Daily Digest 2/9/2021 (Mary Wilson)

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
Table of Contents

25 Years of the Telecommunications Act

Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel Commemorates 25th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecom Act  |  Read below  |  Press Release  |  Federal Communications Commission
Video: Commemorating 25 Years of the Telecom Act  |  Federal Communications Commission
The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996  |  Read below  |  Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium
The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: The E-Rate Provision  |  Read below  |  Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium
The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Section 230  |  Read below  |  Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium
Adi Robertson: Section 230 Turns 25, and It's Never Been More Important  |  Vox
    See also: Proposed Sec. 230 rewrite SAFE TECH Act could have wide-ranging consequences  |  Ars Technica

Broadband/Internet

Lacking a Lifeline: How a federal effort to help low-income Americans pay their phone bills failed amid the pandemic  |  Read below  |  Tony Romm  |  Washington Post
Department of Justice drops suit against California net neutrality rule, but broadband providers are still fighting it  |  Read below  |  Jon Brodkin  |  ars techncia, Wall Street Journal
Acting FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel Statement on DOJ Withdrawal of Net Neutrality Lawsuit  |  Federal Communications Commission
On 25th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Sen Markey and Rep Eshoo Reintroduce National Broadband Plan for the Future Act  |  Read below  |  Sen Ed Markey (D-MA)  |  Press Release  |  US Senate
How universal service fund programs and the Emergency Broadband Benefit program can close the digital divide  |  Read below  |  Scott Bergmann  |  Analysis  |  CTIA-The Wireless Association
Cox interested in participating in Emergency Broadband Benefit  |  Read below  |  Jenny Prime  |  Analysis  |  Cox
Public Knowledge Petitions FCC to Begin Reconsidering Trump-Era Broadband Deregulation  |  Read below  |  Kathleen Burke  |  Analysis  |  Public Knowledge
"Rural Broadband": An Inefficient Solution for a Misdiagnosed Problem  |  Read below  |  Bob Thompson  |  Editorial  |  Underline
Broadband Myths: Are High Broadband Prices Holding Back Adoption?  |  Read below  |  Doug Brake, Alexandra Bruer  |  Analysis  |  Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
AT&T Fiber Pokes Fun at Cable Broadband Upload Speeds, But is it Working?  |  telecompetitor

Wireless/Spectrum

Some tribes are getting help narrowing the digital divide  |  Read below  |  Marketplace
States push for Lifeline protections in Verizon/TracFone deal  |  Read below  |  Monica Alleven  |  Fierce

Education

Digital divide lurks behind school reopening plans  |  Read below  |  Margaret Harding McGill  |  Axios
Teachers Knock On Doors Looking For Students Who've Disappeared From Online Learning  |  National Public Radio

Policymakers

Richard Shelby announces retirement from U.S. Senate  |  Birmingham News
Kate Tummarello named Executive Director  |  Engine

Stories From Abroad

In China, an App Offered Space for Debate. Then the Censors Came.  |  New York Times
EU ready to follow Australia’s lead on making Big Tech pay for news  |  Financial Times
NHS Covid app prevented 600,000 infections, claim researchers  |  Financial Times
Today's Top Stories

25 Years of the Telecommunications Act

Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel Commemorates 25th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecom Act

Press Release  |  Federal Communications Commission

Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel issued a statement to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996. She also hosted a video featuring telecommunications policy leaders’ thoughts about the Act, and joined a Twitter chat with Rep Jahana Hayes (D-CT) to discuss ways to modernize and build upon it.  “Without the Telecom Act of 1996, today’s information and communications landscape would look entirely different,” said Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel. “Coming at the dawn of the Internet age, the Act accelerated the transition from the analog era to the digital age while also reaffirming the promise at the heart of FCC’s founding statute: that advanced communications should be available to all Americans. Importantly, the Act established the E-Rate program to bring the Internet to every classroom and library in America and, today, the wisdom of investing in digital learning has never been clearer. While we have come a long way, we still have much more work to do to fully realize the promise of the Act and see connectivity for all Americans.”

The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996

Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium

The 1990s were the decade that made the Internet. And the law that ushered in the greatest change was the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, Public Law 104–104 (TA96). In February of 1996, TA96 passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate by overwhelming margins, despite being one of the most heavily lobbied pieces of legislation Congress had yet seen, with the future of some of the country’s largest industries in play and billions of dollars in market share at stake. The most fundamental change mandated by the 1996 Act was to de-monopolize local telecommunications markets and open them up to competition. The law broke down monopoly silos of local and long distance telephone service, cable service, and unleashed massive investment in digital technologies and broadband deployment. It connected America’s K-12 schools and public libraries to the Internet. It also contained language on the liability of online intermediaries in “Section 230.”

[Colin Crowell is Vice President of Global Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter. Prior to Twitter, Crowell worked for over two decades for then-Congressman, now Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).]

The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: The E-Rate Provision

Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium

A growing concern as we considered telecommunications reform efforts in the early 1990s was the creation or emergence of a “digital divide.” It is an issue that remains with us today. In the early 90s, there was a desire to harness the awesome power of advanced, digital communications services to enhance education. My boss, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), was concerned, however, that wealthy households would obtain computers and access to the information riches of the emerging “information superhighway” in ways that would naturally advantage their children educationally, while less wealthy households would fall behind. There was a risk that de facto electronic redlining in deploying new infrastructure and services would unfold, disadvantaging minority households. So we started to raise alarm bells about this. We also found a powerful ally. In August of 1993, one of the most memorable moments for me as a telecommunications policy staffer for Chairman Markey, including as his eventual lead staffer on TA96, was when he and I had lunch at the Willard Hotel in Washington with filmmaker/producer George Lucas of Star Wars fame. Lucas had founded The George Lucas Educational Foundation and was quite interested in educational technology issues. Over lunch, Lucas and Rep Markey talked about their shared goal of ensuring that the upcoming effort to overhaul the nation’s telecommunications laws would include provisions to enhance education and equality of opportunity. They quickly agreed that every classroom and public library should be connected, and also discussed the benefits of including other community anchor institutions as well.

[Colin Crowell is Vice President of Global Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter. Prior to Twitter, Crowell worked for over two decades for then-Congressman, now Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).]

The 25th Anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Section 230

Colin Crowell  |  Op-Ed  |  Medium

As the lead staffer for Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) on Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TA96), I often smile when people “correct” me to explain that Section 230 wasn’t part of TA96, but rather part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The reality is that Section 230 is contained in Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a title that the framers of TA96 indicated could also be referred to by its “short title,” as the “Communications Decency Act of 1996.” Today, however, I feel people can simply call it what they want. After it became a call-out response at Trump political rallies in 2020, saying “Section 230” now largely suffices since it has become a commonplace term. Section 230 is certainly much in the news and much misunderstood. I offer here a small bit of the legislative history from a former staffer’s perspective on how this provision came to be part of TA96.

[Colin Crowell is Vice President of Global Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter. Prior to Twitter, Crowell worked for over two decades for then-Congressman, now Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).]

Broadband/Internet

Lacking a Lifeline: How a federal effort to help low-income Americans pay their phone bills failed amid the pandemic

Tony Romm  |  Washington Post

The coronavirus has reinforced the Internet as the fabric of modern American life, a luxury-turned-necessity for a generation now forced to work, learn and communicate primarily through the Web. But it also has laid bare the country’s inequalities — and the role Washington has played in exacerbating these long-known divides. Nowhere is the gap more startling than with Lifeline, a roughly $2.4 billion digital safety net conceived nearly three decades ago to ensure that all Americans could access reliable communications. Families who rely on Lifeline say they have struggled to talk to their doctors, employers and loved ones throughout the pandemic, illustrating how significant technical shortcomings, and years of government neglect, have undermined a critical aid program at a time when it is needed most. Many Lifeline subscribers are stuck with service so subpar that it would be unrecognizable to most app-loving, data-hungry smartphone users, according to interviews with more than two dozen participants and policy experts, including members of Congress, Biden administration officials, state regulators, telecom executives and public-interest advocates. The program’s inadequacies are so great that even those who are eligible for help often turn it down: More than 33 million households are eligible to receive Lifeline support, yet only 1 in 4 of these Americans actually takes advantage of it. Yet attempts to update Lifeline and remedy its well-known shortcomings have stalled in Washington for years. The recently departed Trump administration even gutted plans to adapt the telecom benefit program so that it would have been more useful in helping people obtain broadband more easily at home, a change that might have been helpful now that state and federal health officials are pleading with people to stay indoors.

Department of Justice drops suit against California net neutrality rule, but broadband providers are still fighting it

Jon Brodkin  |  ars techncia, Wall Street Journal

The Biden administration has abandoned a Trump-era lawsuit that sought to block California's network neutrality law. In a court filing, the Dept of Justice said it "hereby gives notice of its voluntary dismissal of this case." Shortly after, the court announced that the case is "dismissed in its entirety" and "all pending motions in this action are denied as moot." The case began when former President Donald Trump's DOJ sued California in Sept 2018 in US District Court for the Eastern District of California, trying to block a state net neutrality law similar to the US net neutrality law repealed by the Ajit Pai-led Federal Communications Commission. Though Pai's FCC lost an attempt to impose a blanket, nationwide preemption of any state net neutrality law, the US government's lawsuit against the California law was moving forward in the final months of the Trump administration. The Biden DOJ's voluntary dismissal of the case puts an end to that.

California still has to defend its net neutrality rules against a separate lawsuit filed by the major broadband-industry lobby groups. The industry groups representing all the biggest ISPs and many smaller ones filed an amended complaint against California in Aug 2020, claiming the net neutrality law is "unconstitutional state regulation."  "Those of us who support SB822, the California law, believe that challenges to the law lack a valid basis," said Benton Institute Senior Counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman.  "In light of the fact that the FCC disclaimed any jurisdiction over broadband Internet service, the FCC's claim of a policy of 'non-regulation' leaves the states free to regulate." Schwartzman and the Benton Institute are helping California defend the law in court. A hearing on the industry's motion for preliminary injunction is scheduled for Feb 23.

“By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land,” said Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

On 25th Anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Sen Markey and Rep Eshoo Reintroduce National Broadband Plan for the Future Act

Sen Ed Markey (D-MA)  |  Press Release  |  US Senate

Sen Edward Markey (D-MA) and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA) reintroduced of the National Broadband Plan for the Future Act, legislation that instructs the Federal Communications Commission to update the National Broadband Plan and develop an updated roadmap for achieving universal connectivity. The introduction coincides with tomorrow’s 25th anniversary of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which catalyzed the market competition and broadband deployment that has transformed American life in the 21st century. Senator Markey was the principal Democratic author of the 1996 Act while serving in the House of Representatives. Sen Markey also authored language in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that mandated the original National Broadband Plan, which set out a comprehensive roadmap for providing universal internet connectivity. The new legislation would require the FCC to assess the nation’s progress in deploying broadband infrastructure since that original plan was created, as well as develop a refreshed roadmap for closing the digital divide that incorporates the latest technologies and lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the National Broadband Plan for the Future Act requires the FCC to develop detailed strategies for how connectivity can be used to advance racial justice, socioeconomic equity, consumer welfare, public safety, health care, education, and more.

How universal service fund programs and the Emergency Broadband Benefit program can close the digital divide

Scott Bergmann  |  Analysis  |  CTIA-The Wireless Association

Millions of low-income Americans supported by the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program have come to rely on mobile wireless services to meet their expanding education, health care and public safety needs. In the face of an on-going pandemic in which consumers have relied on mobile wireless services, Congress provided the FCC with an extraordinary opportunity to keep millions of Americans connected to critical services through the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund (EBCF). With mobile wireless services being one of the most effective ways to provide broadband to eligible consumers, providers of mobile wireless are well-equipped to efficiently use the EBCF to benefit households in need at this uniquely difficult time in our nation’s history. To help ensure the EBB program’s success, CTIA encouraged the FCC to:

  • maximize participation by making the program administration as simple as possible for households and providers;
  • allow eligible low-income consumers to apply EBB benefits to the services and devices that they choose, consistent with the statute; and
  • keep providers and consumers apprised about when the program is going to end.

Specifically, CTIA noted that familiar processes from the Lifeline program can become the backbone of this effort, including use of the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier (National Verifier) and National Lifeline Accountability Database (NLAD), while the Commission also provides clear guidance for providers utilizing their own or third party verification programs. The FCC should also make clear that the EBB benefit could be applied to any service offering (or combination of service offerings) that the provider made available to consumers on December 1, 2020 which includes broadband Internet access service. Further, the FCC should take a functional approach to defining connected devices eligible for EBB support that entrusts consumers with the ability to determine what devices will best enable them to access the broadband services that they need and apply the EBB to those devices.

Cox interested in participating in Emergency Broadband Benefit

Jenny Prime  |  Analysis  |  Cox

Cox urges the Federal Communications Commission to consider the following principles in adopting rules to effectuate the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: (1) allow customers to apply the benefit to their existing broadband service or other broadband service of their choice; (2) maximize consumers’ opportunities to select service from the providers of their choice; and (3) provide benefit certainty for consumers and providers regarding the termination of the program. On item #2, Cox thinks the FCC should:

  • make clear that eligible telecommunications carriers (“ETCs”) may serve as participating providers in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program throughout their service footprints even if providers do not hold ETC status in all of its footprint
  • allow consumers to choose their EBB provider by requiring consumers to affirmatively elect to participate in a provider’s EBB Program; providers should not be permitted to automatically enroll customers
  • streamline the qualification process, and
  • facilitate participation by making clear that the Emergency Broadband Benefit program is a federal one.

Public Knowledge Petitions FCC to Begin Reconsidering Trump-Era Broadband Deregulation

Kathleen Burke  |  Analysis  |  Public Knowledge

Public Knowledge filed a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider the agency’s determination under Chairman Pai that its deregulatory agenda was more important than public safety, the infrastructure access necessary for broadband competition, or universal service. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals, while upholding much of the Pai FCC’s order, reversed the agency’s attempt to preempt state regulation of broadband and ordered the FCC to reconsider its approach to several important policy issues. Public Knowledge’s petition focuses on procedural and legal defects in how the FCC considered these issues.

"Rural Broadband": An Inefficient Solution for a Misdiagnosed Problem

Bob Thompson  |  Editorial  |  Underline

The emphasis on “rural broadband” misses potentially the most important long-term issue. For valuable reasons, policymakers are focusing on the immediate issue of lack of internet access. However, delivering ultra-fast connectivity at an affordable price in a socially equitable manner in all of our American communities is just the table stakes. The larger necessity we’re entirely failing to look at is that the vast preponderance of communities is also in dire need of modernized community water systems, responsible energy and smart grid solutions, transportation and mobility solutions, and other “secure smart cities” applications. The foundation to modernizing and interconnecting all this critical community infrastructure is extensive community fiber. It’s also worth noting that even if the problem was simply one of internet access, “broadband” is certainly not the solution. The Federal Communications Commission's recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, and the preliminary rural broadband funding plans from the new administration, operate on the basis of the FCC definition of adequate internet connectivity: 25 megabits of download speed over 3 megabits of upload speed (25/3mbps). This threshold for determining if a community has adequate information access is so woefully outdated as to be meaningless in the current world of remote work, remote education, and distributed healthcare. In our rush to do “something” tangible and immediate, we have misdiagnosed the problem and have therefore mischaracterized the solution. As a result, we risk wasting tens of billions of dollars of economic resources at a time when we simply don’t have that luxury. As a nation we already face a cumulative, deferred infrastructure need of $5-8 trillion. Far worse though, we risk wasting a decade of precious time building the wrong infrastructure to meet outdated standards, exclusively focused on “rural” America. There is a better way. As a nation, if we are willing to engage with the complexity of this issue, we can establish a new paradigm: we build open access, multi-purpose fiber networks that can achieve both the table stakes of ultra-fast connectivity, and provide the foundation upon which our communities can develop and modernize the other critical community infrastructure they require for a vibrant and healthy future.‍

Broadband Myths: Are High Broadband Prices Holding Back Adoption?

Doug Brake, Alexandra Bruer  |  Analysis  |  Information Technology & Innovation Foundation

Broadband affordability is a problem for some Americans, but not the “crisis” advocates claim. Municipal broadband prices are not substantially different from private ISPs’ broadband prices. After accounting for associated costs, private entry-level broadband plans are comparable to, if not more affordable than, municipal broadband. US entry-level broadband rates are also comparable with prices in peer nations. Studies focused on advertised prices often fail to account for average income. Normalizing the data demonstrates America’s competitive rates. Affordability is only part of the adoption problem in America’s digital divide. Digital literacy, device costs, and other barriers also hamper adoption. So, to get more people online, policymakers need to avoid affordability tunnel vision. Congress should provide flexible subsidies directly to low-income users rather than attempt large changes to industry structure. Policymakers also should incorporate automatic stabilizers to surge broadband benefits during economic downturns.

Wireless

Some tribes are getting help narrowing the digital divide

  |  Marketplace

In Indian Country, the proportion of households with high-speed internet access has consistently lagged behind the rest of the US. There has been some work to improve things, with an influx of federal funding helping some tribes build their own broadband networks. A Federal Communications Commission program is giving tribes across the US wireless-spectrum licenses for free. But tribes still have to build and pay for the infrastructure to broadcast high-speed broadband. “There are going to be 200 to 300 projects that are going to be built in Indian Country,” said former FCC official Geoff Blackwell. He’s with Amerind Risk Management, a Native-owned insurance company that also helps tribes build broadband infrastructure.

States push for Lifeline protections in Verizon/TracFone deal

Monica Alleven  |  Fierce

The attorneys general from 16 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to the Federal Communications urging the agency to request additional information from Verizon about its planned TracFone Wireless acquisition. “The potential for Verizon to pursue additional profits by reducing the access and/or quality of Lifeline services could shut out millions of low-income Americans from adequate communications services,” they wrote. “Considering the fundamental role that cellular telephones play in accessing modern society and the modern economy, it is imperative that Lifeline services be protected and maintained if this transaction is approved.” The AGs want the FCC to adopt specific conditions that protect Lifeline customers, such as a commitment by Verizon to provide Lifeline services at an affordable rate and at a quality commensurate with modern standards. Alternatively, it could require that Verizon offer, for a period of years, Lifeline service packages that are at least as consumer friendly or more than TracFone’s existing lowest cost Lifeline packages. They also point out that a merger of the leading mobile network operator and the leading mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) in an “already concentrated mobile wireless market” would see the last significant MVNO integrated into a national facilities-based provider.

Education

Digital divide lurks behind school reopening plans

Margaret Harding McGill  |  Axios

Students without reliable in-home internet are already at an educational deficit, and many of the remote learning tools the pandemic has ushered in are here to stay. Experts and advocates worry that unconnected students could permanently fall behind their more wired peers if they don't get assistance now. Schools scrambling to ensure that students can get online at home have tapped public and private resources to connect an estimated 3 million kids since the pandemic began, according to a tally from EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on school connectivity. But another 12 million kids still don't have the connections they need for distance learning, according to a January report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group. And that analysis found that 75% of pandemic-related efforts to close the digital divide will expire in three years. What could help: Money. 

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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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