Saturday, March 28, 2020
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The Federal Communications Commission granted temporary spectrum access to 33 wireless Internet service providers serving 330 counties in 29 states to help them serve rural communities facing an increase in broadband needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Special Temporary Authority (STA) allows these companies to use the lower 45 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for 60 days. The Special Temporary Authorities will help serve communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. The list of individual companies and the counties they serve will be posted on FCC.gov.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a temporary waiver of its access arbitrage rules to Inteliquent, a telecommunications company that carries traffic for two of the nation’s largest conference calling providers, Zoom Video Communications and Cisco WebEx. Absent this waiver, the massive increase in conference calls made by American consumers using Zoom and WebEx to work and attend classes from home during the COVID-19 pandemic would likely result in Inteliquent being deemed an “access-stimulating” carrier under the FCC’s rules. This, in turn, would trigger financial responsibilities—namely significant cost increases—for Inteliquent that would impede its ability to serve these conference calling companies. The temporary waiver, which is based on circumstances specific to Inteliquent and detailed in the order, will expire on June 1, 2020, and Inteliquent may seek renewal of the waiver if necessary.
I welcome Congress’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a much-needed economic stimulus program that will help workers, consumers, health care providers, and businesses across America. It is a time for action, and the Federal Communications Commission must do more to advance its own “connectivity stimulus.” The coming weeks will lay bare the already cruel reality of the digital divide: tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford the broadband connections they need to telework, access medical information, and help young people learn when school is closed. The FCC must closely examine its statutory authority and funding resources and take bold action to respond to the current crisis. As I’ve called for previously, the Lifeline and E-rate programs must be expanded to meet the needs of struggling Americans that need connectivity. In times of emergency, Americans always pull together. We must act now.
While much of the US hunkers down to work and shop online, large swaths of the country are trying to cope without an internet connection, leaving millions of households cut off from vital services and information during the pandemic. Here’s what the digital divide looks like across the U.S. In counties with the deepest shade of orange, half of households don’t have access to the internet.
America came face to face with the festering problem of digital inequality when most of the country responded to the coronavirus pandemic by shutting elementary and high schools that serve more than 50 million children. The time has long passed for the country to open the door to the information age for communities that are locked out. The lack of internet access in poor and rural communities comes up again and again as educators talk about the pandemic. Finally closing the digital divide — and bringing all Americans into the information age — will require a momentous effort on the scale of the federal project that brought electricity to darkened regions of the country during the New Deal. And it will be similarly worth the effort.c
As the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads, the nation’s K-12 schools and colleges have been forced to weigh health recommendations against the needs of students, many of whom are caught in the digital divide separating those who have Internet access and those who do not. About 15% of US households with school-age children lack high-speed Internet access, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 Census Bureau data. Rural communities lag behind urban areas, as do tribal lands, where about a third of people don’t have high-speed Internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Dozens of broadband companies have signed on to the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge for 60 days, agreeing to waive late fees, to refrain from terminating service for homes and small businesses in arrears on bills and to open wi-fi hot spots. But advocates have called on them and on the government to do more. “It still leaves millions of American children disconnected,” Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, says of the offer. “And by the way, what happens when the 60 days are over?” The problem is not confined to K-12 schools. Hundreds of colleges have transitioned to online learning even though not all students have easy access to wi-fi off campus.
Many advocates are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to significantly expand its Lifeline program. More than 250 organizations called on the FCC to provide low-income households with unlimited talk and text plans. The groups have also asked the agency to create an emergency broadband benefit that would provide eligible households with $50 per month to cover the cost of high-speed internet connections, where they are available. Eric Null, US Policy Manager at Access Now, argues that the FCC should ensure the Lifeline program lives up to its name during this time. "The FCC should not kick low-income people while they're down," he says. "The agency should instead protect and expand the program in ways that benefit low-income communities who rely on the service."
Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge, likewise called on the government to do everything in its power to get high-speed connections to as many people as possible. "Congress and the FCC need to step up and increase everyone's speeds to at least 25/3 Mbps, where feasible," she said, noting that these speeds are necessary for everything from online classrooms to telemedicine services. "This will enable more Americans to access the online services that they need during this pandemic."
Home internet and wireless connectivity in the US have largely withstood unprecedented demands as more Americans work and learn remotely. Broadband and wireless service providers say traffic has jumped in residential areas at times of the day when families would typically head to offices and schools. Still, that surge in usage hasn’t yet resulted in widespread outages or unusually long service disruptions, industry executives and analysts say. That is because the biggest increases in usage are happening during normally fallow periods. Broadband consumption during the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. has risen by more than 50% since January, according to broadband data company OpenVault, which measured connections in more than one million homes. Usage during the peak early-evening hours increased 20% as of March 25. OpenVault estimates that average data consumption per household in March will reach nearly 400 gigabytes, a nearly 11% increase over the previous monthly record in January. While some consumers have complained about grainy video calls or streaming videos and slower download speeds, problems have so far been limited to nuisances, rather than wholesale crashes. Some carriers that use cells on wheels and aerial network-support drones after hurricanes or tornadoes are now deploying those resources to neighborhoods with heavy wireless-service usage and places where health-care facilities need additional connectivity.
Cisco's Kevin Wollenweber has turned into a COVID-19 sleuth of sorts over the past few weeks as he tracks the virus' impact on service provider networks via some of the major internet peering exchanges. Overall, Wollenweber, Cisco's vice president of service provider networking, said the world's networks are handling the increased traffic related to the coronavirus outbreak well. Traffic that was normally concentrated in what was previously peak hours of usage—which are typically after schools get out or in the evenings—has now increased throughout the day due to teleworkers, online gamers, and people streaming high-resolution videos.
Telecommunication Internet service providers have provided the Federal Communications Commission with a laundry list of coronavirus-related temporary deregulation, including waiving deadlines, suspending rules, and providing more funding, all to address the teleworking and telemedicine and distance-learning load of a homebound workforce and student population. In its letter to the FCC, USTeecom conceded it could be costly and said they would press Congress to appropriate the money.
While ISPs have all signed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's connectivity pledge, which includes not terminating customers and waiving late fees for 60 days, the association said the reality is that such a promise comes with a revenue loss ("revenues they expected to have available"). And, it is becoming clear that some customers may not be able to pay even after the 60 days, and broadband providers are already being pressed to extend that period. USTelecom said that for some, particularly smaller companies, that could have a substantial impact on revenues and operations. "The Commission should be mindful of this fact and consider how it can provide appropriate assistance and support as outlined [below]" it told the FCC.
Not everyone in the US has internet access. There are more than 14 million people without any internet access and 25 million without the faster and more reliable broadband access, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission study. And that may actually be an undercount. The FCC data is based on census blocks and not households. The data may show that a broadband provider serves a particular census block, but not every household in that block may access that service. Microsoft has said its research shows that if broadband access was counted more precisely, the number of Americans without it would be closer to 163 million people.
Angela Siefer, the executive director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance said the lack of internet may force people to go outside and ignore quarantine or shelter-in-place guidelines. “It’s a lot easier to stay home when you have internet,” Siefer said. “That’s how you survive, and [without internet access] you can’t do your homework, you can’t order food from the grocery stores. If you are not having your basic needs met, then you’re going to go out and take care of those.”
On March 23, 2020, President Donald Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. The new law requires the Federal Communications Commission, before the end of the summer, to dramatically reform the nation's problematic broadband deployment maps. The new law resulted from strong bipartisan consensus. The Broadband DATA Act is actually the combination of two bipartisan bills originally introduced in the House of Representatives: the Mapping Accuracy Promotes Services Act (MAPS Act) and the House version of the Broadband DATA Act introduced by Reps. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) and Bob Latta (R-OH), the Communications and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member. Provisions in the MAPS Act explicitly make it unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly, or recklessly submit inaccurate broadband service data. The Broadband DATA Act requires the FCC to adopt new rules, by September 21, that mandates the biannual collection, verification, and dissemination of granular data relating to the availability and quality of service with respect to terrestrial fixed, fixed wireless, satellite, and mobile broadband internet access service, from which the FCC will compile broadband coverage maps.
How are networks are holding up in the top 200 cities? We’ve compared the median download speeds internet users have been experiencing for the week of March 15th – March 21st to the range of speeds experienced in prior weeks of 2020. Key findings:
- Users in most of the cities we analyzed should be experiencing normal network conditions, suggesting that ISP’s (and their networks) are holding up to the shifting demand.
- Eighty-eight of the 200 cities (44%) we analyzed have experienced some degree of network degradation over the past week compared to the 10 weeks prior. However, only 27 (13.5%) cities are experiencing dips of 20% below range or greater.
- Seattle download speeds have continued to hold up over the past week, while New York City’s speeds have fallen out of range by 24%. Both cities are currently heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
- Three cities – Austin (TX), Winston Salem (NC) and Oxnard (CA) – have experienced significant degradations, falling out of their ten-week range by more than 40%.
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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