Wednesday, July 6, 2022
Headlines Daily Digest
Stories From Abroad
Throughout the pandemic, in-person and analog services have rapidly fallen to digital alternatives. While the digital divide has been excluding economically disadvantaged and elderly people for years, its rapid expansion is creating a new problem: The technology is often terrible. The replacement of in-person services with digital alternatives is becoming an ever-growing inconvenience for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. An estimated 2.9 billion people—37 percent of the world’s population—have never used the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ IT agency.
On February 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Inquiry related to digital redlining and how to prevent it in the future. Digital redlining is a practice in which some service providers have historically avoided providing broadband connections to certain areas, resulting in digital discrimination of some races and economic classes. Many large wireline providers have already filed comments with the FCC, including Verizon, AT&T and Lumen Technologies. Verizon expressed its support for measures to prevent digital redlining. And it touted its support for programs such as the FCC’s 2018 Connect America Fund (CAF), its 5G Fund for Rural America and the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). But AT&T takes a more defensive stance in its comments. It repeatedly notes that private enterprise has invested approximately $2 trillion in risk capital over the past 25 years to build the country’s “massive broadband infrastructure.” It wants the FCC to “maintain the investment-friendly, light-touch regulatory policy that has governed broadband service for most of the past quarter century.” One segment of its comments is entitled “Allegations of Systemic Demographic Disparities in Broadband Availability Lack Any Factual Basis.”
The Federal Communications Commission's Wireline Competition Bureau seeks comment on the interagency agreement between the Federal Communications Commission, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) entered into pursuant to the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act of 2020 (BICA). Comments will inform the FCC’s preparation of a report to Congress on the effectiveness and possible improvements to the agreement. Under the BICA, within 180 days of the law's passage, the agencies were required to enter into an agreement requiring the agencies to coordinate for the distribution of funds for broadband deployment under the FCC’s Universal Service Fund High Cost programs, programs administered by the Rural Utilities Service of the USDA, and programs administered or coordinated through NTIA. The BICA also required that the agreement require the agencies to share information about existing or planned projects funded, or to receive funding, under their programs and to consider basing distribution of broadband funding under the programs on “standardized data regarding broadband coverage.” Finally, the BICA required that the agreement be updated periodically and that the FCC seek public comment on:
- the effectiveness of the interagency agreement in facilitating efficient use of funds for broadband deployment;
- the availability of Tribal, State, and local data regarding broadband deployment and the inclusion of that data in interagency coordination; and
- any modifications to the agreement that would improve the interagency coordination.
Comments are due August 1; reply comments are due August 16 (because, you know, what else are you doing during the summer?). WC Docket No. 22-251
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development division sought to delay the implementation of a “Buy American” provision included in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) on the grounds that the requirement could hinder critical projects including broadband rollouts. Its move is notable given the USDA administers a number of key broadband funding initiatives, including the well-known ReConnect Program. Passed in November 2021, the IIJA included a Buy American rule which requires projects receiving federal infrastructure funding to use products and materials which contain at least 55 percent domestic content. That requirement was set to be applied to money obligated for projects after May 14, 2022. In a waiver request, though, the USDA asked that the rule’s implementation be delayed by six months. Among other things, the agency said the reprieve will give it more time to ensure program participants know how to meet the Buy American requirements so they can continue partaking in its programs. It will also help “avoid unintended negative impacts of immediate implementation,” which might include delayed rollouts of critical broadband, water and community infrastructure in rural areas.
Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel shared an update on July 1 announcing the FCC had opened its new system to collect information on where 2,500 broadband providers deliver service. Providers have until September 1 to submit data. The new federal broadband data is supposed to make up for the Form 477 flaw, or the fact that the FCC has historically relied on coverage data per census block, as submitted by internet service providers. Jim Stegeman, CEO of CostQuest – the company creating the new broadband fabric for the FCC – said this process differs because it gets data at the location level. However, he added, the accuracy of that data will depend on "how well the broadband providers actually report." To that end, not everyone is optimistic. "The data submitted to the FCC will be inaccurate, and not in the little bits. It'll be inaccurate all across the country," said Jonathan Chambers, principal with Conexon, a consulting firm that works with rural electric cooperatives on building fiber broadband networks. Chambers' concern is for those "at the end of the line" of a service provider's coverage area that will be left out if cable and fixed wireless providers overstate their coverage.
Broadband access is increasingly necessary for everyday activities and especially vital for businesses, remote workers, online education and health care appointments, but Empire State Development’s (ESD) New NY Broadband Program has fallen short of its mission to bring universal broadband access to New Yorkers, according to an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The program was created in 2015 to make high-speed (100 megabits per second or Mbps) broadband service “universal” in all but the most remote areas of the state by 2018. ESD’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) manages the program, which was funded with $735 million in mostly state funds, but also included private and federal matching dollars. The money was targeted to bring access to 255,994 unserved and underserved households. Due to delays, as of March 2021, not all of those households had received access to service. Further, nearly one-third of the households that were connected to broadband — 78,690 households in remote areas — were given broadband access using satellite technology, which has a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps and whose signal can be weakened by rain or snow. Although many households were connected, many still were not by the announced 2018 completion deadline, with more than half of the program’s 126 projects delayed by as long as 48 months. The audit contains further key findings and recommendations regarding the program and can be found here.
Cleveland (OH) is seeking proposals for how to provide broadband internet to city residents through a $20 million plan funded by COVID stimulus money. The city released its request for proposal for the first phase of a project, funded by American Rescue Plan Act dollars after Mayor Justin Bibb promised more details about the project would be released in June. Ideally, the city seeks plans that could provide broadband access to 50,000 residents within a year of the plan’s “deployment” and would provide devices to those in need, according to the request for proposal. Plans that want to be considered in the highest category should provide download speeds of at least 350 mbps and upload speeds of more than 100 mbps, with plans to increase those speeds to match consumer demand over time, according to the request for proposal. The RFP also calls for plans to make sure the project is deployed in a way that fights “digital redlining,” requires little maintenance, offers plans that don’t exceed $23 per month and taps other sources of government funding to bolster the project.
Google Fiber’s West Region General Manager Ashley Church said the company is looking to launch its service in Mesa (AZ) a city located within the Phoenix metro area. Its plan is dependent on the city council’s approval of a license agreement which will allow Google Fiber to access municipal rights of way along public highways to build its infrastructure. The proposal calls for an initial five-year license term with a renewal option. If the deal is approved at the Council’s upcoming July 11 meeting, Church said Google Fiber will “kick off the engineering and operations effort right away and begin construction in Mesa early next year.” The council will also vote on a five-year license agreement for open access fiber infrastructure provider SiFi Networks at the same meeting. Rather than paying a license fee like Google Fiber, SiFi Network’s proposed contract states it would provide certain “in-kind” services to the city, including access to up to 670 demand points across the network and discounted broadband to as many as 33,000 income-eligible households.
This report assesses spectrum sharing to help observers look realistically at the prospects for sharing and barriers to realizing its more aspirational promises. Key findings include:
- Both “exclusive use” and “shared spectrum” are broad categories and spectrum policy need not rigidly adhere to either. Policymakers should reconsider traditional assumptions about both paradigms.
- Technological advances can make the clearing of spectrum more feasible. Both the government and private sector should invest in developing these technologies.
- Spectrum-sharing technologies are a positive development, but they must work reliably and efficiently in real time before they are a generalizable solution. Technological investments can bring this goal within reach.
- Investments should continue toward the goal of real-time dynamic sharing that gives primary users certainty of access.
- Federal communications applications should seek to obviate sharing disputes by running on secure commercial networks whenever possible.
A recent analysis of Starlink broadband speeds from Ookla gathers huge numbers of speed tests from across the country. According to the study, the US average download speeds on Starlink have improved over the last year, from an average of 65.72 Mbps in first quarter 2021 to 90.55 Mbps in first quarter 2022. But during that same timeframe, upload speeds got worse, dropping from an average of 16.29 Mbps in first quarter 2021 to 10.70 Mbps in first quarter 2022. It’s likely that some of this change is intentional since internet service providers (ISPs) have a choice for the amount of bandwidth to allocate to download versus upload. It seems likely that overall bandwidth capacity and speeds are increasing due to the continually growing size of the Starlink satellite constellation – now over 2,500. Starlink subscriptions are climbing quickly. The company reported having 145,000 customers at the start of the year and recently announced it is up to 400,000 customers worldwide. This fast growth makes me wonder when Starlink will stop calling the business a beta test.
[Doug Dawson is president of CCG Consulting.]
One of the strange features of American government is that an 82-year-old’s broken hip can cause a sea change in telecom policy. The 82-year-old in question is Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had surgery after a fall and is said to be resting comfortably. But while Leahy recuperates, he won’t be able to cast votes and Democrats won’t be able to flex their razor-thin Senate majority — which could cost the administration its last chance to institute net neutrality rules. The temporary stalemate caused by Leahy’s recovery has lots of downstream effects. The Washington Post has a good piece running down the panic over federal judicial appointments, which require confirmation from the Senate. But the same also applies to Gigi Sohn [Senior Fellow and Public Advocate at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society], Biden’s nominee for the fifth seat on the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has been deadlocked at 2-2 since President Biden’s inauguration, and once Sohn is confirmed, the FCC would be in a position to restore net neutrality rules with a majority vote — but it’s been slow going. As long as the fifth seat is empty, net neutrality will remain in limbo — and it now looks like it could be empty for a very long time.
On July 5, European Parliament held the final vote on the new Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, following a deal reached between Parliament and Council on 23 April and 24 March respectively. The two bills aim to address the societal and economic effects of the tech industry by setting clear standards for how they operate and provide services in the EU, in line with the EU’s fundamental rights and values. The Digital Services Act (DSA) sets clear obligations for digital service providers, such as social media or marketplaces, to tackle the spread of illegal content, online disinformation and other societal risks. These requirements are proportionate to the size and risks platforms pose to society. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) sets obligations for large online platforms acting as “gatekeepers” (platforms whose dominant online position make them hard for consumers to avoid) on the digital market to ensure a fairer business environment and more services for consumers.
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 Grace Tepper (grace AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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