Friday, March 17, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
Half of ACP-Eligible Households Still Unaware of the Program
Racial/ethnic and income disparities in neighborhood-level broadband access
FCC Launches Proceeding on In-State Calling Rates for Incarcerated People
News From the FCC
Stories From Abroad
News From the FCC
The Federal Communications Commission seeks comment on its expanded authority over incarcerated people’s communications services, as outlined in the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022. The new law gives the FCC authority to combat unjust and unreasonable rates and charges for voice and video calls, including calls within a state’s borders, where previously the agency had rate-making authority only over voice calls between states and foreign locations. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order begins the process of implementing the law, which requires the FCC to adopt just and reasonable rates no earlier than 18 months and no later than 24 months after the law’s January 5, 2023 enactment. The Notice seeks comments on several issues related to implementing the Martha Wright-Reed Act, including:
- How the FCC should interpret the law’s language to ensure that the agency’s actions fulfill Congress’s intent;
- What rules would be necessary to implement the law’s directive that the Commission set “just and reasonable” rates and charges for incarcerated people’s communications services;
- What is the appropriate rate-making approach for both audio and video services;
- Whether a broad interpretation of the Martha Wright-Reed Act advances the goal of section 716 of the Communications Act to ensure that services and equipment used for advanced communications services are accessible to and usable by incarcerated individuals with communications disabilities.
The Federal Communications Commission proposed a new regulatory framework to facilitate innovative collaborations between satellite operators and wireless companies. These partnerships leverage the growth in space-based services to connect smartphone users in remote, unserved, and underserved areas. Numerous such collaborations have been launched recently, and the FCC seeks to establish clear and transparent processes to support supplemental coverage from space. Connecting consumers to essential wireless services where no terrestrial mobile service is available can be life-saving in remote locations and can open up innovative opportunities for consumers and businesses. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted proposes a framework through which satellite operators collaborating with terrestrial service providers would be able to obtain FCC authorization to operate space stations on certain currently licensed, flexible-use spectrums allocated to terrestrial services. The FCC is proposing to add a mobile-satellite service allocation on some terrestrial flexible-use bands. The FCC proposes allowing authorized non-geostationary orbit satellite operators to apply to access the terrestrial spectrum if certain prerequisites are met, including a lease from the terrestrial licensee within a specified geographic area. A satellite operator could then serve a wireless provider’s customers should they need connectivity in remote areas. The FCC will also seek comments on how this framework might best support access to emergency response systems like 911 and Wireless Emergency Alerts when a consumer is connected via supplemental coverage from space.
The Federal Communications Commission's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (Bureau) announces the grant of two 900 MHz broadband segment license applications. No petitions to deny these applications were filed, and the applications sufficiently demonstrate conformance with the eligibility conditions (Eligibility Certification) and requirements for transitioning the 900 MHz band in the particular county requested (Transition Plan). The applications were granted to PDV Spectrum, in Potter County and Randall County, Texas. PDV is a wholly owned subsidiary of Anterix, the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum nationwide, and has been courting utilities that are interested in the spectrum for private LTE as they look to modernize and future-proof critical power grid infrastructure.
The Federal Communications Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau (Bureau) and Office of the Managing Director offer guidance to participants in the COVID-19 Telehealth Program on the expected expiration of the National Emergency and Public Health Emergency on May 11, 2023. Pursuant to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, all payments from health care providers to vendors must be completed and all supported services must be received before the emergency period ends. The deadline to purchase and implement services supported by the COVID-19 Telehealth Program has already passed, so the expiration of the emergency period will not impact this deadline. For most awardees, the deadline to purchase services was October 31, 2022. All equipment supported by the Program must be delivered by May 11, 2023, and all recurring services must be received by May 11, 2023.
After a year of operation, half of all households eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) internet subsidy are unaware of the benefit. A January 2023 survey of low-income households finds that over 50% say they have never heard of the program or do not know anything about it. Although many eligible households are unaware of ACP, the survey points to ways in which policymakers and community leaders can encourage enrollment. First, outreach can make a difference. Some 37% of eligible households that knew little about the program say they would be likely to apply with more information and 31% said they would be likely to apply if they knew whether they qualified. The other part of the picture is digital skills. The survey finds that respondents with high levels of confidence in their digital skills are nearly twice as likely to have successfully signed up for ACP than those with less confidence in their digital skills. Some 26% of those with high levels of digital skills reported that they had successfully enrolled in ACP compared with only 14% of those with low levels of digital skills. The survey also found that, among households that have enrolled in ACP for a fixed home service, most still pay something for internet service. When asked what they pay for internet service after the ACP subsidy, the median figure cited households that had signed up for fixed service was $40 per month. The sum of the ACP subsidy ($30) and the median remaining fee ($40) is in line with the average monthly bill ($75) U.S. households pay for service.
Racial/ethnic and income disparities in neighborhood-level broadband access in 905 US cities, 2017–2021
Broadband access is an essential social determinant of health, the importance of which was made apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. We sought to understand disparities in broadband access within cities and identify potential solutions to increase urban access. This was a descriptive secondary analysis using multi-year cross-sectional survey data. Data were obtained from the City Health Dashboard and American Community Survey. We studied broadband access in 905 large US cities, stratifying neighborhood broadband access by neighborhood median household income and racial/ethnic composition. In 2017, 30% of urban households across 905 large US cities did not have access to high-speed broadband internet. After controlling for median household income, broadband access in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods was 10–15% lower than in majority White or Asian neighborhoods. Over time, the lack of broadband access in urban households decreased from 30% in 2017 to 24% in 2021, but racial and income disparities persisted. As an emerging social determinant, broadband access impacts health across the life course, affecting students' ability to learn and adults’ ability to find and retain jobs. Resolving the lack of broadband access remains an urban priority. City policymakers can harness recent infrastructure funding opportunities to reduce broadband access disparities.
The Virginia House of Delegates recently took up the issue of regulating the fees and the time it takes to get a permit to cross railroad tracks with fiber or other wire infrastructure. We rarely hear about the problems encountered when trying to cross railroad tracks, bridges, interstate highway underpasses, or parklands. Each of these situations can add both time and cost to a fiber construction project. There are lot more miles of railroads than a lot of people assume. In a rural area, the first challenge is often finding out who owns a given set of tracks. The large railroads own the major rail paths, but there are a ton of different owners of the rights-of-ways for spurs off the mainline. Some spurs are owned by local governments. A lot of spurs are owned by small railroad companies – a few of which have gobbled up the rights-of-ways from defunct railroads. One of the issues with railroad crossings is the fees. It’s not hard to be hit with fees of $3,000 to $5,000 for a permit for a single rail crossing. A rural fiber route might cross several sets of tracks, and roads will often cross back over the same rail line multiple times. The issue isn’t only the fees. Because the process of getting a permit can drag on for a long time. It’s not unusual to see a permit take six months, and I’ve heard stories of permits taking well over a year. I suspect it was the time required in getting permission to cross the tracks that got the attention of the Virginia legislature. The Virginia legislation would cap crossing permit fees at between $750 and $1,500 (Senate versus House versions). More importantly, the legislation would require railroads to respond to a permitting request in thirty days.
Governor Kelly Announces Kansas to Receive $15 Million to Provide Communities Digital Devices and Skills Training
Governor Laura Kelly (D-KS) announced that Kansas is the first state to receive $15 million in US Department of Treasury Digital Connectivity Technology (DCT) funds. The money will support equal access to high-speed internet, provide devices to underserved Kansans, and expand digital skills training for communities across Kansas. The DCT funds are made available under the American Rescue Plan Act's (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund (CPF). States have the option to put all CPF dollars toward broadband infrastructure or to set aside some of the funding for programs that ensure broadband is more fully accessible to hard-to-reach communities. The Kansas Office of Broadband has been conducting meetings across the state to solicit feedback for a five-year broadband access and digital equity strategic plan. These listening sessions have also highlighted the need for laptops/computers, public wi-fi, and digital training programs.
Governor Kelly Launches Statewide Initiative to Increase Adoption of Affordable Connectivity Program
Governor Laura Kelly (D-KS) announced a statewide initiative to increase awareness of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a program that helps lower-income families pay for high-speed internet. There are 438,634 Kansas households eligible for the ACP, yet only 93,244 (21%) of those eligible have enrolled. In partnership with EducationSuperHighway, a national non-profit with a mission to close the broadband affordability gap, the governor’s initiative will build a broad coalition of local stakeholders, service providers, nonprofit organizations, and higher learning institutions to overcome the barriers that prevent households in under-resourced communities from enrolling. EducationSuperHighway will support statewide awareness by training community leaders and partner organizations and providing outreach materials to help households enroll.
Over 150 network operators applied for funding in a broadband program operated by the state of Michigan. The operators requested $1.3 billion in funding through the program, which has a budget of $231 million. Applications were due on March 15, 2023, in the Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) program. The $1.3 billion in funding would have covered some of the costs of broadband deployments estimated to cost a total of $2.3 billion. The applications proposed to connect approximately 380,000 locations. The Michigan High-Speed Internet (MIHI) Office said it was “excited and energized by the overwhelming interest in the program and the enthusiasm of applicants.” Awards will be based on a scoring system, with a steering committee making initial grant recommendations followed by a 45-day comment period. During that period, challengers can object to awards if the areas involved already have service available at speeds of 100/20 Mbps, are planned to be connected at that speed within one year, or are part of another federal or state program that will deliver service at that speed.
Ottawa County (MI) will extend broadband internet service to unserved and underserved areas of the county through a $27 million public-private partnership with a southeast Michigan firm, Southfield-based 123Net. The company will invest $3.5 million as part of a proposed $27 million project to extend 383 miles of fiber-optic lines across the county that initially would pass by nearly 10,000 addresses and could expand in the future. Ottawa County would match 123Net’s capital with $7.5 million in local funding through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and is seeking a $16 million grant from a $250 million fund the state has available to support broadband projects. A survey of county residents that was part of the project’s planning process found that 10.5 percent of Ottawa County households lack access to high-speed internet service. More than a quarter of the households have broadband access with speeds slower than the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum broadband threshold.
Community decision-making is the foundation of Maine’s DNA. Town meetings, volunteer school boards, and local planning efforts are all central to what makes this Maine. Dozens of communities have started this process with local people identifying locations and groups needing better service to develop plans addressing these gaps. But these community-led efforts are under threat from big monopoly internet service providers, who fear competition will lose customers. Companies like Charter Communications are working across Maine to sow distrust in these hard-working, community-based, and knowledgeable volunteers trying to address service gaps that private companies have failed to fill for decades. It is the same tactic they have used in other states like Michigan and Ohio to attempt to derail community-led solutions. They cite examples, using bad data, of community-owned internet networks that “failed” across. At the heart of this issue is funding. Maine has real funding to build out networks to serve areas of the state lacking a high-quality internet connection. And communities are best placed to make choices about what type of technology needs to be, who it should serve, and how access to that infrastructure should be owned. Given the scale of public funding supporting this infrastructure buildout and the long-term importance of the internet for education, workforce, telehealth, and economic development, community governance is essential to ensure the internet remains affordable and accessible for decades to come. Community-owned infrastructure doesn’t preclude broadband providers from operating in the same territory. It encourages competition and offers better service to more homes.
[Peggy Schaffer retired in August as the director of the ConnectMaine Authority. She is on the policy and communications committee for the Maine Broadband Coalition and serves on the board of the American Association for Public Broadband.]
FTC Issues Orders to Social Media and Video Streaming Platforms Regarding Efforts to Address Surge in Advertising for Fraudulent Products and Scams
With fraud on social media surging, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued orders to eight social media and video streaming platforms seeking information on how these companies scrutinize and restrict paid commercial advertising that is deceptive or exposes consumers to fraudulent healthcare products, financial scams, counterfeit and fake goods, or other fraud. In 2022 alone, consumers reported losing more than $1.2 billion to fraud that started on social media, more than any other contact method, according to FTC data. The FTC is also seeking information about how social media and video streaming companies ensure that consumers are able to identify commercial advertising on their platforms as advertising. The orders, which the companies are required to comply with by law, were sent to Meta Platforms, Inc.; Instagram, LLC; YouTube, LLC; TikTok, Inc.; Snap, Inc.; Twitter, Inc.; Pinterest, Inc.; and Twitch Interactive, Inc. The orders will collect information about the companies’ standards and policies related to paid commercial ads and their processes for screening and monitoring for compliance with those standards and policies, including through human review and the use of automated systems. The orders also require the companies to report their ad revenue, the number of ad views, and other performance metrics, including for ads involving categories of products and services more prone to deception such as those intended to treat, prevent, or cure substance use disorders and tout income opportunities.
A Q&A with Dina Srinivasan, who, in February 2019 as an independent scholar, published an academic paper entitled ‘The Antitrust Case Against Facebook’, in which she identified a correlation between privacy and economics — and argued that the social media giant lowered its privacy standards as soon as it had defeated its rivals. Just months later, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a coalition of state attorneys-general began preparing an antitrust investigation into the tech group, filing actions against it in the following year. Then, in December 2020, Srinivasan published another paper suggesting that Google dominates advertising markets by engaging in conduct that lawmakers prohibit in financial markets. Just over a year later, the US Department of Justice and several states sued the tech company, alleging that its dominance in digital advertising harms competition. Both cases continue, and the companies contest the claims, but Srinivasan believes their power has been allowed to become too great.
Fiber-focused Frontier Communications and cable giant Charter Communications each took some hits and scored some points in a series of clashes over marketing claims related to their respective broadband products. Frontier scored a key win as the National Advertising Division (NAD) recommended Charter qualify some of its speed claims to note they’re not symmetrical, while Charter prevailed in challenges related to Frontier’s claims around availability and reliability. The NAD ruled on three separate disputes involving the aforementioned operators. In a decision issued on March 15, 2023, the NAD mostly sided with Frontier in a challenge that took aim at claims Charter made around superiority, performance, and consumer eligibility for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The NAD upheld Charter’s claims related to the ACP, but recommended it modify or discontinue five comparative claims for which it found insufficient proof. These included statements like “Other internet providers just can’t compete with Spectrum” and “Spectrum internet is the top-performing Internet provider, delivering more speed, more consistently.” In the same ruling, the NAD notably recommended Charter qualify speed claims to note whether it is referring to upload or download speeds. Explaining its reasoning for the decision, the NAD noted “the record demonstrates that upload speeds are important to consumers when choosing a [broadband] provider and that both download and upload speed are material considerations for consumers.”
For over a year, [Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate] Gigi Sohn stayed relatively silent as she faced a barrage of attacks over her nomination to the Federal Communications Commission, which had languished in the Senate since President Joe Biden tapped her in October 2021. But her plans began to shift, she said, after speaking with the White House and a top Senate Democrat in the days before she would eventually announce her withdrawal. “They basically said, ‘There's no path forward for you,’” Sohn said of her talks with Biden administration officials and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), whose panel was reviewing her nomination. “At that point, what was the point?” Sohn said in addition to having to put her “life on hold” during the process as senators sparred over her pick, she was frustrated by her inability to speak out against ongoing rebukes. “The one thing you don't do as a nominee is you don't defend yourself … you've got to keep your mouth shut,” she said. Sohn cited “unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks” seeded by cable and media industry lobbyists in her announcement to pull out. Sohn said the opposition took on a frightening new dimension in recent weeks after a pair of articles in Fox News and the Daily Mail highlighted her affiliation with a digital rights group that opposed a controversial anti-sex-trafficking law. Sohn, who would have been the first openly gay FCC commissioner, said the implication in the articles were “clearly tied to QAnon themes about LGBTQ+ people as groomers, as perverts, as sex traffickers.” And she said she felt it put her and her loved ones at risk. “That was the first time I felt like ‘Oh my god, this could really rile up some crazies to come to my house … and threaten me and my family,’” Sohn said.
Shortly after coming into office, President Joe Biden moved to restore net neutrality. He signed a sweeping executive order to promote competition, calling on the Federal Communications Commission to bring back the Obama-era internet rules rolled back by the Trump administration. But close to two years later, the FCC remains deadlocked with only four of its five commissioner slots filled — and President Biden may be running out of time. Biden’s original pick for a new FCC commissioner was Gigi Sohn [Senior Fellow and Public Advocate at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society], a former FCC official and public interest advocate. She withdrew her nomination. Now, the White House has been forced to start over, prolonging a vacancy that continues to obstruct the administration’s broadband agenda. With so little time left in Biden’s first term, stakeholders may even try to thwart a more moderate nominee, especially if there’s an opportunity to continue the stalemate past the 2024 election.
By September 2022, the average download speed for home broadband connections in the UK was 65.3 Mbit/s, an increase of 10% compared to March 2022. This was largely due to people upgrading to faster services. Less than 3% of households had average download speeds of less than 10 Mbit/s, with cable connections offering the highest average download speed. The proportion of homes in the research with broadband connections that use a superfast package (with an advertised download speed of 30 Mbit/s or higher) was 93%. And 10% use ultrafast packages with advertised speeds of 300 Mbit/s or higher. Upload speeds – which are particularly important for people who use video communication services like Zoom or Teams, or who play video games online – are also increasing. Average upload speeds increased by 46% between March and September 2022, to 15.5 Mbit/s. On average, download speeds during the peak hours of 8pm to 10pm were 5% slower than average maximum speeds.
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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