Thursday, February 4, 2021
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Universal Service Fund
In 2020, states directed millions of CARES Act funds toward broadband infrastructure. While any money for high-speed Internet is a good thing, these dollars initially came with an aggressive Dec 2020 deadline, meaning that some local stakeholders were better positioned than others to take on the timeline burden. Some PA and VA county leaders did not feel comfortable pursuing the money because of uncertainty as to whether their broadband challenges could be interpreted as COVID-related issues, as local connectivity problems existed well before the pandemic struck. Because of these factors, communities that had strong organization around broadband were more able to go after CARES money, said Jessica Fowler, chief client officer for Lit Communities. The lesson in this is clear: future funding opportunities, especially when it comes to emergency dollars, may depend on the farsightedness of a local area. “The most important thing you can do is make sure your internal house is in order,” Fowler advised. “Make sure you understand that the money will have to be very carefully accounted for. Understand that you will need support from your leadership all the way down to your planning departments … you need people working together.”
For as long as the internet has existed, there has been a divide between those who have it and those who do not, with increasingly high stakes for people stuck on the wrong side of America’s “persistent digital divide.” That’s one reason why, from the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to make universal broadband a priority. But Biden’s promise has taken on extra urgency as a result of the pandemic. Covid-19 has widened many inequities, including the “homework gap” that threatened to leave lower-income students behind as schools moved online, as well as access to health care, unemployment benefits, court appearances, and—increasingly— the covid-19 vaccine, all of which require (or are facilitated by) internet connections. Whether Biden can succeed in bridging the gap, however, depends on how he defines the problem. Is it one that can be fixed with more infrastructure, or one that requires social programs to address affordability and adoption gaps?
In a letter to Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, rural broadband advocates expressed concern with the FCC's 2021 Broadband Deployment Report and sought the expedited launch of a new proceeding for a new report. The advocates faulted the report's reliance on faulty data, an outdated benchmark for what constitutes broadband, and ambiguity for constitutes deployment in a “reasonable and timely fashion.”
In order to achieve the goal of universal broadband for everyone in Illinois, broadband must be available and affordable. However, home broadband service is out of reach for many low-income households in Illinois that are unable to afford subscriptions. Therefore, efforts to promote universal broadband should include programs that offer access to affordable broadband service, as well as access to low-cost digital devices and digital literacy training, which have been highlighted as necessary to promote digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption. In June 2020, the Illinois General Assembly directed the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council to study various questions related to broadband access and affordability, including cost estimates for:
- Universal broadband access where existing broadband infrastructure is insufficient,
- Universal free or affordable broadband access for all residents, and
- Free or affordable broadband access for those in poverty.
In Universal Broadband in Illinois: Studying the Costs of Providing Free and Affordable Service for All Residents, we present findings from our study on behalf of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council of technology and internet adoption in Illinois and includes cost estimates for providing free broadband access as well as the alternative goal of providing affordable broadband access to all residents in the State, including in areas with high poverty levels.
[John B. Horrigan is a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute and a consultant to the Urban Libraries Council. Brian Whitacre is a Professor and Jean & Patsy Neustadt Chair in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. Colin Rhinesmith is an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. He is also the Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Community Informatics.]
Schools around Texas regularly dispatch internet-equipped buses to areas of their community with the lowest rates of online connectivity. Others extended Wi-Fi into parking lots. And some systems, like Dallas ISD, are building their own cell towers to boost signals from campuses into nearby neighborhoods. It’s all part of short-term, patchwork solutions to serve families who either don’t have the internet or the money to acquire it. Texas needs to invest in infrastructure and large-scale planning efforts to really address the gaps long-term, advocates say. Gov Greg Abbott (R-TX) named expanding broadband access as one of his five emergency items for this legislative session, which could make it more likely to be one of the few areas where lawmakers spend more money. Advocates hope Abbott’s attention to this issue will result in strategic planning about how to improve access to broadband. Texas doesn’t have a statewide plan or office overseeing the effort.
Comcast will suspend its new fees on heavy home Internet users in more than a dozen Northeastern states, reversing course on a policy that threatened higher bills for some families amid the coronavirus pandemic. Comcast will postpone the new charges after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D-PA) raised concerns that Comcast’s policy threatened to disproportionately harm cash-strapped Americans who are learning, working, and communicating primarily online. Comcast pledged to be more transparent about its pricing and take additional steps that include waiving some fees for customers who cancel their cable and Internet contracts early. Comcast suspended its new data charges until July, so consumers will not see any fees until their August bills, according to the attorney general’s office. The changes do not effect Comcast customers in other regions. The company previously announced a suspension in Massachusetts after state lawmakers introduced legislation that sought to take aim at the new fees.
In 2020, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) reached exciting milestones with the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier (National Verifier). With the full launch of California on December 18, 2020, all 56 states and territories have fully launched in the National Verifier. California is a part of the National Verifier December 20, 2019 launch group, which soft launched on December 20, 2019, along with the other two NLAD opt-out states (Oregon and Texas). Oregon and Texas fully launched on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. USAC looks forward to continued partnerships with all states and territories in 2021 and beyond. USAC also expanded National Verifier database connections, adding state connections in Florida, Nevada, Puerto Rico, Washington, and Wisconsin. This brings the National Verifier database connection count to 24 (20 state connections, two federal connections, and state databases in OR and TX that allow consumers in these states to be checked automatically). Finally, USAC released system enhancements to improve the end-to-end user experience and increase transparency. These enhancements included adding a progress bar at the top of the service provider portal, consumer portal, and National Verifier Eligibility Check API to help the user track where they are in the application process. Additionally, consumers are now able to access their Lifeline benefit enrollment details on the National Verifier consumer portal homepage. Service providers and consumers can confirm a consumer’s Tribal status on the service provider portal, consumer portal, and National Verifier API. Looking ahead, in 2021, USAC will continue to seek feedback regarding system releases, to enhance the user experience to ensure the system’s ease of use, and to pursue state and federal partnerships to increase Lifeline awareness, automated eligibility verification, and program integrity.
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission received a letter from members of Congress urging it to use the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund long-form application process to ensure that winning bidders are capable of meeting their obligations. To honor Congressional intent, safeguard the public’s money and deliver necessary services to rural America, I suggest the FCC should:
- Require financial projections that include the number of fiber miles to be constructed each year.
- Require documentary evidence that backs up the projections of construction costs.
- Require that the applicant has designed, built and/or managed fiber construction in the past year or two years that is within 50% of the pace of construction for the projected first three years. The pace of the first three years' construction must meet the RDOF 40% service milestone.
- As an alternative to number 3, the applicant could provide a complete network design for the first three years' construction, by which the Commission would be able to measure future construction progress.
- Require a commitment from fiber manufacturers and construction firms for the first year of construction with documentary evidence that the material costs and unit labor costs are consistent with the financial protections.
- At the end of the first year after receiving funds, and the second year after receiving funds, require that the actual construction is consistent with the pace of the financial projections.
Since schools shut down in spring, districts have scrambled to distribute laptops and internet so students can engage in schooling from home. But almost a year later, with no end in sight for virtual learning, millions of students still lack reliably fast internet or a working computer — the basic tools to participate in live lessons from home. The digital divide is complicated to solve. The cost of broadband is out of reach for many families. High-speed internet lines are scarce in rural areas. And there's little good and consistent data on the extent of internet connectivity — something the federal government could have taken the lead on years ago but didn't. As for computers, many low-income students only got them halfway through the year, further slowing their learning. Or the district-supplied devices are starting to break down and there's not enough IT support, advocates for disadvantaged families say. As of December, at least 11 of the 25 largest districts in the US were still distributing devices or internet to students or could not define the extent of lingering connectivity needs. The problem is greatest among the lowest-income students, who also are most likely to be learning online.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved the presidential nomination of Gina Raimondo, Governor of Rhode Island, to be Secretary of the United States Department of Commerce. The vote was 21-3. Gove Raimondo has said she will work with Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to stand up an Office of Connectivity and Growth “to amplify the work of NTIA’s BroadbandUSA” activities. And not only is she a no on nationalizing 5G but she is “unaware of any present intention” to build such a government network. In fielding questions about how the Biden administration would handle juggling airwave disputes with the Federal Communications Commission (a source of Trump-era dysfunction), Gov Raimondo told lawmakers she wants such disputes “resolved prior to the issuance of any FCC Decision.” NTIA judgments “should be given extraordinary weight,” she added.
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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