Thursday, July 15, 2021 [this newsletter has been edited post-publication]
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Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission released data on how many households have signed up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a program created by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program offers eligible households a discount of up to $50 per month on broadband service. The data, available through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) which administers the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, shows that over 3 million households have signed up for the new program. The downloadable spreadsheet shows that 3,125,066 households have enrolled for the benefit. A close look at the data reveals some highlights:
- The first wave of data indicates that, thus far, the Emergency Broadband Benefit has enrolled about one in twelve eligible households.
- Analysis of 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) indicates that 31.7 million households are eligible for the FCC's Lifeline program. Data on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) shows that 4.3 million more households used SNAP in 2021 than in 2019. This suggests that 36 million households are Emergency Broadband Benefit-eligible (using Lifeline qualification as a guide).
- Places where wireline broadband adoption rates are low have exhibited above-average rates of households signing up for the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
- Puerto Rico and New Orleans stand out as places with high rates of Emergency Broadband Benefit enrollment, along with cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia – all of which have high rates of poverty and residential segregation.
The National Association of Counties' Broadband Task Force was chartered with the premise that "if you can't connect… you can't compete." It is the equity issue of our hour. After months of study and dialogue, our Task Force concluded that a comprehensive, coordinated approach is needed to pursue new broadband infrastructure investment, public policies, and user skills. This report details our findings, best practices and policy recommendations for equitable broadband access. Our findings show that:
- County officials play a crucial role as policymakers, funders, data aggregators, conveners, and partners in pursuing sustainable solutions to broadband access, affordability, and reliability. Therefore county officials require the knowledge, policy tools, funding resources, and support necessary to meet community broadband needs.
- Federally supported, locally collected, and verified data is imperative to understand America's true state of connectivity.
- Eliminating our nation's digital divide and ensuring universal, reliable, affordable broadband access will require multiple technological solutions (with redundancy and scale), including fiber, satellite, cellular, fixed wireless, cable, and future innovations.
- Open "middle mile" systems can increase competition and result in improved affordability and access.
- Federal resources used to eliminate the digital divide should incentivize future-proofed systems (i.e., symmetrical 1gbps network) and require coordination between local governments and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ensure community needs are met within acceptable timeframes.
- Ultimately, broadband should be regulated as a utility to eliminate the digital divide effectively and comprehensively.
Sens Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Assisting Broadband Connectivity Act. This bipartisan bill will streamline the funding process and remove barriers for broadband connectivity in hard-to-serve rural areas. The Assisting Broadband Connectivity Act will make changes to the rural broadband programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), so areas aren’t automatically ineligible for federal funding because the project previously received state funding. This change will ease administrative burdens for those applying to provide broadband to rural America. However, this won’t change the requirements or due diligence for USDA Rural Utilities Service when they administer these programs. This legislation will also provide more flexibility with funding and resources; states will be able to use federal funds, such as COVID aid for broadband, fulfilling their requirement in most applications to match federal dollars. This update will help rural America move forward by providing more coordination and funding availability for broadband projects.
A few years ago I was actually the first at the Federal Communications Commission to speak about the power of opening radio access networks (Open RAN), and we’ve come a long way since then. There’s momentum building in this agency and across government. One company has already made it into the history books as the first to launch an Open RAN network—and it is winning customers every day. One nationwide provider right here in the United States has committed to building a nationwide 5G network using Open RAN by 2023. Open RAN hardware and software is now projected to reach 10 percent of the total market during the next few years. And most notably—we are no longer thinking about wireless equipment just in an end-to-end way. Instead, we are thinking about it as a more diverse and modular architecture.
Now many of you are here because you will soon take on the complex task of removing Huawei and ZTE equipment from your networks, wherever it may exist. As we strive to meet this goal, the FCC will continue to work to ensure that secure alternatives exist for carriers. We want companies cutting out high-risk hardware from their networks to have the opportunity to use a range of trusted alternatives. That means traditional end-to-end proprietary gear, but it also means newer opportunities like Open RAN. The FCC can do its best to create conditions that foster innovation and investment, but at the end of the day, we’re counting on all of you to develop and deploy these technologies. Working together, we have an opportunity to build a bigger market for more secure 5G equipment. And that will help unlock the benefits of 5G technology for everyone, everywhere.
Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed establishing Raleigh (NC) and Boston (MA) as innovation zones to allow for advanced wireless communications and network innovation and research. These designations would, among other positive impacts, help spur the development and integration of 5G network technologies and open radio access networks (Open RAN). Innovation zones are FCC-designated, city-scale test beds managed by the National Science Foundation’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research. If approved by a vote of the full FCC at its August 5 Open Meeting, this proposal will allow Raleigh and Boston to join New York City and Salt Lake City at the forefront of wireless technology innovation. The Raleigh Innovation Zone, in collaboration with North Carolina State University, will house Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless, which will focus on new use cases involving wireless communications and unmanned aerial systems. The Boston Innovation Zone, at Northeastern University, will support the transition of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Colosseum network emulator to a shared platform, usable by the research community.
AT&T now covers more than 250 million people across the US with its flavor of 5G, which includes low-band spectrum in large parts of the country. It reached that goal a full six months earlier than originally planned. The company uses dynamic spectrum sharing, which allowed it to speed its 5G deployment by putting it on top of its LTE network. Its millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, which it calls 5G Plus, is now in parts of 38 cities and 20 venues, with plans to be in parts of 40 cities and 40 venues by the end of 2021. AT&T has also stated that its 5G Plus will be rolled out in seven US airports this year. But one can argue that its C-band spectrum, of which it obtained 80 MHz at auction earlier this year, is the real star of the show, offering better capacity than low-band and wider coverage than high-band spectrum. Often called the “Goldilocks” of spectrum, the mid-band spectrum offers better propagation characteristics for 5G than other parts of the spectrum range. Both AT&T and Verizon are in a race to get their C-band deployed as “un-carrier” T-Mobile continues to ramp up–and heavily tout–its mid-band spectrum advantage with the 2.5 GHz spectrum it’s been deploying at a frenzied pace.
The Biden administration is gearing up for a showdown with cable and telecommunication companies over plans to bring back Obama-era net neutrality rules. President Biden's wide-ranging competition executive order that in part encouraged the FCC to reinstate the net neutrality rules was met with opposition from broadband industry groups; industry leaders fear net neutrality rules will pave the way for the government to set broadband prices and have argued that the rules deter investment in the sector. But the administration believes that net neutrality rules are good policy, and rather than hamper investment, push companies to focus on building out their networks because they block other avenues for revenue. All eyes will be on the FCC to begin the lengthy process to reinstate the rules, yet progress is hindered by a deadlocked Commission and lack of a Democratic majority.
Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel would not comment on the degree to which the president's failure to name a third Democratic commissioner has prevented it from taking action on some big issues — like restoring network neutrality rules — but she suggested the agency has been hard at work on other things and was still supportive of making net neutrality rules the law of the land. When asked whether the FCC planned to restore the rules barring internet service providers from engaging in blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, she said she had long been a supporter of the rules and objected to the previous FCC's elimination of them. As to whether the FCC could get a Republican commissioner on board with a net neutrality item, Rosenworcel suggested that while she can talk about the issue with the current politically tied FCC, with a “full dias” (a Democratic majority) she might be able to have other options. That “might” should be a “definitely,” since Biden is highly unlikely to name a commissioner who does not support restoration of the rules.
Federal Communications Commission Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel expressed general support for the items in President Biden’s big competition executive order, but as the commission still lacks a Democratic majority, she declined to say when the agency might act on it. Biden’s requests for the FCC include reinstating net neutrality rules, helping ensure apartment dwellers have a choice of internet providers and imposing broadband pricing transparency — all ideas she endorsed. She noted that a “full dais” (i.e., a Democratic majority, which will require Biden to nominate someone) could yield more options on tackling issues like net neutrality. Asked whether the White House consulted the FCC in drafting the order, Chairwoman Rosenworcel acknowledged that her agency has “informal conversations with lots of folks in Washington on Capitol Hill and in the administration. When they ask questions about existing FCC rules and policies, we are always quick to answer them and explain why things are the way they are. There’s no difference here.” The FCC, of course, is an independent agency not subject to directives from the White House. Ex-FCC General Counsel Tom Johnson, a Republican, called Biden’s order “much more aggressive” than Trump’s 2020 order seeking an FCC crackdown on social media (which itself raised eyebrows at the time) because Trump’s took the form of a Commerce Department petition. Such a petition would be “the right approach” for President Biden, too, “rather than going directly to the FCC,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.
Sen John Kennedy (R-LA) introduced the Don’t Push My Buttons Act (S.2335) in response to social media platforms that track personal data to polarize and provoke online users. The bill would deny legal immunity under the Communications Act of 1934 to platforms that leverage user data to promote divisive content without permission from those users. Many social media platforms collect data to identify their users’ “hot buttons”—divisive issues that create strong emotional responses or reactions. The companies then employ algorithms that intentionally show their users content designed to agitate them. The Don’t Push my Buttons Act would narrow the scope of the liability limitation provided under Section 230 of the Communications Act, denying immunity to platforms that use algorithms to optimize engagement by pushing divisive content into users’ feeds.
The Administrative Conference of the US (ACUS) has recommended federal agencies take a number of steps to address the issues of mass computer generated and falsely attributed comments. In this case, it is recommending that agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, who must give members of the public the opportunity to weigh in on proposed rules for the agency's consideration, find better ways to manage what can be a flood of comments in the digital age. Among the recommendations are calls for agencies to "welcome" the filing of mass, "identical or substantively identical" comments as a single comment over multiple signatures, and to "consider alternative approaches to managing the display of comments online, such as by posting only a single representative example of identical comments in the online rulemaking docket or by breaking out and posting only non-identical content in the docket" to make it easier to navigate the system. When it comes to falsely attributed comments, ACUS suggests that agencies should give those to whom the comments have been falsely attributed a chance to have those comments anonymized or removed from the online docket.
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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