowledge hopes to advance a dialogue by introducing a set of principles — guardrails, if you will — for lawmakers and others interested in developing or evaluating proposals to alter Section 230.
- Clear Due Process and Transparency: Users should have a clear idea about what content is or is not allowed on the platform, why their content was taken down, and how to avail themselves of a transparent and equitable appeals process with the platform.
- Protecting the Voices of Marginalized Communities: Members of marginalized communities are often subjected to harassment online, which in many cases means these voices are less likely to engage in the kind of speech that Section 230 was meant to protect in the first place. Any Section 230 reform must consider the effect it could have on these voices.
- Streamlined Content Moderation Process: Content moderation processes should be clear and concise and should not involve an overly legal process for content moderation decisions.
- One Size Does Not Fit All: Outright repeal of Section 230 would exacerbate the very thing we need most to challenge the dominance of the largest platforms — new market entrants. Policymakers can encourage market entry and promote platform competition by limiting the reforms to 230 to larger platforms or by providing some accommodation for smaller platforms.
- Section 230 and Business Activity: Section 230 does not protect business activities from sensible business regulation, including business activities that stem from user-generated content in some way. Most judges have reached this conclusion already but it is an area to be aware of that may require legislative clarification.
- Pay to Play: Section 230 was designed to protect user speech, not advertising-based business models. Platforms do not need to be shielded by Section 230 for content they have accepted payment to publish.
- Conduct, Not Content: Section 230 has allowed platforms to give voice to so many different political issues and movements, like the Black Lives Matter, Christian Coalition, Arab Spring, and #MeToo movements. Focusing on conduct allows future content to flourish but makes sure that platforms adhere to certain guidelines.
- Promote User Choices: Policymakers can empower users to move to other platform options or create new platform options by requiring interoperability of platforms. This would reduce barriers to data flows, promoting user choice online as well as a user’s ability to speak legally on alternative platforms.
- Establish That Any Section 230 Reforms Meant To Address Alleged Harms Actually Have the Ability To Do So: Some reform proposals seek to revoke Section 230 liability protections for platforms without adequately establishing that doing so addresses the very harm lawmakers are trying to prevent. Lawmakers should address the root of the problem and not merely view every problem as a Section 230 problem.
One of the oldest standing legislative committees in the U.S. Senate, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has jurisdiction over communications, interstate commerce, science, and technology policy. In the 117th Congress, broadband access will likely remain a priority. With the results of the 2020 elections, the Commerce Committee is experiencing a change in leadership. On February 3, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said leaders of both parties had finalized the organizing resolution for the new Democratic-controlled Senate. Modeled after the agreement of the chamber's last power-sharing arrangement in 2001, each party will have an equal number of committee seats, but the majority party will hold committee chairmanships and control the agenda, setting the schedule for nominees and legislation to come to the floor for votes, even if committee votes are tied. The committee will be comprised of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Here we look briefly at their broadband priorities.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) officially became the first woman to chair the Senate Commerce Committee, and she pledged to use the gavel to work on improving diversity in STEM fields. "To my fellow colleagues, all of you but particularly the women, I hope that we can do a better job on strategies to help women in the workforce, particularly in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math," she said. Before her tenure as senator, Cantwell worked for the Seattle-based Internet startup RealNetworks in the late '90s. “I may be the first woman [to lead] this committee, but… I don’t plan on being the last,” she added.
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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