Monday, February 8, 2021
Headlines Daily Digest
This week: INCOMPAS Policy Summit 2021
Life as we Know it Now
Stories From Abroad
As many local governments have scrambled to secure internet access for children in virtual school, some policies could last past the pandemic. One popular approach in cities like Washington (DC) and Chicago has been providing low-cost or free service to families who can’t afford a broadband subscription, and the tech devices to go with them. Some measures are currently set up to last only a year, while others, like Chicago’s, will continue for several years. Recognizing that the digital divide will persist after the pandemic, digital inclusion advocates say there is a need for more permanent solutions. One approach that’s gained traction is for local communities to play a direct role in providing internet service — in many cases by building their own or relying on their own infrastructure. Establishing a municipal network to cover an entire city isn’t new. This year in a number of cities, the pandemic has inspired some narrower versions of municipal broadband that get around these restrictions, focused on creating “affordable networks” that specifically target low-income households. Several of these were born out of the immediate need to bridge the homework gap.
The recently enacted Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provides new sources of tribal broadband funding to assist in mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic which is exacerbating the digital divide across Indian Country. With the designated funding, NTIA is in the process of developing the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) that will make grants available to eligible entities as quickly as possible. In order to ensure the TBCP is as effective as possible, NTIA will be holding virtual Tribal Consultation sessions on February 5, 10, and 12, 2021. Registration for the virtual Tribal Consultation sessions and the agenda
INCOMPAS -- the internet and competitive networks association, representing local fiber builders, streaming services, social media and internet innovators -- filed a Petition for Reconsideration at the Federal Communications Commission, highlighting the lack of competition in the broadband market and how this threatens streaming prices and growth. The Petition also points to infrastructure issues, such as pole attachments, and highlights the ongoing threat to public safety absent open internet protections. INCOMPAS said it is time to get open internet rules back on the books to protect consumers and small businesses that want the green light to innovate.
Since Comcast is doing so well, one might think they could afford to be a good corporate citizen and community partner when it comes to bridging the digital equity divide. But apparently Comcast officials don’t have to play nice when they are the dominant game in town. Instead, the company has been at constant odds with Baltimore City officials and advocates over access to the internet services Baltimore children need for online learning. The latest friction comes over a data cap — Comcast prefers to call it a data threshold — that the company plans to put on its Xfinity internet customers starting in August, with additional charges for households that use too much service, more than 1.2 terabytes, and don’t sign up for unlimited plans. This, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in Maryland still don’t have access to high-speed internet, including nearly 100,000 households — more than 40% — in Baltimore City, an Abell Foundation report found. We suggest Comcast do more, such as temporarily waiving internet fees for families who can’t afford even the Internet Essentials package. If City Council members and advocates are tired of battling with Comcast, perhaps it is time to look seriously at bringing other players to the market or even exploring the benefits of a municipal broadband system, or one run by the city.
A recent discussion at the University of Virginia, Addressing Barriers to Equitable Distance Learning, focused on how lack of internet access affects education, but also highlighted impacts related to health care, the economy and more. In an introduction, School of Education and Human Development Dean Bob Pianta outlined a “profound digital divide” that affects communities across the US, particularly low-income areas – both rural and urban – and communities of color. “The pandemic has exposed the realities and inequities of the digital divide,” he said. “The homework gap is now an education gap, with countless students lacking the most basic tool needed to connect with the educational process.” The event's panelists were Larry Irving, a former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under President Clinton; Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), who has led the legislative effort in the House of Representatives to ensure students have internet access during the pandemic; and newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. Three takeaways from the conversation: 1) Internet Access Is an Essential Utility, 2) Lack of Internet Isn’t Just a Rural Problem, and 3) Now Is the Right Time to Act.
A new SpaceX filing outlines plans for Starlink to offer phone service, emergency backup for voice calls, and cheaper plans for people with low incomes through the government's Lifeline program. The details are in Starlink's petition to the Federal Communications Commission for designation as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) under the Communications Act. SpaceX said it needs that legal designation in some of the states where it won government funding to deploy broadband in unserved areas. The ETC designation is also needed to get reimbursement from the FCC's Lifeline program for offering discounts on telecom service to people with low incomes.
Starlink is in beta and costs $99 per month, plus a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. The SpaceX filing also says Starlink now has over 10,000 users in the US and abroad. SpaceX should have capacity for several million customers in the US—the company has permission to deploy up to 1 million user terminals (i.e. satellite dishes) and is seeking FCC permission to raise the maximum-deployment level to 5 million user terminals. SpaceX didn't provide much detail on its Lifeline plans beyond the fact that it intends to offer them.
SpaceX's filing also said that Starlink broadband and phone will be offered as common-carrier services. SpaceX taking on the common-carrier classification as part of its plan to be an ETC and accept government funding doesn't necessarily have any major significance. However, Public Knowledge's Harold Feld said, "It suggests that [SpaceX is] unlikely to fight against Title II classification. Ideally, they might even support Title II. But at a minimum, this demonstrates that they don't think Title II common carriage is some kind of horrible burden that will prevent them from offering service."
The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Harms (SAFE TECH) Act would clarify that Section 230:
- Doesn’t apply to ads or other paid content – ensuring that platforms cannot continue to profit as their services are used to target vulnerable consumers;
- Doesn’t bar injunctive relief – allowing victims to seek court orders where misuse of a provider’s services is likely to cause irreparable harm;
- Doesn’t impair enforcement of civil rights laws – maintaining the vital and hard-fought protections from discrimination even when activities or services are mediated by internet platforms;
- Doesn’t interfere with laws that address stalking/cyber-stalking or harassment and intimidation on the basis of protected classes– ensuring that victims of abuse and targeted harassment can hold platforms accountable when they directly enable harmful activity;
- Doesn’t bar wrongful death actions – allowing the family of a decedent to bring suit against platforms where they may have directly contributed to a loss of life;
- Doesn’t bar suits under the Alien Tort Claims Act – potentially allowing victims of platform-enabled human rights violations abroad (like the survivors of the Rohingya genocide) to seek redress in US courts against US-based platforms.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his business partner, John Bruce, have launched Inrupt, a company that allows consumers, rather than companies, to control their own data, to store it in pods, and to move it wherever they please. That means Facebook, Google or any other Big Tech company will no longer be able to extract an individual's photos, comments or purchase history without asking. All of that will be stored on a pod, and the individual can share the information with the company if he or she chooses. Berners-Lee explained that he came up with the open-sourced, web-based protocols for the new company while teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's called Solid and allows anyone to share information with anyone else. They don't even need to be using the same apps. So far, the biggest deals that Inrupt has inked have been with government entities and large corporations.
While the academic literature on the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate funding is sparse, especially when it comes to analysis of library participation, it does indicate that libraries have benefited from the program. Since 2016, E-rate data has been provided openly by the Universal Services Administrative Company. We use the available data to answer questions about funding commitments to libraries including total commitments, commitments per applicant type and geographical coding, and number of unique entities. We also discuss potential future research questions related to the data, both alone and in conjunction with other available open data.
A key goal for President Joe Biden is to expand broadband access to everyone in America. Since at least November, he's been laying the groundwork with Congressional Democrats to increase federal broadband spending to improve both access and affordability so people stay online during the pandemic in the short term — and to help rebuild the nation's economy going forward. Key panels in each chamber of Congress will likely play an important role in shaping any legislative efforts. As the new Congress gets organized and working, we look at the membership of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
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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