Tuesday, August 22, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
Data and Mapping
Stories From Abroad
Researchers at the Humana Foundation and AARP’s Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) found that nearly half of older Americans live with technological barriers. And nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline broadband access at home. There are poignant correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration status, rural residence, and, of course, income. Researchers have found that insufficient practical training in technology use and the attendant difficulty in using computers both contribute to these disparities. Furthermore, ageism reduces self-efficacy for technology use, further reducing confidence in one’s ability to use technology; physical and mental limitations can make technology harder to use; and people who did not grow up using technology may devalue the benefits and usefulness of these services, or see the barriers as greater than the benefits without intentional support and opportunities for benefit.
The Coalition of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Winners has filed an emergency petition with the Federal Communications Commission regarding its request for extra funding or other relief measures. The group argues that the COVID pandemic has raised deployment costs dramatically and that the funding the companies won is now insufficient. The emergency petition requests “certain or all” of the same types of relief that the coalition previously requested in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. Possible relief recommended include:
- Supplementary funding to RDOF winners that have made an affirmative request for such funding;
- Relief from all or certain aspects of letter of credit requirements on an expedited basis;
- RDOF payments for years 7-10 made accessible by RDOF winners in years 2 or 3-6;
- A short amnesty period to allow RDOF winners to relinquish all or part of their RDOF winning areas without forfeiture or penalties.
Some of the arguments made by the coalition in the letter:
- The FCC has $14.3 billion of the RDOF budget remaining and could request that USAC raise additional funding to supplement RDOF winners’ initial winnings;
- The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has offered additional funding to companies that won funding in the ReConnect program as a result of increased deployment costs;
- The FCC has granted relief as a result of COVID in other contexts, for example, when a planned budget control mechanism for the high-cost program was postponed;
- The cost model upon which the RDOF maximum bids was based could be recalculated based on today’s market conditions to gauge how much costs have increased, and the result could be used to calculate relief funding;
- An amnesty window could make sense, not only for providers whose costs have increased dramatically, but could also help providers that won funding for areas that have since been overbuilt by companies receiving funding through other government programs.
Permitting has long been the bane of broadband deployments across the country, but a little-known federal council is working to change that. According to the newly appointed Executive Director of the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council Eric Beightel, the council is looking to do so with a combination of funding and expertise. Created in 2015, the Permitting Council oversees what is known as the FAST 41 program, which is designed to streamline the federal permitting process for large infrastructure projects by bringing together stakeholders from 16 member agencies. Most broadband projects (with the exception of some Tribal initiatives) don’t qualify for FAST 41 treatment due to the program’s $200 million investment benchmark. But Beightel said the council is working on a number of other initiatives to ensure permitting moves as smoothly as possible for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program projects. These include spending $25 million to help federal agencies staff up for the impending influx of permit applications that will come with BEAD. He also noted the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included $350 million in funding for the council to fund its efforts over the course of nine years. While the council – as a federal entity – has little power to influence state governments, he said it can use some of this funding to help state and local entities reform their permitting processes with grant money. Additionally, Beightel said the Permitting Council is working to develop best practices for permitting and is working with states to identify opportunities for agencies to standardize their permitting processes. The idea is to ensure agencies are consistent and asking applicants for the same information to provide a predictable process.
The Federal Communication Commission used FCC Form 477 to collect subscribership information from providers of voice telephone services – incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), and mobile voice providers – since December 1999. The FCC has required interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (“interconnected VoIP”) service providers to report subscribership information since December 2008. Also, starting with the data reported for 2014, FCC Form 477 has been modified to distinguish “over-the-top” (colloquially, “bring your own broadband”) interconnected VoIP subscriptions from other interconnected VoIP subscriptions. Retail voice telephone service customers are served by two wireline technologies – end-user switched access lines and interconnected VoIP subscriptions – and by mobile wireless subscriptions.
An AI expert suggested that AI could be used to produce better broadband maps. I had to chuckle at that idea. The primary reason for my amusement is that Federal Communications Commission maps are created from self-reported broadband coverage and speeds by the many internet service providers (ISP) in the country. ISPs have a variety of motivations for how and why they report data to the FCC. Some ISPs try to report accurate speeds and coverage. People may be surprised by this, but some of the biggest companies, like CenturyLink and Frontier, seem to have gotten better at reporting DSL speeds – in some markets, you can find DSL capability being reported at a dozen different speeds to reflect that DSL speeds vary by the distance from the central office. Other ISPs take the exact opposite approach and report marketing speeds that are far in excess of the capability of the technology being deployed. It’s not hard to find wireless internet service providers (WISP) claiming 100 Mbps to 300 Mbps download capability when they are delivering speeds in the 10 Mbps to 30 Mbps range. Some ISPs have already been accused of over-reporting speeds to try to block grant money from overbuilding them. The only way that AI could be used to improve the maps is if the FCC gets serious about mapping and changes some rules, and enforces others. The FCC would have to eliminate the ability of ISPs to claim marketing speeds, which provides easy cover for overstating capabilities. The FCC would also have to get serious about enforcing coverage to meet the 10-day installation rule. If those two changes were made and enforced, the FCC might be able to use AI to improve the maps. AI could match claimed ISP coverage to speed test data and also reference and compare coverage to complaints and challenges from consumers. I don’t see the FCC ever being willing to get that aggressive with ISPs – because this process would be extremely contentious.
Across Alaska, on fishing boats and cabin roofs and conex containers, flat white antennas are popping up like high-tech mushrooms. They’re Starlink terminals, delivering new technology that in just a few months has started radically transforming internet connectivity in some of the most remote parts of the state. The company, a subsidiary of SpaceX, started sending thousands of low-orbit satellites into space in 2019, shifting the paradigm on internet infrastructure around the globe. Since late 2022 when Starlink internet became available in Alaska, thousands of residents have signed up at a pace that’s exceeding expectations, observers say. The Starlink signal isn’t perfect, they say. Its strength diminishes as more users compete for bandwidth. But it’s also gotten faster and steadier as SpaceX has added satellites to the system.
Elon Musk, became involved in the war in Ukraine soon after Russia invaded, in February 2022. Along with conventional assaults, the Kremlin was conducting cyberattacks against Ukraine’s digital infrastructure. Ukrainian officials and a loose coalition of expatriates in the tech sector, brainstorming in group chats on WhatsApp and Signal, found a potential solution: SpaceX, which manufactures a line of mobile Internet terminals called Starlink. The tripod-mounted dishes, each about the size of a computer display connect with a network of satellites. The units have limited range, but in this situation that was an advantage: although a nationwide network of dishes was required, it would be difficult for Russia to completely dismantle Ukrainian connectivity. Of course, Musk could do so. Three people involved in bringing Starlink to Ukraine, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they worried that Musk, if upset, could withdraw his services, said that they originally overlooked the significance of his personal control. “Nobody thought about it back then,” said one of them, a Ukrainian tech executive. “It was all about ‘Let’s fucking go, people are dying.’ ” In the ensuing months, fund-raising in Silicon Valley’s Ukrainian community, contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development and with European governments, and pro-bono contributions from SpaceX facilitated the transfer of thousands of Starlink units to Ukraine. Initially, Musk showed unreserved support for the Ukrainian cause. But, as the war ground on, SpaceX began to balk at the cost. Musk was also growing increasingly uneasy with the fact that his technology was being used for warfare. Then Musk’s sympathies appeared to be manifesting on the battlefield. Musk’s singular role presented unfamiliar challenges, as did the government’s role as intermediary. “It wasn’t like we could hold him in breach of contract or something,” the official continued. The Pentagon would need to reach a contractual arrangement with SpaceX so that, at the very least, Musk “couldn’t wake up one morning and just decide, like, he didn’t want to do this anymore.” Added Colin Kahl, then the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon, “It was kind of a way for us to lock in services across Ukraine. It could at least prevent Musk from turning off the switch altogether.”
Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the FCC's intent to recharter the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force for its third and final term, calling on the four working groups to examine the impact of connectivity in meeting the production and sustainability challenges facing agricultural and food systems. In addition, Chairwoman Rosenworcel called for representatives from diverse and historically underrepresented communities, including socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, to apply for membership to the Task Force and its working groups. The Task Force, established under the 2018 Farm Bill to provide advice to the FCC, in consultation with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), on how to deploy broadband service on unserved agricultural land to promote precision agriculture, is set to conclude its work in January 2025. The Task Force was established under the 2018 Farm Bill to provide advice to the FCC, in consultation with the USDA, on how to deploy broadband service on unserved agricultural land to promote precision agriculture. The four Task Force working groups are focused on the following activities:
- Mapping and Analyzing Connectivity on Agricultural Lands;
- Examining Current and Future Connectivity Demand for Precision Agriculture;
- Encouraging Adoption of Precision Agriculture and Availability of High-Quality Jobs on Connected Farms; and
- Accelerating Broadband Deployment on Unserved Agricultural Lands.
Nominations for membership to the Task Force or its working groups should be submitted to the FCC no later than September 20, 2023.
In July 2023, wireless and broadband provider Vistabeam acquired Airbits, which served the towns of Estes Park and Pole Hill, which are in Colorado’s Front Range area. Vistabeam also established a digital empowerment Center in Yuma, Colorado. The move into Colorado’s Front Range area is a sign that fixed wireless access (FWA) technology is maturing. The acquisition includes 25 towers. Vistabeam’s footprint is 40,000 square miles and covers more than 100 towns in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Vistabeam’s first move into the Front Range area was September 2022, when it acquired Front Range Internet. The company is also working with Microsoft to offer digital skills programming and other online learning resources. A dedicated digital navigator is available to help eligible residents enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and other digital equity initiatives.
Stories From Abroad
Telecommunications executives are looking at booming broadband use largely driven by video. Streaming video is one of – if not the main reason – for the explosion in data use across networks in the past 10 years, and platforms like Netflix are some of the main culprits. That amount of streaming across the globe is leading to big infrastructure costs for internet and mobile broadband providers, at a time when customers are used to large or unlimited downloads at a low price and are unwilling to pay much more. In 2022, 16 telecommunications officials in Europe signed a joint statement calling for tech companies such as Google, Meta and Microsoft to pay their fair share, stating that European telecoms companies spend €50bn (£44.5bn) annually on building and maintaining full-fibre broadband and 5G networks. As the European Commission began considering whether to force the streamers to pay, European and British telecommunications companies stepped up their lobbying at the annual Mobile World Congress in February. “Without the telcos, without the network, there is no Netflix, there is no Google,” said Michaël Trabbia, chief technology and innovation officer for France’s Orange. Netflix’s co-CEO Greg Peters answered that it would amount to a tax on the streamers, and would lead to a reduction in content. He argued that it would amount to charging twice for the same infrastructure – once to the streamers and once to the customers who use it. Meta, meanwhile, labelled the proposal “nonsense”, saying there was no credible evidence of an investment gap in networks.
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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