Wednesday, February 17, 2021
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Stories From Abroad
On the eve of a hearing on connectivity during the pandemic, House Commerce Committee Republicans proposed a package of 28 bills aimed at promoting new and upgraded infrastructure deployments, boosting competition, streamlining permitting processes, facilitating broadband deployment on federal lands, and closing the digital divide in both rural and urban areas. The Members are calling it the Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda. Each of the Reupican member of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is sponsoring at least one of the bills. [Republicans released 26 bill package back in June 2020]
Rep Angie Craig (D-MN), a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, introduced a bill to ensure that investments made by the federal government to expand broadband access are informed by data collection and analysis as required by federal law. The Broadband Measuring Availability and Aligning Policies Task Force Act (Broadband MAPS Act) would establish a task force at the Federal Communications Commission responsible for coordinating and overseeing the creation and maintenance of broadband availability maps of the United States – to determine which areas lack broadband internet access. In 2020, Congress passed a bipartisan bill – the Broadband DATA Act – to ensure that the FCC would produce accurate, reliable broadband maps. In order to fully implement that legislation, Representative Craig is proposing the creation of an interagency task force to oversee the map drawing process and ensure that policymaking decisions are guided by data. The maps overseen by the task force are intended to inform federal investment decisions – ensuring that rural and underserved communities are prioritized in the expansion of broadband internet.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said he is committed to pushing for permanent principles for broadband and data regulation. And he would like to see those principles — including how the FCC should operate and regulate — insulated from political swings every election by codifying them in law. Noting the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, he said people are looking for stability and long-term solutions for the digital divide.
While the present day may not be perfect, I don’t think anyone disputes that we have fulfilled the promise of the deregulatory era. Prior to the Telecom Act, it was far from a foregone conclusion that we would graduate to a more efficient, competitive system. A change in national direction could have sent us back to the incumbent-driven system of midcentury. Instead, we came together, chose the free market and a light regulatory touch, and a quarter century of transformative innovation speaks to the wisdom of this choice.
We can’t talk meaningfully about freedom, free markets, or deregulation in telecommunications without mentioning net neutrality. [M]y biggest worry about Title II is really that, after a few years of chilling effects on infrastructure construction, we will find ourselves in an entirely avoidable and artificial broadband infrastructure crisis. And, if we experience a chill to construction incentives at the very moment that demand is dramatically escalating, I worry that free market solutions will seem impossible – not because the corporate sector is incapable or greedy, but because they’ve been put in a regulatory bind. This will generate calls for a government-led solution, because the problem of capacity will be a genuine problem, even if it is rooted in regulatory choices. I’d prefer to avoid a government-led solution by not precipitating the problem in the first place. This isn’t from some sort of general-principles aversion to government activity, but from concern about the state becoming the infrastructure financier of first resort.
I hope Title II advocates, currently politically in the ascendant, will work with those of us who have concerns in the Mertonian spirit of disinterested, collegial common pursuit of sound public policy, unbeholden to any slogan or faction. And I pledge to talk to anyone who wants to talk about this, to bring a respectful, open, mind to the conversation, and to do my best to understand everyone’s concerns, because mutual trust and confidence is the basis of progress here as anywhere.
Free Press and Access Now filed reply comments with the Federal Communications Commission urging strong and rapid implementation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. They called for the FCC to embrace overwhelming calls for ease of enrollment and program transparency, while rejecting misguided proposals to limit benefit utility, household eligibility, competition, or choice. The docket demonstrates strong support for minimizing verification burdens for eligible households, including eliminating requirements for invasive personal information such as the last four digits of an individual’s Social Security Number (“SSN”). There is also strong support for the Commission to provide regular reports on program uptake and disbursements, as well as lists of approved internet service providers and their available offerings and rates.
Over the last two years, the R Street Institute has published the Broadband Scorecard, a project which ranks every state according to how well their laws govern the various aspects of broadband deployment. The latest edition of the R Street Institute’s Broadband Scorecard includes all state legislation passed through 2020, scores every state on their laws governing the regulatory process for broadband deployment and explains how each state could improve moving forward. When state laws provide a uniform and streamlined process for deployment, it becomes easier and those states earn a higher grade. While some states did very well, no state received a perfect score.
In the 2020 Broadband Scorecard, R Street Technology and Innovation Fellow Jeffrey Westling discusses how broadband connectivity has become integral to modern life and how next-generation networks promise significant benefits to consumers and the economy as a whole. Westling uses the scorecard to demonstrates how broadband deployment is more critical than ever, but local barriers to deployment can stymie the process. Access to public rights of way, franchise review and construction permitting should be limited to the costs that the local government bears in managing them, and shot clocks on the review period can help ensure applications do not sit fallow. He finds that other policies such as dig-once, restricting in-kind contributions on filing and limiting aesthetic review can help reduce the regulatory barrier to deployment as well.
For places of worship, COVID-19 has upended traditions and emptied sacred spaces. About 45 percent of Americans attend religious services regularly, most of them in Christian churches. Or they did, until last spring. Then shutdowns and stay-at-home orders sent congregations scrambling to move their services online, similar to schools and workplaces. Many churches found themselves in trouble, struggling to reach worshippers virtually while facing budget cuts, layoffs, and the threat of bankruptcy or even permanent closure. Nearly one year into the pandemic, its effects on religious life, like other aspects of American society, appears unevenly distributed, with large, successful churches continuing to do well and struggling churches falling further behind.
Churches with less of a digital presence tend to be located in rural areas. Their congregations are more likely to be older, lower-income, and Black. Those demographic groups are also less likely to have access to broadband, and they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both in health and economic outcomes.
Internet access is essential for economic development and helping to deliver the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially as even basic broadband can revolutionize the opportunities available to users. Yet, more than one billion people globally still live in areas without internet connectivity. Governments must make strategic choices to connect these citizens, but currently have few independent, transparent, and scientifically reproducible tools to rely on. As part of the World Bank’s Digital Economy for Africa program, a new assessment approach has been developed to help test the effectiveness of different universal broadband strategies. For example, the United Nations Broadband Commission has been discussing setting a highly ambitious target of ensuring everyone globally has access to at least 10 Mbps by the end of this decade. While this is an admirable aim, there are few open-source tools to help understand how different decisions perform in helping to achieve this target. Traditionally, this analysis has been undertaken with spreadsheets which introduce considerable uncertainty into the results because of the many generalized assumptions involved. The new approach takes advantage of data analytics methods to help robustly assess the effectiveness of different strategies in terms of broadband capacity, coverage, and cost. This involves two important innovations. Firstly, using remote sensing to provide high resolution estimates of broadband demand at the settlement level. Secondly, using ‘least-cost’ network designs to plan broadband networks as if the aim was to build them, enabling this information to be integrated into the assessment process to estimate capacity, coverage, and cost.
[Edward John Oughton is currently Assistant Professor of Data Analytics at George Mason University in the College of Science, having previously been a senior researcher at the University of Oxford. This research garnered him the Charles Benton Early Career Scholar Award (2020) from the Benton Institute and TPRC.]
A $1.3 million state grant is helping Longmont (CO) expand broadband service to K-12 students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. The project involves a partnership between NextLight, Longmont’s fiber-optic broadband system, and the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD). NextLight Executive Director Valerie Dodd said the money will be used to do three things: stand up a Wi-Fi network in areas with low Internet penetration and income challenges, revive a decommissioned wireless network in and around the city, and expand NextLight’s fiber footprint into areas on the periphery of the city. The project will result in a better long-term connectivity fix for SVVSD students in need.
Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the appointment of Paloma Perez to serve as FCC press secretary. Perez joins the FCC’s Office of Media Relations after having served as communications director for then-Rep Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM). In addition to her tenure in Rep Torres Small’s office, Perez also served as deputy communications director and legislative aide to Rep Marc Veasey of (D-TX). She also worked at public relations firms Burness and Kivvit. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College and attended American University’s Women & Politics Institute. Perez is a native of Dripping Springs (TX) the daughter of Peruvian and Mexican immigrants, and a first-generation college graduate.
President Joe Biden is under pressure from advocacy groups to name a permanent Federal Communications Commission chairman and a third commissioner who will give that chair the Democratic majority needed to do big things. The FCC is currently locked in a 2-2 political tie. Past chairs have pointed out that the vast majority of the agency’s decisions are unanimous, but that doesn't change the fact that many of the highest-profile rulings are not.
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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