Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Headlines Daily Digest
Government & Communications
Stories From Abroad
On Jan 15, 2021, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai responded to several Members of Congress regarding the implementation of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Lawmakers advocated for stringent oversight of the auction and encouraged the FCC to require detailed deployment schedules for review to ensure submissions can meet the time frame outlined by the auction. They also said the FCC should review relevant financial documents concerning a bid's ability to raise the financial capital necessary to complete a successful buildout, without undue reliance on future government subsidies.
Chairman Pai responded by providing details of the auction, writing that each winning bidder is required to file a detailed long-form application demonstrating to FCC staff that they are legally, technically, and financially capable of providing the required coverage and performance levels within the specified timeframe in the geographic areas in which it won support. He also noted that support recipients are required to report their deployed location and technology data on an annual basis in the outline High Cost Universal Broadband portal, make certifications when they have met their service milestones, and will be subject to performance testing to ensure their networks are delivering the service carriers promised to consumers. "Carriers failing to meet these obligations may be subject to recovery of support already received, plus enforcement action and forfeiture, as appropriate," he wrote.
Executives from ACA Connects, NCTA-the Internet & Television Association, INCOMPAS, and WISPA (the wireless internet service providers association) met with staffers in the Federal Communications Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau to present a unified front on some key elements of the proposed Emergency Broadband Benefit Program recently created by Congress. The executives want the FCC to allow providers who are new to participating in federal support programs to be eligible for the new funds and get the training to be able to participate in the applications process from "day one." They also want the FCC to establish an initial filing window for applications, rather than the current proposal to have a rolling review process, and they want a single start date for all providers that qualify "so that consumers are presented with a full array of competitive broadband choices." And they want flexibility in "the specific service offerings that are available for the EBB program, the categories of households that may participate, and the verification processes that providers will use to qualify households."
As wireless providers move towards using data instead of voice calls, the Texas Universal Service Fund (TUSF), which is responsible for offsetting the high cost of connecting Texans across the state, has reduced payments received by rural telephone providers by 66 percent. In response to this decrease, rural telephone providers, which are now facing financial uncertainty, filed a suit in Travis County District Court against the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), which oversees the fund. The lawsuit requests that the PUC fully provide previously approved funds to rural telephone customers. If no relief is awarded, the shortfall is expected to cost rural providers over $80 million this year and over $140 million in 2022, according to the suit.
Roughly 5% of North Carolina households surveyed in 2020 lack access to the internet, according to a pair of new dashboards published by the state’s technology agency. The new dashboards reflect data about broadband adoption, coverage and quality on a county-by-county and address-by-address basis, informed largely by a state broadband survey created last July in partnership with the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University. The survey asks residents to submit information about the internet connections from their homes, farms or businesses, and includes an optional broadband speed-testing tool that residents can use to test whether their internet speeds are as fast as advertised by their internet providers. 40,495 households throughout the state have responded so far, providing the state with data officials say will be helpful in correcting potentially flawed data from the Federal Communications Commission.
Minnesota officials announced the winners of $20.6 million in grants to develop high-speed internet across Minnesota, the latest infusion of money approved by lawmakers to fully connect the state. Many celebrated the cash, which Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, called a “vital” push to correct disparities in internet service that were highlighted during the pandemic. Yet the grants also drew frustration from some broadband developers. That’s because Gov. Tim Walz’s administration won’t award state money for projects where telecom companies won more than $408 million in awards from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide new internet service across swaths of northeast, central and southern Minnesota. The biggest federal grant winner was the controversial LTD Broadband, a company the governor’s own broadband task force is skeptical can meet its promises for a huge range of projects. State officials say it could be a waste of taxpayer money to subsidize internet where another company plans to build infrastructure with other grant funding. And LTD Broadband maintains it can deliver a huge surge in broadband service in Minnesota. But some local developers say LTD’s failure, or even success, could delay broadband internet for areas they could quickly serve.
Charter offered some details about its $1.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) win. Perhaps the most interesting detail is that Charter plans to spend $5 billion in total on the RDOF rural broadband buildout, which means the company will be investing $3.8 billion of its own money on RDOF projects. It’s interesting news because it sheds light on what it took for any bidder to win in the RDOF auction, which awarded funding to bring broadband to unserved rural areas to the lowest bidder, with a weighting system designed to favor bids to deliver higher-speed, lower-latency service. Charter was the biggest winner in the auction, measured by number of locations to be served. The company plans to make service at speeds up to 1 Gbps available to one million locations in parts of 24 states. Charter announced it plans hire more than 2,000 employees and contractors to support the RDOF and future rural buildout initiatives. The company notes the RDOF program alone will drive a 15% increase in Charter’s network mileage coverage.
Perhaps no chief executive lobbied harder than Comcast’s Brian Roberts for the Federal Communications Commission's 2017 rollback of net neutrality rules under Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Now that Biden appointee Jessica Rosenworcel is running the agency, and another reversal of course on net neutrality seems likely, Roberts was asked during Comcast’s fourth-quarter earnings call about the fast-shifting political winds. Not surprisingly, Roberts still favors a “light-touch” approach to rulemaking. However, he seemed willing to accept a more lasting outcome that wouldn’t shift every time the White House changed its political party affiliation. “If there's a way to codify that and perhaps put this issue in a permanent, more consistent place, that's certainly a possibility,” he said.
If you’re going to build broadband and have a choice of technologies, why is fiber the best choice?
- Future-proofed. Fiber is the only technology that can handle the broadband demand today and for the next fifty years.
- Fiber Has Solved the Upload Problem. Fiber is the only technology that solves the upload needs today.
- Is the Easiest to Operate. Fiber networks are the easiest to operate since they transmit light instead of radio waves.
- Lower Life Cycle Costs. Fiber is clearly expensive to build, but the cost characteristics over a fifty-year time frame can make fiber the lowest-cost long-term option.
The Federal Communications Commission has entered into an agreement with the National Science Foundation and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to support NSF’s Spectrum Innovation Initiative. NSF launched the initiative in 2020 to seek innovative advancements in research and development on the biggest challenges facing the United States due to increased demand for electromagnetic spectrum access. The Memorandum of Agreement between the agencies is intended to ensure that FCC and NTIA staff can provide their subject matter expertise to help ensure that NSF’s Spectrum Innovation Initiative investments in spectrum research, infrastructure, and workforce development are in alignment with US spectrum regulatory and policy objectives, principles, and strategies. Key research areas include spectrum flexibility and agility, working towards near real-time spectrum awareness, and improved spectrum efficiency and effectiveness through secure and autonomous spectrum decision-making. The first key goal will be establishing the US’s first National Center for Wireless Spectrum Research
AT&T has agreed to a $12 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit over its throttling of "unlimited" mobile data plans. As usual, refunds to individual customers amount to a fraction of what the customers paid for the hobbled service. The paltry nature of expected per-person payments was explained by plaintiffs in a filing that asked the US District Court for the Northern District of California to approve the settlement. After administrative costs and attorneys' fees, typical victims are expected to get $10 or $11 from the new settlement. Many of these same people previously received $12 each from a $60 million settlement between AT&T and the Federal Trade Commission, bringing the typical person's total payout to $22 or $23. (The FTC/AT&T settlement applied to customers in any state, but the newly announced settlement is only for California residents.) Customers paid AT&T $30 a month for unlimited data at a time when AT&T automatically throttled "unlimited" plans for the rest of the month once subscribers hit thresholds of either 3GB or 5GB. This throttling was particularly severe because it was enforced 24 hours a day regardless of whether there was any network congestion, and downloads were throttled to speeds as low as 128kbps. AT&T eased up on the throttling in 2014 and 2015 and now throttles only when consumers are connected to congested cell sites.
The Federal Communications Commission seeks comment on several petitions requesting permission to use E-Rate program funds to support remote learning during the pandemic. The E-Rate program provides universal service fund discounts on broadband services for eligible schools and libraries. Multiple petitions filed with the agency have sought emergency relief so schools and libraries that were shut down because of the pandemic can assist students who need to learn remotely, but who lack internet access at home. The Public Notice from the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau highlights three petitions that cover the bulk of issues presented in other petitions filed with the Commission. These include petitions filed by a coalition of E-Rate stakeholders led by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition; a petition filed on behalf of the State of Colorado; and a petition filed by the State of Nevada, Nevada Board of Education, and Nevada Department of Education.
WC Docket No. 21-31
Comment Date: February 16, 2021 Reply Comment Date: February 23, 2021
The House Commerce Committee now officially labels the hot-button issue of Section 230 under the jurisdiction of its communications and technology subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA). During the previous Congress, Commerce did not explicitly include the online liability protections among the committee’s jurisdictional breakdowns, and the one big hearing on the topic in late 2019 was a joint session between Doyle’s panel and the consumer protection subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). Formally listing the issue under Doyle’s subcommittee means that over the next two years, he’s likely to play a major role in advancing any legislation dealing with the contentious policy topic — although Schakowsky’s subcommittee will have a stake as well. She has notably called for updating Section 230 and weighed legislation on the issue. Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) downplayed the significance of any jurisdictional tweaks as purely technical during an organizing session.
Progressive groups have lambasted a number of potential candidates for the role of Justice Department antitrust chief over the individuals’ ties to tech companies. While some members of Congress have likewise weighed in publicly, others are working behind the scenes to persuade the Biden administration to consider their preferred candidates. A number of Democrats are rallying for Jonathan Sallet, the former FCC general counsel who successfully defended the agency’s net neutrality rules in court. Sallet also spent the final years of the Obama administration at DOJ’s antitrust division, where he helped kill the Comcast and Time Warner merger and called out concerns about vertical mergers. Over the past two years, Sallet has worked for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser as the mastermind behind the states’ antitrust case against Google, earning plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson (R) praised Sallet’s leadership of the states’ suit, saying he has an “excellent mind for antitrust.” [Editor's note: Sallet has been a Senior Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society since 2017.]
President Joe Biden has two open spots on the Federal Trade Commission, and some House Democrats are urging him to reserve one slot for a candidate focused on consumer protection and privacy issues. Georgetown’s Alvaro Bedoya tops many lists. Before joining Georgetown, Bedoya was chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and technology, helmed by then-Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Born in Peru, Bedoya would also bring much-needed diversity to the FTC, where only a handful of the commissioners have been non-white.
Stories From Abroad
Russia asked the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to have the group’s 193 member states “discuss the status of global governance system for … Internet domain names, addresses, and critical Internet infrastructure.” In a curt statement, the ITU said simply that it had “noted the contribution” of Russia. In other words, thanks but no thanks. Governance of the Internet operates under an improbable but wildly successful private consortium known as ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN has been a Russian target for years. The Russian campaign against ICANN and other existing governance measures is outlined in a Jan. 19 report by the group. It notes a dozen statements by senior Russian officials over the past 18 months pressing Moscow‘s argument for a new UN treaty that would create new “rules of the road” for the Internet that would protect against what President Vladimir Putin warned in a September 2020 address were threats from “various radicals and extremists.” It’s a grotesque irony that Russia — which is among the world’s leading saboteurs of open dialogue on the Internet — is promoting itself as the new guardian of responsible Internet security. Fortunately, the telecommunications experts gathered at the ITU meeting saw through the ruse.
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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