Thursday, April 28, 2022
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When talking about the benefits of broadband, it’s easy to overlook how broadband has become the glue that brings people and communities together. This is becoming particularly important for rural communities but matters to people everywhere. Rural communities have been rapidly losing other forms of media that were the focal point in the past. 2004 was the peak of the newspaper business in terms of readership and revenues. Since then, the number of journalists has been cut in half. In the last fifteen years, we’ve lost more than 20% of all newspapers, and many remaining papers are just barely hanging on financially. Over half of the 3,143 counties in the country now only have one newspaper, which in the majority of cases means only a small weekly paper. In a recent count, over 200 counties have no newspaper. We’ve also lost a huge number of local radio stations. The Internet has stepped in to fill some of this void. It’s easy to be cynical, and write off social media as being entertainment, but doing so ignores the real connections people make on the Internet. And yet, I’ve never seen any list of Internet benefits that includes the power of the Internet to provide local news and a sense of community.
It seems that almost every internet service provider (ISP) going for broadband grants is promising to offer a low-income program by promising to take part in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides a $30 monthly discount on broadband rates for qualifying households. The discount is available for households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. I love the idea of the ACP, but I think it’s already time to start the discussion of what happens when the ACP program runs out of money. By my quick math, the ACP will have paid out about $1.3 billion by the end of this April 2022. If the ACP runs out of money, the subsidy will stop. If the fund participants grow at the current rate, then 28 million homes would see an immediate $30 rate increase – one that, by definition, most of them can’t afford. The only way for the ACP to continue is for Congress to continue to fund it. If there are 20 million ACP participants, that’s a new annual federal subsidy program of $7.2 billion per year. At 30 million participants, it’s $10.8 billion per year. There are a whole lot of folks putting energy today into digital equity, and many of them tell me that the $30 discount really makes a difference to families. I’m sure many of them have done the same math as me and must be worried about what happens when the ACP runs out of money. Two years is almost no time in political terms, and anybody who wants the ACP to last more than two years needs to already be lobbying for the replacement funding.
[Doug Dawson is President of CCG Consulting.]
The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) requests emergency review and approval of the emergency collection to ensure that the agency can meet the statutory deadlines Congress set forth for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Broadband Grant Programs. Given the challenges that the grant application process can pose for disadvantaged communities, NTIA seeks to make this process more equitable for all of its potential applicants for the broadband grant programs enacted in the Infrastructure Act, including those with limited resources and/or technical expertise. In order to do so, NTIA created new forms for use in the application process which will provide structured questions and guidance concerning the kind of discrete and structured data required for successful applications. The new forms will create greater efficiencies in the NTIA grant program, which will likely result in enhanced timing and information accuracy beneficial to program applicants. NTIA believes that a significant number of these prospective applicants will be Tribal governments or other entities associated with disadvantaged communities. NTIA further believes that the new forms will offer these applicants greater opportunities for meaningful participation in the broadband programs than they would otherwise enjoy while lessening overall application review burdens
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) gives the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) a specific allocation formula for distributing the $42.45 billion in the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. Importantly, even the allocation of funds to states has to wait until after the Federal Communications Commission is done with their new maps. After all, the formula is based on the number of unserved locations and we don’t trust the existing data on unserved locations. Here, I use the existing Form 477 data to do an initial allocation, then use parameters from existing research to make estimates about how the allocations might change under the new maps. Small changes in the number of unserved locations relative to other states can mean a big swing in funding. Ultimately, the adjustments produce a dramatic swing in funding towards bigger more urban states. This data need thorough peer review—here’s the spreadsheet. However, I think it’s safe to say that given the small amount of unserved housing units nationally (4.1 percent of housing units are unserved), the changes to those numbers that will happen with the FCC’s new maps will lead to big changes in the funding allocation relative to what the existing maps would produce.
[Mike Conlow writes about technology, policy, politics, and economics in various combinations in 'Mike's Newsletter'.]
NRECA is forming a new broadband tier of services to help electric cooperatives navigate the challenges of deploying broadband in the communities they serve. The broadband tier “is in response to the telecommunications needs of a significant and growing number of our members,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said. “NRECA’s mission is to be an advocate for quality of life in the diverse communities our members serve. Increasingly, our members’ missions include providing access to affordable broadband for unserved and underserved Americans as part of that commitment.” The vision for the broadband tier, based on feedback from dozens of co-op leaders, is to offer additional benefits such as focused relationship-building and lobbying on Capitol Hill and at federal agencies, plus exclusive events and publications and enhanced services and analyses, he said. Membership is voluntary and will carry an additional fee. Any NRECA voting electric co-op exploring broadband service can join for $6,000 per year. Co-ops that are already providing broadband service to consumers can join for $12,000 plus $1 per broadband consumer per year. Over 200 electric co-ops offer broadband service and another 100 to 200 are studying it. Ultimately, about 400 electric co-ops are expected to enter the broadband space.
On April 4 the American Enterprise Institute hosted a discussion on how states can best use the $65 billion for broadband build-out apportioned by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai was joined by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) followed by a panel discussion with John Bailey and Mark Jamison of AEI, Evan Feinman of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Sarah Oh Lam of the Technology Policy Institute (TPI), and Brent Skorup of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Sen Fischer said, " I was very proud to be able to support this bill because I think it is so important to make these investments in infrastructure—including roads, bridges, waterways, airports, and especially broadband." She said it was important to include "he technology-neutral speed requirements of 100/20 megabits per second (Mbps) and prioritizing unserved areas." The panelists discussed the broadband mapping efforts and how well states are prepared to receive and make good use of the federal broadband infrastructure support.
NorthState and Orange County have announced a public-private partnership to bring ultra-high-speed fiber internet service to approximately 28,000 homes and businesses in Orange County (NC) including nearly 10,000 locations that currently have little or no internet service. The project, one of the largest fiber infrastructure public-private partnerships in North Carolina’s history, is made possible by significant investments from both NorthState and Orange County. The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on approval on April 26. Orange County is using funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to provide fiber service to close to 10,000 addresses in unserved and underserved areas. NorthState’s own investment expands the project and will result in access to best-in-class fiber technology and a competitive choice for fiber service for the additional 18,000 Orange County homes and businesses. As part of its partnership with Orange County, NorthState will also provide fiber internet service to approximately two dozen county-owned anchor institutions, including fire stations, EMS and community centers. NorthState will begin work within weeks to initiate the process of installing approximately 990 miles of fiber in Orange County; service is planned to be available to some areas as early as spring 2023.
The Ohio Connectivity Champions (OCC) partnered with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) to help deploy free internet service to more than 6,000 district households during the 2021-2022 school year ensuring online access to health, employment, school, skill improvement, and the economy. In September 2021, CMSD was awarded approximately $12 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund (now the Affordable Connectivity Program), a federal $7.17 billion program that helps schools and libraries provide the tools and services needed for remote learning during the pandemic. As part of Spectrum’s Stay Connected K-12 program and EmpowerCLE+, more than 6,000 high-speed modems were distributed to households in CMSD’s district. The Champions also help CMSD with address changes, identifying household internet needs, verifying installation of needed internet, ensuring that unneeded modems were returned, and making sure that households that do need modems are scheduled to receive one. “Ohio’s Connectivity Champions are committed to removing the burdens districts face while connecting families to internet,” said Geoff Andrews, chief executive officer of the Management Council, parent organization of OCC. “We are pleased to be part of an initiative that helps Ohioans connect to the internet and participate in the global economy.”
Days after a federal appeals court decision left in place a California law that protects net neutrality in the state, more than half of registered voters said that they supported such protections, a new Morning Consult/Politico survey found. That support has remained relatively stable for several years, even after the repeal of federal rules. Among all voters, 55 percent said they supported laws that protect net neutrality, which prevents internet service providers from blocking, throttling or prioritizing certain content. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a petition from telecommunications companies and industry groups to rehear a January 2022 decision that found that the Federal Communications Commission’s reversal of federal net neutrality rules in 2017 does not stop states from implementing their own laws. Independents (60 percent) and Democrats (57 percent) are almost equally supportive of net neutrality laws, while about half of Republicans (49 percent) say the same. The level of overall voter support is comparable to a June 2017 Morning Consult/Politico survey before the FCC repealed federal net neutrality laws later that year. In that survey, 60 percent of respondents said they supported net neutrality, as did 61 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents. Republican backing for net neutrality has fallen 10 percentage points over that nearly five-year period. There is evidence that the issue is starting to fade from the public consciousness, however. In the 2017 survey, 23 percent said they did not know or had no opinion about net neutrality, while in this year’s survey 29 percent said the same.
Judging by what T-Mobile executives have shared publicly, the integration of Sprint into the T-Mobile sphere is going swimmingly. But if you’re the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the whole thing stinks. T-Mobile said it plans to finish transitioning all Sprint customers to the T-Mobile network over the next few months. The company also is on track to upgrade or decommission substantially all Sprint sites in 2022. It’s been selectively decommissioning sites since the merger closed. Decommissioning will be heaviest in the first two quarters of 2022, with the target being those 35,000 cell sites. It’s not a direct result of the network shutdown, but as part of the overall transaction, CWA recently reviewed the impact of the merger on jobs. Its comments were submitted to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DoJ) to inform their review of corporate merger guidelines. According to CWA, T-Mobile has eliminated 19,840 jobs since the merger. It also closed 32% of its corporate-operated stores, 13% of its third-party stores, and 18% of its Metro by T-Mobile prepaid stores since the merger. The average store closures for other wireless carriers over the same period is 7%. The result of the merger for wireless retail workers, who often move between wireless carriers, is fewer job options and less bargaining power, CWA told the FTC in its comments.
T-Mobile reported its results for first-quarter 2022, showing strong broadband subscriber growth. The company reported 348,000 postpaid net account additions for the quarter, as well as 1.3 million postpaid net customer additions. In addition, T-Mobile saw 589,000 postpaid phone net customer additions and 338,000 high-speed internet net customer additions. Approximately 45 percent of postpaid customers are using a 5G phone on T-Mobile's network. The company's 5G network covers 95 percent of Americans. Further, it stated it is on track to complete its Sprint customer network migration mid-year and decommissioning by the end of 2022. Total service revenues increased 7 percent to $15.1 billion.
Rep. Cindy Axne (DIA-03) and Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC-08) introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure key telehealth services offered during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for two years after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued waivers allowing Medicare beneficiaries to access necessary services through telehealth and making more providers eligible to offer telehealth. This includes necessary flexibilities like making Medicare beneficiaries eligible for telehealth regardless of where they live and allowing at-home telehealth visits. According to recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), 28.2 million Medicare beneficiaries – over half the beneficiary population – have used telemedicine during the pandemic. HHS also reports that 92% of Medicare telehealth visits in 2020 took place with beneficiaries in their homes, an option that was unavailable prior to COVID-19. The Telehealth Extension and Evaluation Act would extend these critical flexibilities, ensure that rural health clinics and community health centers may continue to provide telehealth, include provisions to deter fraud and abuse, and commission a study on the impact of these extended flexibilities to help chart a course toward permanent telehealth services.
Twitter's board agreed to sell the corporation to Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX. The Open Markets Institute believes the deal poses a number of immediate and direct threats to American democracy and free speech. Open Markets also believes the deal violates existing law, and that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have ample authority to block it. The most obvious problem is that the deal would give to a single man—one who already wields immense political and economic power—direct control over one of world’s most important platforms for public communications and debate. As has been true from the Founding, the American people have an absolute right to ensure the full openness and neutrality of all essential public infrastructure. Specific to communications, we see this in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, in the Telegraph acts of 1860 and 1866, the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910, the Communications Act of 1934, and many other federal and state laws. Americans have also repeatedly used our antitrust laws to prevent concentrations of power over communications, speech, debate, and news. The deal also violates the law at a more technical level. Musk already controls one of the most important internet platforms in the world—in the form of the satellite communications system Starlink. Since the late 19th Century, the US government has routinely acted to prevent mergers between existing essential platforms. Most recently, the DOJ in 2017 attempted to block AT&T’s takeover of Time-Warner. This means that just as we would now expect the US government to block a takeover of Twitter by Google, Facebook, Comcast, or Verizon, the same rules apply to the owners of Starlink.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said, "The FCC has no authority to block Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and to suggest otherwise is absurd. I would welcome the full FCC making it clear that we will not entertain these types of frivolous arguments."
Elon Musk has claimed he is buying Twitter in order to protect free speech. But what does Musk mean by "free speech"? "By 'free speech,' I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people." There are multiple ways to interpret Musk's statement as it relates to United States law, particularly the First Amendment. One interpretation is that Musk doesn't need to change Twitter at all to prevent "censorship that goes far beyond the law." In the US, judges have ruled that private companies like Twitter have a First Amendment right to moderate content. But what of other countries? Is Musk suggesting a different approach in which he'd be willing to restrict speech in any country where the government requires him to do so? Using Musk's explanation of free speech, a government law that prohibits certain kinds of speech is just "the will of the people."
In her first National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show appearance since her designation as Federal Communications Commission Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel conceded that the introduction of a fifth commissioner would solve the agency’s current 2-to-2 political gridlock, but she’s not losing any sleep over it. “We’ve got to figure out how to work together, or we don’t get anything done,” she told NAB president and CEO Curtis LeGeyt. Whereas previous FCC administrations added to the cacophony of divisive political noise emanating from Washington (DC), Rosenworcel said that five months into her administration as the FCC’s first permanent female chair in its 87-year history, the group has simply been given too much to do by Congress to fight amongst itself. “We’ve turned down the volume and ramped up the activity,” Rosenworcel said, citing initiatives ranging from the CARES Act to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “But yes,” she conceded, “I’m looking forward to the day when we have five commissioners." Asked by LeGeyt in the broad-reaching discussion about the topic of diversity, Rosenworcel conceded that her own pioneering position makes the issue a priority with her. She said the FCC is aggressively gathering data on the broadcast industry and noted it will be helpful for the NAB in achieving its diversity goals.
For the first time in its history, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) expanded beyond administering the four universal service programs: E-Rate, High Cost (Connect America Fund), Lifeline, and Rural Health Care. In 2021, USAC rose to the challenge and successfully administered four Federal Communications Commission initiatives, collectively known as the Congressional Response Programs. While this was far from a simple feat, USAC is proud of the effort, the execution, and ultimately the success of the programs, which served those most in need, alongside the universal service programs.
- The E-Rate program continues to see year-over-year growth. E-Rate processed 19,723 applications, 54 percent of total applications, within 30 days of the window closing.
- The High Cost program undertook efforts to ensure service providers are meeting the obligations of different funds so communities receive access to broadband services.
- The Lifeline program served millions of subscribers, helping to offset the cost of internet service for low-income households. The National Verifier eligibility system can automatically verify the eligibility of more than 60 percent of Lifeline applicants, which decreases the number of manual reviews, thus reducing the cost of operations.
- In 2021, the Rural Health Care (RHC) team launched modernization efforts for the Healthcare Connect Fund application process, which had been a manually-intense process since its inception.
Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks announced several changes to his team. William Davenport, Starks’s Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Advisor, will be leaving the FCC at the end of April 2022. Austin Bonner, Starks’s legal advisor for media and consumer protection issues, will serve as Acting Chief of Staff. Commissioner Starks said, “For over three years, Bill has led my office’s efforts to improve the equity, security, and sustainability of our nation’s communications sector. Bill has been a dedicated public servant and I have always appreciated his judgment, expertise, and leadership. He will be deeply missed, and I wish him all the best in what comes next.” After Davenport’s departure, Georgios Leris will serve as Acting Legal Advisor for wireless and international issues through the FCC’s May Open Meeting. Leris currently is an Associate Division Chief in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau’s Competition and Infrastructure Policy Division. In mid-May, Shiva Goel will join the Starks office as permanent Legal Advisor for wireless and international issues. Goel currently is a partner at the law firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, where he has worked on a variety of wireless and space policy issues.
Gigi Sohn is still up for confirmation by the Senate to complete the Federal Communications Commission. I’ve known Gigi for many years and respected her from the first time I saw her in action. She isn’t a political agent trying to figure out the best path to the top. She has strong beliefs, and she’ll tell you what they are in a wonderful Long Island blur of passion. She respects other beliefs and ideas but she isn’t going to pretend she agrees with you when she doesn’t. Some allies forwarded me claims coming from former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp – someone I have listened to being interviewed on podcasts and generally thought well of because she sounds practical. But the attacks from Heitkamp on Gigi are so off-base that I had to respond because I’m often working with people in rural communities for whom this issue is not theoretical. Heitkamp makes multiple claims that Gigi’s confirmation would be bad for rural America based on misreading quotes or taking them out of context to pretend that Gigi is not concerned with rural broadband challenges.
[Christopher Mitchel is director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.]
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