Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
House Communications & Technology Subcommittee Markup
Treasury Announces American Rescue Plan Funds to Connect Over 31,000 in South Carolina
FCC Commissioner Starks Remarks at INCOMPAS 2023 Policy Summit
Biden FCC nominee Gigi Sohn withdraws, following bruising lobbying battle
Governor Healey (MA) is pushing a plan to make calls free in Massachusetts state prisons — with limits | Boston Globe
Stories From Abroad
The US Department of the Treasury announced the approval of broadband projects in South Carolina under the Capital Projects Fund (CPF) in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The state estimates it will use its funding to connect over 31,000 homes and businesses to affordable, high-speed internet—representing 23% of locations still lacking high-speed internet access.. A key priority of the CPF program is to make funding available for reliable, affordable broadband infrastructure, advancing President Biden’s goal of affordable, reliable, high-speed internet for all Americans. South Carolina is approved to receive $185.8 million for broadband infrastructure. South Carolina’s award will fund the Next, Next Greatest Thing – Main Street South Carolina (MAIN ST) grant program, a competitive last-mile broadband grant program designed to provide affordable, reliable broadband service to rural areas that currently lack adequate internet service. Within those eligible areas, the MAIN ST program prioritizes projects that will deliver broadband to rural town centers and the surrounding residential areas. The plan submitted to the Treasury Department and being approved represents 100% of the state’s total allocation under the CPF program.
The Universal Service Fund is funded by a quarterly surcharge on interstate and international telecommunications revenue. Each quarter, a private nonprofit known as the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) estimates how much money it needs to fund the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) myriad universal service initiatives. It also estimates the amount of telecommunications revenue expected to be generated by industry, and from there calculates the surcharge percentage necessary to cover program costs. USAC proposes this surcharge amount to the agency, and it is “deemed approved” if the agency takes no action to change it within 14 days of publication. In other words, USAC determines its own budget to administer the program and then sets the tax rate it needs to cover that budget. At most, this process receives perfunctory FCC review, but no congressional oversight. USAC operates off-budget and is insulated from the appropriations process. Unsurprisingly, this lack of accountability has deleterious effects. Since the fund’s inception in 1996, the political appetite for universal service initiatives has grown, while the revenue base supporting the fund has contracted, causing the surcharge to skyrocket from 3 percent in 1998 to a whopping 32.6 percent today. And the fund’s history is littered with allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse. The constitutionality of this structure is currently being litigated in the Fifth Circuit.
With Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment picking up, we’ll need to address the longevity of the program’s funding before too long. We’re much better off addressing the issue quickly and with certainty—and there are three basic reasons why that is so. First, we must keep the millions of Americans who have signed up for the program secure in their access to broadband. Second, there are millions more who are eligible, and we need to get them signed up. Third, we need a secure ACP so that federal broadband infrastructure dollars go as far as possible and succeed in connecting every unserved and underserved home. ACP enrollees tend to be good customers with low churn, and they add significantly to the subscriber base of the network. That means the availability of ACP directly affects the revenue side of the equation and therefore the size of the funding gap that states will have to bridge.
The US Department of Labor (DOL) is considering the essential role of digital skills and broadband in the workforce. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) emphasized that digital skills are key to digital equity in our recent comments in response to DOL’s Digital Literacy and Resilience Request for Information. NDIA’s comments highlighted models of digital skills programs operating within the framework of holistic digital inclusion strategies. NDIA emphasized five overarching points:
- Holistic strategies should be prioritized.
- Digital literacy and resilience are urgently important for adults and youth across their full lifespans and careers.
- Digital skills are dramatically more relevant and powerful when interwoven with other skills.
- DOL should capitalize on the momentum of organizations that already have expertise in teaching adults and have earned the trust of key populations.
- The federal government should better coordinate its investments in digital skills.
House Commerce Committee Leaders Rodgers, Pallone Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Encourage Investment and Innovation in Satellite Communications
America must keep pace with the rapidly evolving satellite communications industry and ensure the United States is leading the way in next-generation satellite technologies. Satellites can connect people in hard-to-reach areas with high-speed internet service, provide more competitive choices in the market, and boost everyday services in the transportation and emergency communications sectors. Together the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act and the Secure Space Act will unleash American innovation, streamline our regulatory processes, preserve U.S. technological leadership, and protect our networks from untrusted actors. We look forward to working with our colleagues in the House and Senate to help connect millions of Americans to faster internet and critical emergency services, improve lives, and grow the economy. Both pieces of legislation were first introduced in the 117th Congress.
I’d like to focus on the future of 5G as a technology that I think could revolutionize private networking in the US and allow this country to strengthen its international position in manufacturing. Apart from its benefits to consumers, I know that many policymakers are counting on the 5G revolution to create new application frameworks and new industrial possibilities. Non-phone, non-consumer cellular devices are a product category that goes from niche to viability at scale through 5G’s capacities in latency, density, multiple planes, and network edge intelligence. But precisely because they are a new product category dependent on sophisticated and capital-intensive network infrastructure, we have to ask how we get from a consumer-facing cell network, and the businesses that grew up around it, to the non-consumer uses that show such potential. If consumers see benefits from 5G, network infrastructure companies like telecoms, tower companies, and tower equipment companies will have the money to keep building the networks we need to support a new generation of business and public safety applications—just as we’re starting to see in countries like China, where 5G has a head start. So, to get economies of scale and pervasive network availability, we need to find smarter ways to monetize 5G in the short term, so that the technology can be more broadly deployed for alternative uses. That is where an exclusive use-licensing model can and must play a starring role. The FCC is still committed to consumer 5G spectrum commercialization, and I don’t think we have to choose between two models; instead, we have to look at every option and every model that is likely to enable growth, and we have to allow the private sector to explore a variety of technological options.
I fully expect high-quality wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to be able to compete against fiber networks. While the industry lately seems to be fixated on broadband speeds, there are customers that value other aspects an internet service provider (ISP), such as trust and reliability. I think WISPs (and every other ISP) will have a hard time competing against a cooperative that builds fiber, particularly one that sets low prices like $50 or $60 for a gigabit. But not all coops will have affordable rates, and not all coops are loved by their members. WISPs will have a much easier time competing against big telephone companies that win broadband grants. I will not be surprised in the future to find some markets where a great WISP will outsell a big ISP with a fiber network. A WISP might survive and thrive in such a market for a long time. WISPs should also do well against a cable company that builds rural fiber if the cable company charges the same high rates as in cities. There are a lot of homes that can’t or won’t pay $90 – $100 per month for broadband.
John Malone and his former colleagues on Charter’s board agreed to an $87.5 million settlement of claims the billionaire unfairly benefited from the $79 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable he helped finance. The accord disclosed in a Delaware court filing resolves an investor’s lawsuit against directors of the second-largest US cable company over their handling of the 2016 deal. The money will come from insurance covering directors named in the suit and will go into Charter’s coffers, not to the shareholder who filed the case. Investor Matthew Sciabacucci accused the directors of allowing Malone, then on the board, to reap unfair tax benefits from stock he got in the merger through a side deal. Charter agreed to settle Sciabacucci’s claims “to avoid the burden, expense, disruption, and distraction of further litigation,” according to court filings. The directors said they aren’t admitting any wrongdoing as part of the deal. [The case is Sciabacucci v. Liberty Broadband Corp., No. 11418, Delaware Chancery Court (Georgetown).]
President Biden’s pick to serve as a telecommunications regulator is withdrawing her nomination to the Federal Communications Commission, following a bitter 16-month lobbying battle that blocked her appointment and opened her up to relentless personal attacks. Gigi Sohn, a longtime public interest advocate and former Democratic FCC official who was first nominated by the White House in October 2021, said her decision to withdraw follows “unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks” seeded by cable and media industry lobbyists. The opposition to Sohn catapulted the relatively low-profile position to the center of an unprecedented fight, which involved three Senate confirmation hearings, a series of ads and a billboard criticizing Sohn as “extreme” and “partisan” amid dissection of her social media posts. “It is a sad day for our country and our democracy when dominant industries, with assistance from unlimited dark money, get to choose their regulators,” Sohn said. “And with the help of their friends in the Senate, the powerful cable and media companies have done just that.” Conservative groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Sohn as partisan and extreme, leading a campaign focused in states of several moderate Democrats, who were already on the fence on Sohn’s nomination.
On October 25, 2021, I joined a chorus of voices celebrating President Biden’s wise choice for America’s broadband future. Having worked with her closely, I understand firsthand that Gigi Sohn is a smart, savvy, and talented leader who would have brought 30 years of relevant experience, an incredible intellect, and tremendous talent to the FCC to help guide our nation's communications future at such a pivotal time in history. Throughout her more than three decades of public interest advocacy, Ms. Sohn has demonstrated time and time again that she is a capable leader who can bring disparate voices together to find pragmatic approaches to some of the most challenging problems. It is exemplified by the more than 400 organizations, trade associations, and individuals who supported her candidacy to become an FCC Commissioner. We applaud her commitment to public services, her passion for extending affordable broadband to all Americans, her dedication to consumer protection, and her willingness to answer the President’s call for service. Americans deserve principled leaders who can stand up for consumers and the public interest.
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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