Daily Digest 3/8/2018 (What's Happening to the E-rate?)

Benton Foundation

The FCC's War on the Poor and much more on today's agenda


Advocates for school internet access sound alarm over FCC program

A federal program intended to help school districts attain better access to the internet is under fire. Advocates for connectivity say the Federal Communications Commission is leaving many rural districts in limbo with long delays and denials. Most of the concerns surround applications for federal aid to connect rural schools to fiber optic networks through the E-rate program. “Red tape and bureaucracy… are causing huge delays in getting their projects reviewed,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that has long advocated for school connectivity. The group estimates it takes an average of nine months to get a decision on a fiber project. He said that the contractor in charge of reviewing applications and FCC administrators “are so concerned, so focused on waste, fraud and abuse, and making sure a dollar doesn’t get spent the wrong way, that they are losing sight of the real goal, which is to get kids connected. They’re making it really hard.” EducationSuperHighway launched a website to track delays and denials, hoping to put pressure on the FCC. According to the site, 38 fiber optics projects in 17 states have been awaiting decisions since last year. In addition, the group says 61 projects in 28 states have been “unfairly denied.” Marwell described intense technical questionnaires some districts are unable to properly provide as among the factors in denials. One recently denied is Woodman School District 18, a one-school district in Missoula County, Montana. Superintendent Erin Lipkind said a years-long process to procure a bid from the local service provider, persuade parents to fill out forms to meet the needs-based thresholds of the E-rate program, and secure $2 million in matching funds from the state legislature ultimately resulted in a denial. She said the district continues to work with EducationSuperHighway to get around the technical issues that led to the denial. In the meantime, Woodman continues to operate with sluggish upload speeds of .15 Megabits per second, and download speeds of .52 Mbps. (For perspective, the FCC’s benchmarks are 3 Mbps and 25 Mbps, respectively.) Lipkind said students are bused to other schools for standardized testing, and teachers who live outside the district download videos and online content onto computers at home to use in their lessons. “We expected they would be digging the trenches this fall, and that we would have broadband fiber by the spring,” Lipkind said. “At some point, your shoulders start sagging. We’re a tiny little school. We want to focus our energies on education.” Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) said “red tape” is standing in the way of connectivity for many Montana students. Gov Bullock visited Woodman amid much fanfare last year when the legislature approved matching funds for the fiber project, taking pictures with celebrating students and teachers. “I urge the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate the uncertainty and speed up the E-Rate approval process,” he added. A spokesman for the FCC said that Chairman Ajit Pai has directed the contractor in charge of reviewing E-rate applications to take “deliberate steps to make the processing of all E-rate applications – including, but not limited to, fiber applications — more efficient.” He added: “The Chairman is committed to building on that improvement, and to ensuring that the E-rate program continues to support the high-speed broadband needs of 21st century schools and libraries.”

Closing the School Broadband Gap

[Commentary] Two-hundred forty-five days. School districts are waiting this long for the Federal Communications Commission to make decisions on the fate of funding to bring fiber connectivity to their classrooms. That’s 65 days longer than the average school year. And for Woodman School in rural Montana, it means another school year that students must be bused to a neighboring district for assessments because high-speed internet access is not an option. No school should have to wait that long to provide basic educational opportunity for its students. In January, education organizations recognized the 20th anniversary of E-rate—the FCC program that has connected 39 million students to the broadband they need for the jobs of tomorrow. We’ve come a long way, but we also need to address the emerging red tape that is stalling our students’ learning progress. Unless there is a focused commitment to make sure schools can proceed with planned fiber projects, nearly 750,000 students — mostly in rural areas — will be left on the wrong side of a digital divide, disconnected from the same learning opportunities as students in other regions. These learning opportunities were once luxuries in classrooms, but they are now vital for college and career readiness. Already, 50 percent of jobs require some digital skills. By the end of the decade, 77 percent will require technological skills. Our students will not be ready for what tomorrow brings if we don’t equip their schools with the broadband infrastructure they need. We made it a priority to strengthen the E-rate program six years ago. The program was modernized for the broadband needs of today. And now, we need USAC to finish the job.

[Evan Marwell is the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway]


Democratic Senators Push $40 Billion in Direct Broadband Infrastructure Funding

Democratic senators are promoting the $40 billion broadband investment from their May 2017 LIFT America Act in a new trillion dollar infrastructure plan released March 7 in the wake of President Donald Trump's plan to invest $200 billion and hope the private sector leverages that into a trillion dollar-plus investment. Unlike the Trump infrastructure plan, which includes no direct broadband investment, the Democratic Sens say they want the government to invest $40 billion in direct funding to connect everyone to "affordable" high-speed broadband. "While the private sector has delivered high-speed internet to many, millions of Americans in less profitable rural and urban areas have been left out," said the report. The plan is to fund a new Universal Internet Grant Program to close the 'last mile' gap. The priorities for the fund would be bankrolling "adequate, affordable high-speed internet" where it is most needed, upgrading plant where "reasonable," leverage federal money, use taxpayer money reasonably, "tackle" the tribal broadband gap, create accurate maps of internet access, deliver competitive speeds, upgrade 911,

“Dig Once” rule requiring fiber deployment is finally set to become US law

A simple policy that could speed up fiber Internet deployment throughout the US is finally on track to become US law. A "Dig Once" measure that requires fiber conduit installation during many federally funded road projects was passed by the US House of Representatives via voice vote as part of a broader reauthorization of the Federal Communications Commission. Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA) first submitted Dig Once legislation in 2009 and has periodically resubmitted the legislation in the years since. The Dig Once policy "mandates the inclusion of broadband conduit—plastic pipes which house fiber-optic communications cable—during the construction of any road receiving federal funding," Rep Eshoo said. "This will reduce costs drastically and increase access for communities across the country," making it "easier for states and broadband providers to enter new and underserved markets." Conduit would be installed during road projects in cases "where there's a demonstrated need for broadband access," she said.

Sen John Kennedy (R-LA) Introduces Bicameral Net Neutrality Bill To Protect Consumers

[Press release] Sen John Kennedy (R-LA) filed the Open Internet Preservation Act to protect consumers by preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from slowing down and controlling web content.  The legislation also creates transparency by requiring ISPs to make public their terms of service.  The House companion of this bill was introduced in 2017 by House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). “Some cable companies and content providers aren’t going to be happy with this bill because it prohibits them from blocking and throttling web content.  They won’t be able to micromanage your web surfing or punish you for downloading 50 movies each month.  This bill strikes a compromise that benefits the consumer,” said Sen Kennedy.  “If the Democrats are serious about this issue and finding a permanent solution, then they should come to the table and work with me and Rep. Blackburn on these bills.  Does this bill resolve every issue in the net neutrality debate?  No, it doesn’t.  It's not a silver bullet.  But it's a good start.” “Sen Kennedy brings leadership and focus to this discussion of preserving a free and open internet.  I appreciate his work and his attention to this issue.  Title II 1930s era regulation was a heavy handed approach that would stifle innovation and investment.  This legislation will go a long way toward achieving the goal of protecting consumers,” said Chairman Blackburn.

Disconnected: Rural Broadband and the Business Case for Small Carriers

[Press release] Members of the House Subcommittees on a) Health and Technology and b) Agriculture, Energy, and Trade held a joint hearing on the challenges in the current regulatory and operational environment that limit the ability of small carriers to bridge the rural digital divide. The hearing examined the disparities between large, nationwide carriers and small, rural carriers that contribute to the urban/rural digital divide and the challenges inherent in the current regulatory and operational schemes that limit the ability of small carriers to deploy broadband in rural America. Derrick B. Owens of WTA (formerly the Western Telecommunications Alliance) was one of the witnesses at the hearing, discussing the Universal Service Fund, rural broadband infrastructure, and regulatory and reporting requirements. He said the USF High Cost program supports rural broadband networks and needs to be sufficiently funded, suggesting at the very least, an inflationary adjustment to the High Cost program is warranted so that current problems regarding the sufficiency and predictability of support are not exacerbated. He also suggested Congress directly allocate a portion of President Trump’s $50 billion infrastructure plan specifically for rural broadband infrastructure purposes. Other witnesses were: Erin Fitizgerald of the Rural Wireless Association; Tim Donovan of the Competitive Carriers Association; and Paul Carliner of Bloosurf.

Net Vitality 2.0

This updated analysis revisits the pioneering research approach first developed in 2010, which highlights countries that are leading on a global basis in their deployment and use of broadband applications and content; devices; and networks. In 2018, these top-tier countries are China, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada (listed by population size). Based on indices developed by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and respected quantitative research organizations around the world, this study presents a unique Net Vitality Index as a composite metric for evaluation. The Index takes into account 38 factors, developed independently, to evaluate countries on an apples-to-apples basis, including a number of measures related to innovation that are critical to broadband Internet ecosystem development.


Commissioner Clyburn Remarks at HIMSS 2018 Conference

[Speech] Four years ago, I urged the Federal Communications Commission  to create what is now known as the Connect2HealthFCC Task Force under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler. This is a dedicated, interdisciplinary team, focused on the intersection of broadband, advanced technology, and health. I am grateful to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for his continued commitment to the Task Force and his enthusiasm for bridging the digital divide in health care. And the FCC, through the Task Force, recently forged a strategic partnership with the National Cancer Institute, to focus on how broadband connectivity can be leveraged to help rural cancer patients – what we call the LA.U.N.C.H. project. I encourage you to push boundaries, continue to work with allies like those of us at the FCC, National Cancer Institute, and our friends at National health IT. This is about real people who are at risk of being left behind. Let’s be fearless and let’s accept the challenge of leaving no one behind. By working together, we can achieve what just a few years ago was deemed impossible. Together, we can succeed. 


Sinclair Amends Tribune Deal...Again

In a move likely in response to the Justice Department, Sinclair has once again amended its June 2017 deal to purchase Tribune Media's stations, this time adjusting last week's amended filing to cut Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York (PA) from the markets where it sought to own two of the top four stations to take advantage of the Federal Communications Commission's new case-by-case waiver of the prohibition on such ownership. Sinclair will now sell one of the two stations in that market rather than try for an exemption. Sinclair declined comment on what had changed, but Harrisburg had been moved out of the section on markets were Sinclair is seeking to own two of the top four stations to the bucket for "Overlap Markets where Sinclair is divesting stations to comply with the Duopoly Rule." It is a fairly safe bet that deciding to sell one of the Harrisburg stations instead of trying to hold onto both was at the behest of the Justice Department, whose antitrust review looks at share of ad revenue in a market. That may have been the holdup in the DOJ review of the deal, a decision on which had been expected by now. Sinclair is still seeking FCC permission to own two of the top four in only Greensboro-High Point-Winston Salem (NC) and Indianapolis (IN), but reducing the number of such reviews from three to two could speed the FCC's review, which goes beyond antitrust and ad share to public-interest benefits.


For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned.

In January, after the breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers. We have spent much of the past few years discovering that the digitization of news is ruining how we collectively process information. Technology allows us to burrow into echo chambers, exacerbating misinformation and polarization and softening up society for propaganda. With artificial intelligence making audio and video as easy to fake as text, we’re entering a hall-of-mirrors dystopia, what some are calling an “information apocalypse.” And we’re all looking to the government and to Facebook for a fix. Getting news only from print newspapers may be extreme and probably not for everyone. But the experiment taught me several lessons about the pitfalls of digital news and how to avoid them. I distilled those lessons into three short instructions: Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social.

Rep Cicilline (D-RI) Bill Would Let Publishers Gang Up Versus Facebook and Google

Rep David Cicilline (D-RI) plans to introduce a bill that would exempt publishers from antitrust enforcement so they can negotiate collectively over terms for distributing their content. Rep Cicilline says the bill is designed to level the playing field between publishers and the tech giants, not dictate the outcome. Without an exemption, collective action by publishers could run afoul of antitrust laws around colluding over price or refusal to deal with competitors. The prime driver of the bill is the News Media Alliance, a trade association formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America, which represents more than 2,000 newspapers in the US and Canada; the group has been lobbying for such an exemption for a year. Rep Chavern says the alliance is seeking changes in five areas: platforms should share data about the publishers’ readers; better highlight trusted brands; support subscriptions for publishers; and potentially share more ad revenue and consider paying for some content.

via Wired

Erasing History: YouTube’s Deletion Of Syria War Videos Concerns Human Rights Groups

YouTube hosts 4 million videos related to Syria that have been uploaded since the outbreak of the war in 2011, according to Keith Hiatt, vice president of the human rights program at Benetech, a technology nonprofit. But YouTube wasn’t designed to be the world’s largest repository of war footage. Over the summer of 2017, YouTube introduced a machine-learning-based algorithm to flag videos for terms of service (ToS)-related violations. The algorithm’s purpose was to expedite the removal of propaganda videos that extremist groups like ISIS had posted—but it flagged a large volume of activist content for removal, too. Within a few days, some 900 Syria-related channels disappeared off the platform.

Parents Television Council Pushes White House to Vet Violent Content on Broadcast Networks

The White House has scheduled a meeting with the video game industry's Entertainment Software Association March 8 to talk about video game and real world violence, but the Parents Television Council wants to expand the conversation to include broadcast network TV.  “As the White House and other leaders work to confront societal gun violence, we hope that they will demand meaningful change from the entertainment industry, which presents dress rehearsals for gun violence on TV, in the movies, and in violent video games,” said PTC President Tim Winter. PTC pointed to its research showing that the majority of programming in the 2017 November sweeps period, which helps determine ad rates going forward, contained violence, and more than a third guns. “Every single broadcast TV network rate shows with graphic violence and gun violence as appropriate for children – clear evidence that the entertainment industry contributes to marketing a culture of violence to children," said Winter.


Facebook Really Is Spying on You, Just Not Through Your Phone’s Mic

A conspiracy theory has spread among Facebook and Instagram users: The company is tapping our microphones to target ads. It’s not. “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed,” says Facebook. Uploading and scanning that much audio data “would strain even the resources of the NSA,” says former Facebook ad-targeting product manager Antonio Garcia Martinez. “They would need to understand the context of what you are saying—not just listen for words,” says Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager. I believe them, but for another reason: Facebook is now so good at watching what we do online—and even offline, wandering around the physical world—it doesn’t need to hear us. 

Russians are hacking our public-commenting system, too

[Op-ed] In the course of its deliberations on the future of Internet openness, the Federal Communications Commission logged about half a million comments sent from Russian e-mail addresses. It received nearly 8 million comments from e-mail domains associated with FakeMailGenerator.com with almost identical wording. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. Researchers, journalists, and public servants have found a wide range of fake comments and stolen identities in the public proceedings of the Labor Department, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Securities and Exchange Commission. In proceedings at the FCC and elsewhere, it is apparent that the public is increasingly shut out of decision-making by the fraud that is flooding public channels for comment. We need a lot more investigating, including from the Justice Department and the FBI. The sheer volume of fraud suggests a systemic effort to corrupt the process by which the public participates in some of the biggest decisions made in Washington. That deserves attention — and a fix. If we do this right, we can do more than rid our public records of comments from dead people and Russia, stolen identities and bots. We can find a way to give all Americans — no matter who they are or where they live — a fighting chance at making Washington listen to what they think.

[Jessica Rosenworcel is a member of the Federal Communications Commission]

Russian Influence Campaign Extracted Americans’ Personal Data

Leveraging social media, Russians have collected data by peddling niche business directories, convincing activists to sign petitions and bankrolling self-defense training classes in return for student information. It isn’t clear for what purpose the data were collected, but intelligence and cybersecurity experts say it could be used for identity theft or leveraged as part of a wider political-influence effort that didn’t end with the 2016 election. That operation is a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging probe, which has returned more than a dozen indictments of Russians as well as several American associates of now-President Donald Trump. A spokesman for Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said the company allows users to find out whether they have “liked” or “followed” any Russia-backed accounts through an online tool. However, the tool doesn’t notify users who exchanged messages with or turned over information to the accounts.

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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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