Friday, February 19, 2021
Headlines Daily Digest
Life As We Know It Now
On February 17, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on COVID-19's impact on the digital divide and the homework gap. There was bipartisan agreement on the importance of expanding broadband access. Democrats focused more on affordability issues, especially during the pandemic, as well as improving data on where broadband is available and where it isn't. Republicans mostly extolled deregulation as a way to encourage rural broadband deployment and the need to streamline wireless infrastructure to facilitate buildout of the next generation of wireless, 5G. A fun time was had by all.
Federal Communications Commissioners appeared divided on Feb 17 over how the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program funding should be distributed to Americans hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic — either by evenly prioritizing the funding to affected groups or targeting the money specifically to students. Republican FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington suggested that the wording of Congress' funding mandate should be construed to primarily serve distance-learning needs, while acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that many Americans are equally in need of aid.
According to Commissioner Carr, it's clear that Congress intended for the FCC to prioritize students who are struggling to attend school remotely, given the mentions of educational criteria such as Pell Grant and free school lunch recipients. However, Chairwoman Rosenworcel pointed out that Congress also singled out households that are impoverished or have experienced a substantial loss of income as intended targets for emergency broadband assistance. "What's important to note is Congress suggested all of those categories are equally eligible," she said. "That's what the law suggests, and we intend to follow the law." Commissioner Starks similarly noted that he sees "interconnectedness" as a theme in the program and indicated that it should serve underprivileged households with and without schoolchildren.
As FCC staffers are still drawing up the framework for the program, which will then go to the full commission for a vote, Commissioner Carr acknowledged that time remains to collaborate on the eligibility criteria. "It's too early to say whether we're all on the same page or a different page," he said.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) filed reply comments to the Federal Communications Commission focusing on the need for community-based outreach of the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program. In the comments, we recommended that the FCC allocate $30 million of its allowed $64 million in EBB program administration dollars to the states, tribes and territories to disburse for community-based outreach. Our main points:
- The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 allocated zero monies for the outreach of this program, which will be needed if we want families across the country to benefit from EBB.
- Programs that increase the likelihood of successful home internet adoption include informed advocates who understand the low-cost broadband offerings and the needs of low-income households.
In order to successfully execute EBB, community based organizations have to be able to market to households. It is important that CBOs and other anchor institutions are able to communicate with their respective communities about their options. By providing this funding, community members will be more aware of their options and be empowered to make informed decisions when signing up for the services available.
I want to focus on one critical aspect of moving through and forward from this difficult time: bringing high-quality, affordable broadband into every home—something that’s at the heart of so many of the economic development priorities you are exploring during 2021’s conference. We can no longer defer the hard work on digital equity and believe that a future group and time will solve this issue. This is the time, and now is the moment. My top priority for the coming weeks is getting emergency broadband access to as many Americans as possible. I encourage all of you to reach out to me and my staff if you have ideas about how we can make sure every eligible Tribal household knows about the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). If you care about getting emergency relief to every eligible American, reach out to your broadband provider and the companies that serve your constituents, and let them know that their participation is important.
Beyond the EBB, there are additional concrete steps the FCC should take.
- Lifeline needs an update.
- We need to make sure that the FCC’s investments in infrastructure lead to service that American families can actually afford. I was first on the FCC to call for consideration of requiring USF recipients to provide an affordable option as a condition of receiving high-cost support.
- We need to update our E-Rate program with badly needed flexibility.
- I’m eager to work with congressional leaders to expand the FCC’s ability to respond to the affordability challenge. Congress should build on the bipartisan support for the Emergency Broadband Benefit and accelerate efforts to make broadband affordable. The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, for example, includes many great ideas and an infusion of funding.
Appalachia represents a key test for President Joe Biden's $20 billion plan to get broadband access to communities that don't have it. President Biden, who said during his campaign that rebuilding the middle class in America is the "moral obligation of our time," faces a myriad of challenges in closing the gap, from actually laying down fiber-optic lines to educating consumers and ensuring that prices are affordable. In 127 of Appalachia's 420 counties, less than 75% of households had a connected device. Comprehensive broadband access has become a fight to hold massive companies accountable to the communities they often monopolize, while fighting to establish locally owned alternatives despite a siege of industry lobbying and influence. Meanwhile, inflated stats on connection rates, speeds and affordability have concealed the true extent of the digital divide in the region, leaving many frustrated by the lack of progress. Municipal broadband is either wholly or partially prohibited in 22 states. Seven of those states are in Appalachia, creating a patchwork of municipal service battlegrounds largely fought over by the lobbying arms of incumbent telecoms. With Appalachia's tangle of broadband problems waiting at the door, the Biden administration's goal of closing the gap is a tall order.
The two biggest cable companies, Comcast and Charter, have taken lots of public bows in 2020 talking about how they are making sure that homes with students have affordable broadband during the pandemic. Comcast is serving low-income students with its Internet Essentials product. Charter has a similar product called Spectrum Internet Assist that delivers 30/3 Mbps for $14.99 with a WiFi router for $5 per month. During the pandemic, Charter has offered qualifying new subscribers two months of free service for any internet product up to 100 Mbps. While the two programs from the cable companies are inexpensive, they also provide inferior broadband. The real problem that families are having with the cable company broadband products is the slow upload speeds. Limiting upload speeds to 3, 4, or 5 Mbps is inadequate for students trying to function from home or adults trying to work from home.
The cable companies face a huge dilemma. They know the upload speeds on their network are inadequate. They also know that fixing the problem is going to incredibly expensive. At a minimum, a cable company would have to undertake what is knows as a mid-split to bring the faster upload speeds to something faster like 50 Mbps. The mid-split option has been available under the DOCSIS 3.1 standard, but few cable companies upgraded the upload portions of networks. The even more expensive upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 will be available in a few years to bring symmetrical bandwidth. Since cable networks are already overloaded, it’s clear that the cable companies don’t want to provide full bandwidth to customers that aren’t paying full price, so they are treating low-income subscribers as second-class citizens.
NCTA members have connected over 10 million consumers to broadband internet through low-income broadband programs. The Federal Communications Commission is currently seeking public input on the program and will adopt program rules by the end of February. To rapidly connect more Americans to broadband using the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, NCTA recommends that the FCC:
- Establish eligibility criteria that will maximize participation among different types of qualified broadband providers and give consumers a choice of service providers and service offerings to meet their needs.
- Minimize burdens associated with a short-term, temporary program, such as pre-approving ISPs with existing low-cost broadband programs.
Early in 2008, a group of people living in east-central Vermont, who understood the importance of the Internet to economic development, decided to act independently. They formed ECFiber, the EC standing for East-Central Vermont, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation with the goal of providing fiber access to every premises in 23 contiguous towns and one municipality in central Vermont. At the end of 2020, almost all of the roads in the original 23 towns have been provisioned with fiber. The network extends over 1400 miles of roads, allowing approximately 18,000 premises to connect. ECFiber is now seen as a success story in Vermont. Recently ECFiber voted to admit eight new towns into its organization for a total of 31 member towns, and it has just successfully completed another round of additional funding of about US$11 million to, among other things, extend its network to these newcomers. With the help of local volunteers, town and state governments that understood the transformative nature of the Internet, an advancing technology, and some serendipity, ECFiber is now making a significant part of Vermont ready to participate in a digital future, as well as leading the way in helping its neighbors and their Communications Union Districts to follow in its footsteps.
[George Sadowsky is an Information Communication Technology Consultant. He was a member of the ICANN Board of Directors during 2009-2018 and is a member of the Internet Hall of Fame]
House Republicans have unveiled their plan for "boosting" broadband connectivity and competition, and one of the key planks is prohibiting states and cities from building their own networks. Rep Billy Long (R-MO) is the lead sponsor. The bill "would promote competition by limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country and encouraging private investment," without explaining how limiting the number of broadband networks would increase competition. The bill states that "a State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband Internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband Internet access service." The bill has an exception that would allow existing government networks to continue in cities and towns without substantial broadband competition. States or municipalities that already offer Internet service may continue to do so if "there is no more than one other commercial provider of broadband Internet access that provides competition for that service in a particular area." But existing networks would also be prevented from expanding into other areas. The bill is reminiscent of laws in nearly 20 states that restrict the building of municipal networks. But it has no realistic chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled House.
[more at the link below]
Gov Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) has approved a bill that allows municipalities to go into the broadband business. The bill, which amends the Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, was signed on Feb 4. Under the new law, local governments "may acquire, construct, furnish, equip, own, operate, sell, convey, lease, rent, let, assign, dispose of, contract for or otherwise deal in facilities and apparatus for" broadband services. In the past, generally only cable or telephone companies in Arkansas had this ability. Under the legislation, there are restrictions, such as required partnerships with entities and mandatory public hearings, for local governments that want to use "bonds or other indebtedness" to finance municipal broadband infrastructure. However, the restrictions don't apply if the government owns an "electric utility system or television signal distribution system"; provides services solely for emergency management, law enforcement, education or health care; or has been awarded funding to connect unserved populations. The bill received unanimous approval from the Arkansas House and Senate.
The debate over reopening schools amid the ongoing pandemic is spilling into negotiations over billions of dollars in new money to help students who lack home internet access. As Democrats in Congress push forward with a plan to provide $7.6 billion for a program that provides discounted laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to schools and libraries, Republicans are questioning whether the funding is necessary when President Joe Biden has said he wants to reopen a majority of public schools in the coming months. At a markup of the House Commerce Committee’s budget reconciliation recommendations, which include the funding proposal, Republicans said providing additional money for remote learning would slow down the reopening of schools. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) offered an amendment that would only provide the funds to schools providing in-person instruction. “The hotspots are not the same, nor is the education that many students are receiving online,” said Rep. Walberg at the markup. “We owe it to our children not to mortgage their future on a $7 billion program that will starve them of valuable education.” Walberg’s amendment was rejected.
A new Opensignal report shows that rural areas are benefiting most from boosts in 5G availability after T-Mobile’s launch of a nationwide standalone (SA) 5G network last year, but a focus on low-band 600 MHz for SA has left speeds lacking. Compared to urban users, 5G consumers in rural locations are spending a greater percentage of time connected 5G since T-Mobile’s August SA launch, according to Opensignal's analysis, though both geographies saw increased 5G availability and big latency improvements. Nearly all early 5G deployments have been in non-standalone (NSA) mode, which relies on 4G LTE anchor in the core. But most operators plan to shift to SA where the network no longer leans on 4G LTE, and opens the door for advanced 5G capabilities thanks to changes in the core. T-Mobile was the first to launch a nationwide SA 5G network in the US.
Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel didn't make any big news at her first post-meeting press conference Feb 17, but she did confirm that she is still a fan of network neutrality rules and no fan of the Trump Administration petition to the FCC to regulate social media using Sec. 230. With the commissioner currently at a 2-2 political tie, she pointed out that will obviously have an impact on big ticket items. Chairwoman Rosenworcel pointed out that she had made it clear she did not favor FCC action the Sec. 230 petition from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration. "I do not believe the FCC should be the President's speech police. I continue to not favor action on that petition." She said she had no additional insight on it, though if she remains chairwoman, clearly action is unlikely. On net neutrality, she said the FCC was "assessing right now what the best way is forward conscious of the composition of the commission."
A growing mosaic of state-level internet privacy proposals in lieu of a nationwide framework could provide new protections for consumers and additional question marks for businesses. Lawmakers in Virginia are nearing passage of data protection legislation in a rapid-fire legislative session slated to conclude in Feb. Washington state officials are considering compromises over enforcement of a potential privacy law for the third time. States including NY, MN, OK, and FL are pushing ahead with similar proposals of their own. The movement in recent weeks comes as the coronavirus pandemic has pushed daily life further online, privacy experts say, adding to consumer fears of potential abuses. Executives warn the emerging landscape for how companies can collect and use personal data could create headaches for firms that do business across state lines.
Life As We Know It Now
A new canvassing of experts in technology, communications and social change by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Asked to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic and other crises in 2020, some 915 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists responded. Their broad and nearly universal view is that people’s relationship with technology will deepen as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions and essential social interactions. A number describe this as a “tele-everything” world. Notable shares of these respondents foresee significant change that will:
- worsen economic inequality as those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools and less training or aptitude for exploiting them and as technological change eliminates some jobs;
- enhance the power of big technology firms as they exploit their market advantages and mechanisms such as artificial intelligence (AI) in ways that seem likely to further erode the privacy and autonomy of their users;
- multiply the spread of misinformation as authoritarians and polarized populations wage warring information campaigns with their foes.
At the same time, a portion of these experts express hope that changes spawned by the pandemic will make things better for significant portions of the population because of changes that inaugurate new reforms aimed at racial justice and social equity; more flexible-workplace arrangements; and produce technology enhancements that could lead to smarter, safer, more productive lives.
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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