Tuesday, February 21, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
States Can Fix Broadband Map Problems
Report on the Effectiveness of the Broadband Interagency Coordination Agreement
Reducing Digital Discrimination and Stressors by Improving Broadband Adoption
Data & Mapping
Stories From Abroad
Evan Feinman, director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, said states have the opportunity to correct some of the deficiencies of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Map by running their own challenge process. He noted, for example, that “communities will be able to bring forward large numbers of speed tests” – a move that could address concerns about the accuracy of the availability data that service providers are reporting. The FCC currently doesn’t have a process for challenging availability data for locations that a provider serves but not at the speeds the provider claims to offer. Addressing service providers, he said, “You all know where your networks are, and communities know where their locations are, and the only way [this] will work is if [people] buy into that process and engage." Feinman took care not to be critical of the FCC, noting that plans for the big update of the National Broadband Map were made before the adoption of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that created the BEAD program.
The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program has $42.5 billion to invest in rural broadband. But that funding is not expected to cover the full cost of making broadband available to unserved areas. That’s where matching funds come in. Program rules call for network operators seeking BEAD funding to use other funding sources to cover at least 25% of project costs, except in the highest-cost areas. States have the option of setting the minimum even higher. Where can networks get matching funds?
In-Kind Contributions: According to BEAD program rules, in-kind contributions can include donations of property, goods, or services, that benefit the project. Bead administrator National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) advises applicants to be consistent with uniform administrative requirements for federal awards but notes that examples might include volunteer services, equipment, supplies, rights of way access, pole attachments, conduits, and easements.
Funds from four federal programs are allowed. The programs include the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
BEAD Matching Fund sources also include network operators who may need to turn to more traditional funding sources, such as loans or equity investors. For example, an electric cooperative won't be giving out shares in the company but instead is more likely to turn to a bank. And large publicly held companies will cover matching costs "through their normal debt financing program."
Loan financing is also another potential funding source for BEAD applicants.
Here is an overview of the major federal funding vehicles for broadband that are helping to fuel the broadband investment cycle and are aimed at closing the digital divide so that all Americans have access to high-speed, reliable, affordable broadband:
- Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 directed National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to implement three new grant programs for broadband:
- $288 million in Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants, to be distributed with a focus on public-private partnerships to serve rural areas;
- $980 million for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity (TBC) grant program; and
- a pilot program to connect community institutions that traditionally serve minorities, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs);
- American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a coronavirus relief package, allocated just over $65 billion in direct aid to counties, boroughs, and parishes across the country and gave them several options on how to spend the money to assist in recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic;
- ARPA also included the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, with $10 billion in direct payments to government entities through the US Treasury Department for projects including broadband;
- The ReConnect Program through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This program awards both grants and loans for broadband projects in rural areas, and it has boosted its required minimum speeds in a major way. Prior to 2020, ReConnect projects focused on connecting people who didn’t have access to a service option of at least 10/1 Mbps speeds.
- The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) brought a refreshed stream of $2 billion to the program and shifted the metric to focus on where most people don’t have 100/20 Mbps service;
- The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, also a result of the IIJA, appropriated $42.45 billion for states, territories, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to utilize for broadband deployment, mapping, and adoption projects.
- The Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF), finalized in early 2020, is a $20.4 billion program through the Federal Communications Commission over 10 years to bring fixed broadband service to rural homes and small businesses that lack it.
Reducing Digital Discrimination and Stressors by Improving Broadband Adoption in Historically Redlined Areas
Broadband adoption is a determinant of health that intersects with other sociological determinants such as education and employment. Due to the rising reliance on digital technology, lack of broadband adoption prevents individuals from accessing the essential resources needed to fully participate in 21st century educational and employment opportunities. Vulnerable populations experience greater impacts of divestment, and therefore experience greater sociological stressors and worse health outcomes. These communities are left behind with slower services and more expensive internet service plans, as physical proximity to broadband does not necessarily predict broadband adoption. The benefits of broadband adoption and the harms of its absence are magnified for youth and other vulnerable groups, with youth relying more heavily on digital services. The author recommends that the Federal Communications Commission Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination increase broadband adoption for vulnerable communities by strengthening community-based partnerships to provide culturally competent resources and adopting equity-based national digital health standards that provide greater transparency of data and accountability for discriminatory deployment decisions.
Data & Mapping
Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s Response to Members of Congress Regarding the Commission’s Efforts to Develop an Iterative National Broadband Map
On December 22, 2022, members of the US Senate wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urging the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to extend the deadline to submit location and availability challenges to the FCC’s broadband maps by at least 60 days, or until March 14, 2023. The rationale was that "an extension would improve the accuracy of the maps by allowing sufficient time for state and local governments, Tribal nations, and consumers to provide input and challenge the maps." On February 10, 2023, Chairwoman Rosenworcel responded to members of Congress clarifying that the January 13, 2023 date was not a deadline because the FCC continues to accept and resolve location and availability challenges so that they may be included in future iterations of the map. The FCC rules make clear that the agency will accept challenges to the Fabric and availability data on a rolling basis, at any time. Concering reported inaccuracies in the map, Chairmwoman Rosenworcel writes, "I plan on using every tool at the Commission’s disposal to correct the map and appreciate you highlighting areas where you believe widespread inaccuracies may exist. This includes enforcement action when providers do not comply with our rules when they file availability data and, to this end, we already have an enforcement investigation that is ongoing." She concludes, "The map we have is a work that is always in progress, just as Congress designed it to be in the Broadband DATA Act. I am confident that the BDC process we have established will help improve the map just as Congress envisioned."
Peter Dresslar, a broadband and digital equity consultant for both the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and American Samoa, is of two minds. While he knows that the Federal Communications Commission is working as hard as it can to deliver accurate broadband maps to the country, some of the oversights in the mapping of the Pacific Territories have been darkly comic. Case in point: When internet service providers (ISP) reported their broadband records for American Samoa, they simply reported every single address on the territory’s map as receiving service, whether each did or not. In reality, American Samoa has severe access challenges, but the broadband mapping in the Pacific Territories is only the first part of a larger story. When it comes to mapping, what’s at stake is money. Territories like American Samoa and the Mariana Islands will get a minimum of $25 million each. The next challenge for broadband deployments in the Pacific once BEAD money is allocated will be labor forces. To Dresslar, there’s no question labor forces will have to be shipped into the islands to help with construction. Currently, CNMI is in conversation with officials in Alaska and Hawaii to see how they can strategize across their labor pools to maximize resources.
The Illinois Office of Broadband and the University of Illinois System announced the launch of the Connect Illinois Broadband and Digital Equity Planning Initiative. This year-long local coordination, engagement, and planning project will enable the state to receive the historic federal Digital Equity (DE) and Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program funds in 2024 and 2025, respectively. The initiative will leverage growing capacity within the Illinois Broadband Lab, which leverages $12.5 million in state and federal funding to support and sustain current programming in alignment with federal funding requirements; design and implement complementary digital equity programming; and coordinate data collection, research, and publication. The planning work will build upon the Lab’s current Broadband READY program, which promotes and supports regional engagement for broadband adoption and digital equity in each of the state’s 10 economic development regions. To ensure that federal BEAD and digital equity funding addresses demonstrated barriers and needs, the Illinois Broadband Lab will work with a wide range of community organizations, local governments, and broadband stakeholders to gather critical input. In order to make this work accessible to everyone, outreach and engagement will include:
- Town hall meetings and small-group listening sessions to hear from residents and community organizations;
- Webinars and information sessions with internet service providers and other private-sector stakeholders;
- Workshops and small-group interviews with representatives from state and local governments; and
- Phone and online surveys targeting historically marginalized groups to ensure that we understand the needs of the most affected populations.
The Rollout of Dish Network's 5G Wireless Network Will Have Big Impacts on Broadband Policy
In 2023, broadband policy debates will center on how states expend tens of billions of dollars to deploy broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas, most through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. But that will not be the most consequential broadband deployment of the year. While BEAD is critical to rural areas and represents good public policy, it probably only affects 10% to 20% of the population, and the actual deployments will not occur until 2024 or later. Rather, the most consequential construction story will involve DISH Network’s new nationwide 5G network, which Federal Communications Commission rules require be built out for 70% of the US population by June 14, 2023. This network could be disruptive in at least three ways:
- As a greenfield build for a new service provider, the network could have both a cost structure advantage and incentives that offer lower prices, creating a pricing dynamic that could affect all American broadband consumers;
- It intends to focus on wholesale offerings much more than incumbent providers, which could also be disruptive to the current market structure;
- It is using a different network architecture—Open Radio Access Networks, which use cloud-based, virtualized, and open architecture principles—that, if it works well, could change how wireless networks are built in future generations.
Here’s how broadband providers might react to Biden’s effort to scrap ‘junk fees’
President Joe Biden called on Congress during his State of the Union address to pass legislation that would prevent operators from levying so-called “junk fees.” That’s unlikely to actually happen, but similar ideas could be adopted at the state level and operators will be left looking for new ways to pass on costs to consumers. The details of the Junk Fee Prevention Act have yet to be released. However, PricewaterhouseCoopers' Dan Hays said operators can expect “increased pressure” on all sorts of fees, whether they’re related to activation and installation, regulatory compliance, or technology investments. Early termination fees – which can cost customers hundreds of dollars when they cancel their service before the end of a contract period – appear to be a particular target. While they have a bad reputation among consumers, Hays said these charges aren’t a pointless money grab. Instead, they’re designed to help operators recoup “costly investments in upfront subscriber acquisition, equipment subsidies, installation and activation from subscribers who terminate service before such investments can be fully recovered.” If Congress or state lawmakers pass legislation banning these or other ISP fees, upfront costs for consumers are likely to go up, he added.
Report on the Effectiveness of the Broadband Interagency Coordination Agreement
The Federal Communications Commission, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (collectively, the Agencies) entered into an interagency agreement to share information and coordinate for the distribution of funds for broadband deployment. The FCC’s experience with the Interagency Agreement, as well as the record, demonstrate that the Interagency Agreement has significantly facilitated efficient use of federal funds for broadband deployment. The Interagency Agreement has helped the Agencies strengthen and improve existing coordination workstreams and establish new coordination workstreams. Based on the record, the FCC makes the following recommendations for the Interagency Agreement:
- The Agencies should continue to work to identify and implement standardization in broadband data, as appropriate. This includes, for example, its efforts to publish maps based on the Broadband Data Collection (BDC) work and promotion thereof as a reliable and useful source of broadband deployment data among federal agencies.
- Additionally, beyond continuing its work on the BDC, the Agencies, along with all of the federal funding agencies, should look for opportunities to increase visibility into coordination efforts between the Agencies, except to the extent doing so would undermine the effectiveness of coordination efforts.
- The agencies should consider revising the Interagency Agreement and the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish a consistent deduplication review process that includes a minimum period of time for agenciesto review proposed funding before the funding agency makes final commitments. This minimum should be honored unless extraordinary considerations warrant a shorter period.
- Broadband funding agencies should explore how best to complement existing funding mapping efforts with data from state and local entities on their broadband funding programs.
- The Agencies should establish an expedited process to add other agencies to the MOU, to ensure a quick pathway to coordinate the efforts of other agencies that administer funding programs and develop related policy goals.
In a reference to all the attention and funding that is being focused on rural broadband, NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said, “We need to be making hay while the sun is shining.” Bloomfield highlighted two new initiatives aimed at helping members make hay. One is a partnership with fiber manufacturer Corning that will bring an “exclusive supply of connectivity solutions set aside for NTCA members.” Those offerings, she said, will be made available on a “first-come, first-served basis.” The other news is a partnership with Northwood Technical College for an online training program paired with apprenticeship training aimed at building a stronger workforce to support new broadband deployments. Bloomfield threw down a challenge to wireless internet service providers (WISPs), cable companies and other types of providers that have been touting their rural broadband activities. “It’s time to take back that narrative,” said Bloomfield. “You are deploying fiber as quickly as you can get your hands on it,” she said. Noting that there are 85 new members of Congress, she said, “It’s time to take your story up to Capitol Hill.”
Five members of Verizon’s First Responder Advisory Council are calling attention to a report that is critical of FirstNet’s relationship with AT&T in terms of billions of dollars in investments. The report, which was published in November 2022, was based on the findings of auditors at the office of the Inspector General at the US Department of Commerce. FirstNet is owned by the FirstNet Authority. But AT&T is the primary contractor, deploying and managing the network. “Overall, we found that FirstNet Authority has not established a sound process for selecting reinvestment opportunities. FirstNet Authority could not demonstrate that these investment opportunities were the most appropriate or efficient use of resources,” the IG found. The inspector general wrote, “FirstNet Authority relied on information from AT&T that appeared to influence the process of identifying and selecting reinvestment opportunities.” The inspector general said it was making recommendations that could put more than $296 million in funds for FirstNet to better use and “ensure future multi-billion-dollar reinvestments are supported and justified and reflect public safety priorities.” The report indicated that AT&T made upgrades to its network for 5G, which were partly funded by FirstNet monies, without first getting final approvals from the Department of Commerce. However, AT&T has touted the fact that while it was deploying equipment for FirstNet, it simultaneously upgraded many of its towers with 5G equipment to save the company money in a "one-touch," approach.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation announced Democratic and Republican subcommittee assignments for the 118th Congress. Members of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband include: Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) (Chair), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Edward Markey (D-MA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Jon Tester (D-MT), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Peter Welch (D-VT), John Thune (R-SD) (Ranking Member), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Todd Young (R-IN), Ted Budd (R-NC), Eric Schmitt (R-MO), J.D. Vance (R-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). Chair Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Cruz (R-TX) are ex officio members on each subcommittee.
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), Grace Tepper (grace AT benton DOT org), and David L. Clay II (dclay AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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