Wednesday, February 22, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
Today: Rural Telecom Industry Meeting and Broadband Infrastructure Program 1-Year Anniversary Celebration
Treasury Announces Three Additional Capital Projects Fund Awards
Robust, Resilient, Broadband Infrastructure for Arizona
Understanding Broadband Labels
Supreme Court Seems Wary of Limiting Protections for Social Media Platforms
Digitial Divide/Digital Equity
Digital Divide/Digital Equity
There is a persistent and well-known gap between rural and urban populations in terms of their internet usage. But when you look at sheer numbers, the number of unconnected urban/metro-area users is far larger than the number in rural areas—which has policy implications for how funds should be used to actually connect Americans who do not have home broadband service. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the gap between internet usage for urban and rural users has remained remarkably consistent for at least as long as NTIA has been gathering data. Since 1998, there has been a persistent 6-9% gap in internet usage between rural users and urban users, even as the overall percentage of the population using the internet has gone up. That may have narrowed a bit more in the past couple of years, but it’s still there. Census Bureau data from 2021 found that about 81% of rural households are plugged into broadband, compared with about 86% in urban areas. The NTIA concludes: “These results suggest that multiple strategies are necessary to stimulate greater adoption of the Internet, including subsidy programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), the Digital Equity Act, and other initiatives to increase digital skills, equip people with suitable devices, and ensure important online services are accessible to all."
Rarely does Congress speak as definitively and clearly as it did with Section 1754: ordering the Federal Communications Commission, within 2 years to enact regulations to “eliminate” existing digital discrimination on the basis of “income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin” and to prevent it from recurring in the future. The FCC should interpret this instruction for what it is: a rebuke of the last 25 years of failed policies and “light touch” regulation under the apparent delusion that for the first time in 90 years “the market” would bring universal service to all Americans without FCC action. In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress explicitly prohibited discrimination on the “basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex,” and required the FCC to ensure “timely” deployment of broadband to all Americans. But 25 years later, Congress was forced to find that the “persistent digital divide . . . disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, and rural areas, and the benefits of broadband should be broadly enjoyed by all.” Unsurprisingly, carriers and their allies have sought to obscure and undermine the Congressional mandate to shift from a regime of “hopes and prayers” to one of rules and enforceable rights. They urge the FCC to adopt the most toothless, least effective regulations possible. Essentially they ask the FCC to treat Section 60506 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as it treated Section 706 of the 1996 Act before it, as a “hortatory” but ultimately meaningless provision. The Commission should reject these efforts as contrary to the plain language of the statute and the record compiled in response to the Notice of Inquiry supporting Congress’ finding of a persistent digital divide that disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color.
When Congress created the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) and $14.25 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), it also enacted Section 60506 of that law, which directs the Federal Communications Commission to “prevent[ ] digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.” Congress enacted this non-discrimination statute based on mounting evidence that low-income people and people of color are more likely to live in monopoly broadband areas, and are not able to enjoy the benefits of competition available to people living in more affluent areas. Congress had to expressly craft this non-discrimination statute because of the Trump-era FCC’s capricious decision to once again abandon the agency’s Title II authority over broadband and all two-way telecommunications services. The widely different interpretations of Section 60506 are themselves a strong indicator that the FCC must adopt broad rules against digital discrimination, and address alleged violations on a case-by-case basis, without unnecessarily limiting its authority by pre-defining “safe harbors” for discriminatory actions. The FCC’s proposed definition of “digital discrimination of access” is well-suited to this purpose, as it recognizes the harms of discrimination, whether intentional or structural in nature.
Comments to the FCC Regarding Implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimination
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides the federal government with the resources necessary to close the digital divide based on lack of service in certain geographic areas and make broadband available to all Americans. ITIF appreciates this opportunity to comment on how the Federal Communications Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking should implement the provisions of the IIJA related to purported “digital discrimination.” The FCC’s primary goal in this rulemaking should be adherence to the text of the statute and to close the digital divide. For these reasons, the FCC should pay close attention to the structure of the statute and the impact its policies would have on the statute’s goals.
Infrastructure discrimination is where lower-income neighborhoods tend not to have the same quality of technology as more affluent neighborhoods. Price discrimination is where cable companies have started to price broadband differently by neighborhood based on demographics. But a more basic element of price discrimination also needs to be recognized. The big cable companies have raised the price of broadband at a much faster rate than inflation, which is putting the cost of a broadband subscription out of reach of a lot of households. If you do a web search on older broadband prices, the first couple pages of Google search are full of fraudulent articles from USTelecom and big internet service provider (ISP) lapdogs like BroadbandNow that tell you that the cost of broadband has dropped over time. But the out-of-pocket cost of broadband has increased significantly faster than general inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. Comcast and the other big cable companies have raised rates between 2.5 and 3 times faster than inflation since the end of 2005. These super-high rate increases are perhaps the ultimate price discrimination – the big cable companies are pricing millions of homes out of the market. Raising prices when the company’s sales stagnate might be the ultimate proof that Comcast is a monopoly that can raise prices with impunity in most neighborhoods.
Treasury Announces Three Additional Capital Projects Fund Awards, Connecting Nearly 190,000 Homes and Businesses to Affordable, High-Speed Internet
The US Department of the Treasury announced the approval of high-speed internet projects in three additional states under the American Rescue Plan Act's (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund (CPF): Arizona, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Together, these states will use their funding to connect nearly 190,000 homes and businesses to affordable, high-speed internet. A key priority of the CPF program is to make funding available for reliable, affordable high-speed internet infrastructure, advancing President Biden’s goal of affordable, reliable, high-speed internet for everyone in America. In accordance with Treasury’s guidance, each state’s plan requires service providers to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
- Arizona is approved to receive $99.4 million for high-speed internet infrastructure, which the state estimates will connect an estimated 127,807 households and businesses to high-speed internet access. The Arizona Broadband Development Rural Infrastructure Grant program (ABDG-Rural) is a competitive grant program designed to expand high-speed broadband in the state’s thirteen rural counties.
- Tennessee is approved to receive $185 million for high-speed internet infrastructure, which the state estimates will connect an estimated 50,000 households and businesses to high-speed internet access. Tennessee’s Last Mile Connection program is a competitive grant program designed to provide service to remote areas of the state where internet infrastructure projects would not be feasible without assistance.
- Wyoming is approved to receive $70.5 million for high-speed internet infrastructure, which the state estimates will connect an estimated 11,700 households and businesses to high-speed internet access. Wyoming’s award will fund the Connect Wyoming grant program, a competitive grant program designed to fund last mile broadband infrastructure projects in areas throughout the state that currently lack access to internet at speeds of 100/20 Mbps to facilitate access to work, education, and health monitoring.
Roger Timmerman, CEO of Utopia Fiber, called out the "army" of lobbyists that are keeping broadband speed standards down in the US. "The problem is we've got an $8 million a week lobbying effort from big telecom, and so anytime the federal government – or even now at the state level – when any of them try to raise that bar for the standard of what consumers need for broadband, there's an army of lobbying that goes up and opposes that. And they're very effective," said Timmerman. Timmerman's argument is the opposite of one routinely made by cable and wireless industry representatives who warn of "overbuilders" receiving federal dollars to bring broadband to "underserved" areas, or areas without access to speeds of 100/20. He said that not only are our current standards below consumer expectations for broadband, but they may leave us with "a lot of money with not anywhere to spend it." "Even 100-meg, you know, we're still redlining off enormous populations that have lousy broadband and are making them ineligible for funding," he said. "What that does is it pushes the programs where the money is going to be spent into those $50,000 per household capacities, into the really rural areas. So $42 billion is a lot of money, and it'll be a lot of fiber," Timmerman added, referring to the BEAD program. "But the problem is it won't be nearly enough money because of how it's being administered, because the standards are too low."
Educational excellence. A 21st century economy. Protecting communities. Fiscal responsibility. Happy and healthy citizens. These were the top five priorities of former-Governor Doug Ducey (R-AZ) in early 2018 when the Arizona Department of Administration released the Arizona Statewide Broadband Strategic Plan. But those priorities would go unrealized, the plan warned, without equal, affordable, and reliable broadband access with robust, resilient infrastructure for all citizens. Over the last 20 years, the Arizona state government and several entities in Arizona have worked hard on expanding affordable high-speed broadband access for its citizens. Although there has been progress, too many people in the state still lack access.
The City of Eagle (ID) is putting most of its federal COVID relief dollars to work building a city-wide broadband network. In the past two years, Eagle has spent $4.7 million of its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds toward planning and developing a network of broadband fiber in the Boise suburb. This goes along with the city’s declaration in the past year that broadband is an essential public utility and new city requirements for new developers to put in internet fiber connecting every home. Mayor Jason Pierce, who has a background in cable communications companies, said his goal is to use the system to wire up anyone in the city who wants a gigabyte of download and upgrade speeds at their home for around $50 a month. He says this is targeted at existing subdivisions cable companies haven’t served with fiber because of Eagle’s lower density, which means cable companies won’t make as much of a profit per mile of fiber dug as they would in denser cities like Meridian. Mayor Pierce said his main goal was a network the people of Eagle own themselves and prevent companies from having to go in years down the line and dig up miles of streets to install their own conduit if the network ever changes hands.
Since its launch several years ago, we expected 5G to be the next, big bang in wireless. Like with 3G and 4G, we expected it to sweep across the industry, changing our lives. Instead, it has disappointed users, so far at least. What is the problem with this new technology, and will it get any better before 6G comes knocking at the door? While 5G is incredibly important, it is simply not showing the immediate growth we expected. Some of the leaders in the wireless revolution are starting to make some changes in their marketing messages. One of the main problems is getting the user to buy in, and getting new technology to enter as we saw with Uber and Lyft car service, or wireless pay TV or music and videos with 3G and 4G. I believe 5G is an important stepping stone into the future. However, we are still in the transformative stages, so the benefits of this new technology may take a while to show up in our everyday lives.
In a case with the potential to alter the very structure of the internet, the Supreme Court did not appear ready to limit a law that protects social media platforms from lawsuits over their users’ posts. In the course of a sprawling argument lasting almost three hours, the justices seemed to view the positions taken by the two sides as too extreme, giving them a choice between exposing search engines and Twitter shares to liability on the one hand and protecting algorithms that promote pro-ISIS content on the other. At the same time, they expressed doubts about their own competence to find a middle ground. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, echoing comments made in briefs, worried that a decision imposing limits on the shield “would really crash the digital economy with all sorts of effects on workers and consumers, retirement plans and what have you.” Drawing lines in this area, he said, was a job for Congress. “We are not equipped to account for that,” he said.
The federal law at issue in the case, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, shields online platforms from lawsuits over what their users post and the platforms’ decisions to take content down. Limiting the sweep of the law could expose the platforms to lawsuits claiming they had steered people to posts and videos that promote extremism, advocate violence, harm reputations and cause emotional distress. The case comes as developments in cutting-edge artificial intelligence products raise profound new questions about whether old laws — Section 230 was enacted in 1996 — can keep up with rapidly changing technology.
Starry Files Voluntary Chapter 11 Petitions to Reorganize, Backed by Restructuring Support Agreement with Lenders
Starry, a licensed fixed wireless technology developer and internet service provider, and its US affiliates and subsidiaries announced that they have filed voluntary petitions for relief under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware and have entered into a Restructuring Support Agreement (the “RSA”) with lenders holding the Company’s debt. The RSA contains agreed-upon terms for a pre-packaged financial restructuring plan that is expected to significantly reduce the Company’s debt, optimize the Company’s capital structure and liquidity, and ultimately, better position Starry for success. Starry’s customer and network operations during this restructuring process will continue as normal within its five core operating markets: Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, and Washington, DC. The Company plans to move swiftly through the restructuring process. The Company has filed various “first-day” motions with the Court requesting customary relief, including a motion for approval of a $43 million debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) financing facility that is expected to provide Starry with the necessary liquidity to continue its normal business operations and meet its post-filing obligations to its employees, customers, and vendors. Pursuant to the RSA, the Company anticipates closing on a debt-for-equity restructuring with the lenders but will first conduct a marketing and auction process to identify any other potential bidders for its business. Starry has filed motions seeking Court approval of bidding and auction procedures.
Comcast is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its network, rolling out mid-split upgrades and plotting the launch of DOCSIS 4.0 in the second half of 2023. But while Comcast remains firmly in the cable camp, Cable EVP and Chief Network Officer Elad Nafshi said there is a place for fiber in its future. And, he said, it’ll soon provide a more in-depth glimpse of what that future looks like. To be clear, there’s already a ton of fiber in Comcast’s network. According to Nafshi, Comcast’s nationwide backbone network – which it calls the core network – is all fiber. Most of its access network is also composed of fiber. As the operator upgrades its network with distributed access architecture (DAA), Nafshi said the access network is transitioning from analogue to digital fiber and to a new virtualized architecture delivered via a virtual Cable Modem Termination System (vCMTS). That means customers will receive “digital fidelity all the way to the home,” improving both the quality and resiliency of Comcast’s service. That transition to DAA architecture is also opening the door for Comcast to offer fiber-to-the-home on a larger scale. In terms of where it sees fiber fitting into its footprint, Nafshi said rural areas are the most likely target. While that might seem counterintuitive given all the talk of how costly fiber is upfront, Nafshi said using fiber in those areas means Comcast doesn’t have to deploy as many active components in the network, which would be even more expensive.
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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