Monday, March 1, 2021
Headlines Daily Digest
In its efforts to help people deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in late 2020. The Federal Communications Commission will run the program, starting it in Spring 2021. The program offers discounts off of people's monthly internet access bills to help connect households that find it hard to afford broadband service. Households can also get discounts on a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer. Broadband providers will receive up to $50/month for providing service to low-income households ($75/month if the household is on Tribal Land). Broadband providers pass on that savings to low-income subscribers. If the provider offers and the consumer picks a plan that regularly costs $50/month or less, the consumer will receive that service for free at least up until the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program’s last month of support. The service can be standalone broadband or a bundle of services including broadband, telephone, texting, and the rental fee on the equipment that makes the service possible (like a modem). The government will also give a broadband provider up to $100 if a household purchases one of the provider’s connected devices (laptop, desktop, or tablet computer) for no less than $10 and no more than $50. A household can only buy one of these discounted devices and there is no discount on smartphones. A connected device must be Wi-Fi enabled and support video conferencing.
Adopting these rules today is just the first step. So what happens next? First, for this program to be a success, we need the assistance of local organizations, national organizations, schools, faith-based institutions, and others who are trusted voices in their communities, to help get the word out and encourage those in need to enroll. To make it easy for those who are interested in helping, we have a website dedicated to this program that includes a place for outreach partners to learn how they can get the word out. Check it out at https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit. Second, we need to encourage broadband providers of every stripe to help by participating in the program and offering service to eligible households. To get these providers ready to go, Congress tasked the agency with reviewing and accepting applications from those who want to be a part of this program. That is just what we will do in the coming weeks—work with them and help them to get ready. Third, we must build an IT system for this program that is easy to use and ready to go. We have to get this right because this system will need to enroll millions of households who will benefit from the program. But we also need to be respectful of the data we receive and protect the privacy of the information entrusted to us by these households and by other agencies on whom we need to rely. Our work on this is already underway, but across the board we need to do this the right way.
I differ from my colleagues on a few of the issues we address today. But it is imperative that we come together, compromise, and find common ground so that we can stand up this program. For instance, while I would have preferred that we prioritize the needs of students, I remain pleased that the program we stand up today will benefit school kids. Indeed, we include several paths to participation for families with school-aged children, thus ensuring that we have stood up a program that will put dollars directly towards the monthly Internet bills of families with children. I also would have preferred that we make more of the necessary decisions up front through this document, rather than delegating those choices to the Wireline Competition Bureau or to USAC. I think that doing so could have provided the public and providers with greater certainty about the path forward. And there remains significant work to ensure that this program will succeed.
In June of 2020, I co-authored an op-ed with leaders Reverend Al Sharpton, Vanita Gupta, Marc Morial, and Maurita Coley entitled, Broadband Access Is a Civil Right We Can’t Afford to Lose—But Many Can’t Afford to Have.1 The first line in that piece reads: “There is a broadband emergency in America.” I am deeply proud of today’s action that follows through with that fierce urgency of now. If we are successful—and we must be—the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) will reach more disconnected low-income households and people of color than any previous FCC effort to close the digital divide. I have great expectations for this program. Importantly, the EBB not only supports people who are eligible for the FCC’s existing Lifeline program (generally households at or below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines), but it also extends to families with students enrolled in free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast programs, people who have received a Federal Pell Grant, and those who have experienced a COVID-related loss of income. Greater support and more expansive eligibility ensure the program reaches those most in need during this coronavirus crisis.
With today’s vote, the Federal Communications Commission Commission acts swiftly to implement a program that will help those most affected by the pandemic to stay connected to the those who mean the most to them. Yet while the Commission has acted quickly, today’s order creates thoughtful, fair, and sensible policies. I could not be prouder of, or more humbled by, the diligent work of the employees across the agency, particularly those in the Wireline Competition Bureau. I am further thankful to my dedicated staff for their contributions leading up to this vote. Lastly, I am thankful to my fellow Commissioners and their staffs for their critical, and down-to-the-wire, work in negotiating and drafting the order. Positive aspects that I’d like to particularly like to highlight include the common start date, which helps all broadband providers to ramp up and enter the program on level footing; flexible eligibility
The House of Representatives approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan in a 219 to 212 vote, sending the measure to the Senate as Democrats race to pass it into law before boosted unemployment payments expire in March. The legislation includes a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. For the duration of the ongoing pandemic, the fund will enable schools and libraries to connect students and library patrons to broadband services and devices. John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, said, “For nearly a year now, millions of students and library patrons without home broadband access have been struggling to participate in online learning. The longer we wait to bridge this connectivity gap, the further these students and patrons fall behind on their education. The passage of today’s reconciliation bill is a welcome move to help learners of all ages. Furthermore, the legislation embodies SHLB’s ‘to and through’ approach by allowing schools and libraries to extend their broadband services to the surrounding communities. We applaud the House’s quick action and encourage the Senate to follow suit and greenlight the bill as soon as possible.”
Internet access is something that many took for granted, until the pandemic. Living through COVID-19 has laid bare the unaddressed digital inequities that are impacting millions of lives. The digital divide is becoming a digital chasm: limited or no access to affordable high-speed internet is leaving far too many people behind. The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), the only foundation focusing on digital equity for all 40 million Californians, has been informing state and national policy and working on the ground with hundreds of community-based organizations for 15 years. Now CETF is introducing a Digital Equity Bill of Rights. To learn more about how to help the millions of households struggling to keep up in the digital world, including students, seniors, people with disabilities, please review the Digital Equity Bill of Rights and consider lending your support to help ensure everyone has access to reliable, affordable Internet. You can change lives.
[Susan Walters is a senior vice president at the California Emerging Technology Fund]
Much is made of the digital divide, but little has been done to eradicate it. To help solve this problem, we need to get more underrepresented communities into careers in computing and engineering, especially data science. More, and different, perspectives can only help lead to better products and services. At the same time, we can truly advance a Black and brown middle class, and create generational wealth, boosting economic growth and providing an entire new set of industries and opportunities across the nation. It won’t be easy to grow such a culture of tech producers in underrepresented communities, but it is absolutely doable. What could they do? Waive the four-year college requirement for entry-level computer science positions. Set goals and targets for diversity in workplaces, especially on engineering and leadership teams. Companies should take an honest look at barriers in their workplaces that prevent them from retaining diverse talent and then eliminate discriminatory or unwelcoming environments and conditions. Allow a small percentage of company time for employees to participate in mentoring programs that target underrepresented groups. Set up data science/software engineering offices in more regions where there are disproportionate populations of underrepresented groups. Partner with historically Black colleges and universities. Lobby the federal government to subsidize or otherwise make broadband internet access affordable in low-income communities, much like food is subsidized.
[Meka Egwuekwe is executive director of CodeCrew]
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $42.3 million to help rural residents gain access to health care and educational opportunities. Rural areas are seeing higher infection and death rates related to COVID-19 due to several factors, including a much higher percentage of underlying conditions, difficulty accessing medical care, and lack of health insurance. The $42.3 million in awards includes $24 million provided through the CARES Act. In total, these investments will benefit 5 million rural residents in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Starlink is currently in a semi-public beta, serving more than 10,000 users at speeds up to 170 Mbps, with no data caps. Ookla located US counties with at least 30 Starlink samples since December, and charted Starlink's speeds county by county against all other fixed internet providers. Starlink will make the biggest difference in rural, low-density, low-population counties with few options other than lower-quality satellite services. But there are a perplexing number of Starlink beta-testers signing up for the service in urban and suburban counties with potentially better options, like Chicago (Cook County), Seattle (King County), and Minneapolis (Hennepin County). The concern there is the limited capacity of Starlink's satellite constellation. The company asked for clearance to serve up to 5 million US customers, but a recent survey said up to 65 million households may want the service. If urban and suburban users take up those slots, there may be none left for the rural users who really need it.
A group of winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction have asked the Federal Communications Commission for the opportunity to review certain information contained in the long-form applications of other winners whose bids have come into question. The filing from Ensuring RDOF Integrity Coalition (ERIC) notes seven bidders whose RDOF bids merit closer scrutiny including four wireless providers – LTD Broadband, Nextlink/ AMG Technology Group, Resound Networks, and Starry/ Connect Everyone. ERIC expresses concern that fixed wireless will not be able to provide the 1 Gbps downstream/ 500 Mbps upstream speeds to which the providers committed.
When President Joe Biden asked what critics would have him cut from his covid relief bill, he got plenty of answers about reducing the $510 billion in aid to state and local governments — including from us. Now some moderate Senate Democrats are suggesting a middle way: Earmark $50 billion of those funds for broadband investment. The idea, spearheaded by Sens Angus King (I-ME) and Mark Warner (D-VA), is a political crowd-pleaser more likely to attract cross-aisle support than most big spending. The funds, likely in the form of grants, would address the immediate emergency of millions of Americans going Internet-less in a time when being online, whether for work, school or telehealth, is more important than ever. The money would also serve the longer-term effort of connecting the entire nation for the post-pandemic world — estimated to cost as much as $80 billion for the wiring, and another pretty penny for providing high speeds to the low-income.
Is this really a coronavirus relief measure, or is it a question of infrastructure? The answer is yes: The senators are trying to tackle a connectivity crisis that the pandemic has revealed and then exacerbated — addressing problems that are particularly potent today, and hoping in the process to ameliorate them for years to come. The full relief bill may still be too costly, but it makes more sense to spend money on an acknowledged need than to simply hand states a slush fund that is bigger than their pandemic-provoked shortfalls. “Look at it as a down payment on an infrastructure bill,” Sen King said.
What might happen on the local level in California if its net neutrality law indeed becomes enforceable? Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel for Free Press, said California’s law would “give a forum” to local complaints, which may or may not translate to violations. Because the FCC hasn’t made transparency a requirement for broadband companies, everyday individuals or researchers have had to test for net neutrality themselves, so it’s difficult to predict what may transpire under an enforceable state law. “We don’t know what they’ve been doing to the traffic behind the scenes because we haven’t had a perfect view into it,” Wood explained. One possibility is that the very threat of the law will keep companies on their best behavior. This type of scenario, where the status quo is quiet, would be a “fine result,” from Wood’s standpoint.
While you probably never thought you needed to understand the intricacies of how cellular networks operated by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon work, some big news that affects those operations will have real-world impacts on the services that they offer and that we rely on. In every country around the world except the US, 5G networks have been built around mid-band spectrum because it offers the right combination of coverage area and width of data lanes over which our TV shows can be streamed, Instagram posts uploaded, worldwide web browsed, etc. Other industries (notably the old school, large C-Band satellite dishes – hence the name) had previously been assigned to use these frequencies in the US, so they’re just now becoming available here. The Federal Communications Commission just announced the winners of C-Band spectrum license auctions. Those results make it clear that the future of 5G wireless in the U.S. is going to be all about mid-band, just as it is in other countries around the world.What that also means is, despite all the hoopla that carriers have tried to make about the two other main types of 5G service, they will soon be reduced to more secondary “support” functions for 5G. Additionally, from a competitive perspective, it’s important to note that T-Mobile already has a huge swath of mid-band spectrum it acquired when it purchased Sprint. In fact, according to some reports, it’s a bit more than what Verizon and AT&T combined purchased via this auction. That’s why T-Mobile spent so much less and also explains why they still have a significant lead in available mid-band frequencies to use for 5G.
The residents of Thursday Island, a speck on the archipelago Torres Strait Islands, have relied for years on Facebook to learn of everything from cyclone warnings to crayfish prices. The platform doesn’t eat up data the way other websites do, a priority for the remote communities, where people often use prepaid phones. Newspapers and radio stations with staffs made up of indigenous reporters publish Facebook updates in local dialects—a critical feature for those for whom English is a third or fourth language. It’s as real-time as the island can get. By the time papers from mainland Australia arrive, the news is about a week old. Mark Zuckerberg cut off a critical piece in the chain of communication from such regions when Facebook blocked news from the social-media platform across the country, a drastic counterpunch to the Australian government’s plan to force the company to pay news services for the content shared on the site. The effect of Facebook’s sudden absence was particularly felt among Australia’s indigenous people, those often remote communities that use the social-media platform as more of a utility, especially in a time of climate-change induced weather patterns and a pandemic.
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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