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Sixteen Republican senators sent a letter Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, calling on the department to follow congressional intent in implementing the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program that was created through the bipartisan infrastructure law. The Senators are seeking changes to the following areas:
- Rate Regulation. The bipartisan infrastructure law includes an explicit prohibition of government actions that would otherwise interfere with broadband prices and terms in connection with participation in the BEAD program. The Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), however, appears to open the door to rate regulation by imposing several requirements not included in the law. The Senators therefore are urging NTIA to rescind or correct these portions of the NOFO and make clear to states that rate regulation of broadband service is prohibited.
- Technology Neutrality. The bipartisan infrastructure law states that any provider that can reliably provide 100/20 mbps is qualified to participate. The NOFO contradicts this by explicitly stating that fiber is the only technology that can meet the definitions of a priority project. The Senators are urging the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to clarify that technologies such as fiber, fixed wireless, cable providers, and others have all demonstrated an ability to reliably serve customers at the 100/20 mbps required speed, an ability to scale up service over time, and an ability to support deployment of other advanced telecommunication services.
- Special Preferences for Certain Providers. The bipartisan infrastructure law requires NTIA to “distribute the funds in an equitable and nondiscriminatory manner” and to focus assessments of participating providers on their substantive qualifications. Instead, the NOFO favors certain bidders for reasons unrelated to capability or performance. For example, it requires that Final Proposals include a description of efforts undertaken by states to ensure the participation of “non-traditional broadband providers.” These preferences will deter state broadband offices from selecting the provider that is best equipped to deliver broadband to unserved and underserved households. The Senators are urging NTIA to remove these preferences from the NOFO.
- BEAD and Digital Equity Participation. The NOFO implies that states that do not choose to participate in the Digital Equity Program could be disadvantaged in their BEAD grant applications. To provide greater certainty to states and better conform to the law, the Senators are urging NTIA to revise the NOFO to clarify that a state’s participation in one of these programs will not affect participation in the other.
- Workforce Preferences. Many of the specific workforce-related obligations set out in the NOFO erect considerable roadblocks to ensuring swift deployment of broadband access to all Americans. For example, the NOFO authorizes states to prefer or even mandate a provider’s use of a “directly employed workforce,” as opposed to using contractors and subcontractors. Consequently, the NOFO risks exacerbating the current labor shortage by making it even harder for participating providers to find and employ workers who are not only capable of doing the job but also satisfy these additional extraneous requirements. The Senators are urging NTIA to eliminate those workforce obligations and preferences that could have this deleterious effect.
- Middle Mile Deployment. The NOFO requires participating service providers in the BEAD program to accommodate requests for interconnection outside of the planned deployment of such projects even though the bipartisan infrastructure law includes the separate middle mile grant program to meet these interconnection needs. This requirement is unnecessary and will discourage deployment of broadband service to unserved and underserved locations, which is why the Senators are urging NTIA to remove it.
- Unnecessary Burdens in the NTIA Review Process. The NOFO creates a complex, nine-step, “iterative” structure and review process that is likely to mire state broadband offices in excessive bureaucracy and delay connecting unserved and underserved Americans as quickly as possible. For example, the planning sections on climate resiliency and system hardening for the useful life of the fiber contain multiple layers of research, reporting, and justification that are typically well beyond the focus or expertise of state broadband offices. The Senators are urging NTIA to remove any non-essential bidding processes and research and reporting requirements, and instead focus on rules that prioritize swift review and deployment.
The letter was signed by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Rob Portman (R-OH), Roger Wicker (R-MS), James Risch (R-ID), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Richard Burr (R-NC), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Mitt Romney (R-UT).
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded seven grants totaling over $118.8 million as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. These grants will fund high-speed internet infrastructure deployment, use, and adoption projects to improve connectivity across Tribal lands. The awarded tribal lands are as follows:
- Shoshone Bannock Tribes - Idaho
- Oglala Sioux Tribe & Rosebud Sioux Tribe - South Dakota
- Chippewa Cree Tribe - Montana
- Nebraska Indian Community College & Omaha Tribe of Nebraska - Nebraska
- Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa - Wisconsin
NTIA has now made 60 awards totaling more than $457 million in funding through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has received an $8.43 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to pay for the Tribe’s broadband program. It will provide high-speed internet access across Choctaw Tribal lands. The Tribe applied for the grant in the fall of 2021. The money will be used in part towards the Tribe’s partnership with MaxxSouth Broadband to expand the broadband service to over 2,000 tribal homes in six of the eight tribal communities. When completed in 2023, tribal homes who qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) through MaxxSouth Broadband will have access to a 650MB/sec broadband service at minimal to no charge per month, which Chief Cyrus Ben said is an unprecedented achievement for Indian Country.
We’re finally starting to gain a picture of how the big telecommunication companies (telecos) are preparing to leverage the upcoming Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) grants. Chiefly, large telecos all say they will be building rural fiber with grant funding – which is what rural America most desires. But a lot of rural folks blame the big telcos for the current miserable state of rural broadband. There are several big fears that I hear voiced about the big telcos winning the grant funding. One is that the big telcos will not follow through after winning the grant funding, and begin to cut corners and not build to the most remote households in a grant award area. Though, the biggest fear is that big telecos will build the new network as funded, but won't hire enough technicians or cut corners on maintenance, the fiber networks will deteriorate over time. However, one of the most important aspects of the BEAD grants will be community approval and partnerships with the grant applicants. It will be curious to see if the big telcos seriously court local support for grant applications or do little more than ask for a letter of support when it’s time to file grants. If a community really wants to keep out the big telcos, the best strategy is to partner with somebody you trust more.
Internet service providers’ discriminatory underinvestment in broadband infrastructure and services—referred to as “digital redlining” for disproportionately affecting low-income communities of color—is drawing increased public scrutiny, including from policymakers. The Federal Communications Commission recently initiated an inquiry, mandated by Congress, into eliminating such digital discrimination, defined as the failure to provide or maintain broadband service or the provision of inferior service, including in terms of affordability and speed. While major service providers like AT&T have disputed the existence of digital redlining, clear evidence of underinvestment and lack of quality service options in low-income Black communities in major cities suggests otherwise. Our recent study of Philadelphia’s public and private connectivity efforts during the pandemic sheds light on key political economic relationships underpinning digital redlining and persistent challenges to overcoming them.
[Pawel Popiel is the George Gerbner Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Victor Pickard is the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.]
Over the past two years, school districts have sent kids home with laptops and tablets in unprecedented numbers. Thousands of these devices and the internet connections that power them have been purchased through two federal subsidy programs overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) known as E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). Giving students these devices has led to a dramatic increase in screen time and made it more difficult for parents to protect their children from exposure to objectively harmful online content. On the issues of online privacy and data security, we are charting new territory with legislation now pending in Congress; but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of tech usage by minors, we began laying a protective legal foundation decades ago, starting with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law requires school districts that take advantage of E-Rate or ECF dollars to follow internet safety policies and implement technology protection measures that block students from accessing pornography and other types of obscene material on school-issued devices. We sent a letter to the organization the FCC uses to administer the E-Rate and ECF programs to ensure that every covered device that a school district puts in a student’s hand is CIPA compliant. But it’s important to remember that policymakers and educators can only do so much, as the responsibility relies on our children's caretakers to influence their online presence.
This annual report highlights five key areas of impact—Digital Equity, Performance, Sustainability, Economic Impact, and Quality of Life/Personal Productivity—illustrating why the US has begun the largest fiber broadband investment cycle in history. Nearly $130 billion in federal, state, and local subsidies are being invested from the Competitive Carriers’ Association, the American Rescue Plan Act, the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service ReConnect loan and grant program, and most recently the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Internet use continues to advance overall in the United States, with more adoption and more perceived importance over time. Over the past 14 years, based on random sampling, average real-world download speeds have increased from 4 Mbps to 121 Mbps. Upload speeds have increased from 0.4 to 26 Mbps. The real inflation adjusted average price for Internet alone has increased slightly from $59 to $67 over the period. But there are some differences in speeds experienced by demographic delineators such as income. Rural versus urban/ suburban differences are especially pronounced. Fiber-to-the-home results in real positive societal and economic impacts such as more IT employment, more work from home, more income from home-based businesses, better health access, better educational access, enablement of migration trends, and less CO2 costs to the environment.
A budding battle between U.S. cable and phone companies has brought fresh competition for services typically dominated by a few large companies. Wireless carriers are using the excess capacity on next-generation networks to win over customers who have been using traditional broadband-internet providers, while those same cable companies are promoting new and cheaper cellphone plans. New fifth-generation cellular networks have helped carriers T-Mobile and Verizon signed up 2.2 million wireless-internet customers through June, often at traditional broadband providers’ expense. The mobile-phone companies’ fixed wireless signals beam broadband connections from cell towers to routers placed in homes and businesses instead of by wire, which can be costly and time-consuming to install. Cable-internet providers blamed a slowdown in household moves for the drop but said new competition from mobile carriers played a role, albeit a small one. T-Mobile CEO, Mike Sievert, believes that demand comes primarily from suburban cable customers and underserved customers in smaller markets and rural areas, where customers are more likely to switch from traditional cable services to wireless carriers for broadband. Even with slower internet speeds from wireless carriers, customers find primacy in lower bill costs than in slower speeds, which often goes unnoticed. Competition in this space is expected to increase in the coming years.
New Street Research believes that, as the economy takes a turn for the worse, postpaid cellphone plans are a better value than prepaid phone plans. New Street named T-Mobile and cable companies as the main beneficiaries of this trend – at the expense of AT&T and Verizon. “Competition has driven down the price of postpaid plans, while eliminating barriers to adoption (contracts; credit thresholds),” wrote New Street’s Jonathan Chaplin and Philip Burnett. “Service pricing is now similar and, in some cases, lower for unlimited postpaid plans.” When you factor in device subsidies, content and other features included in postpaid plans, they’re a much better value than prepaid, they said, adding: “If households become more value conscious, we would expect them to move to value-focused postpaid offerings.” Interestingly, the cable companies forced wireless carriers to come out with lower-priced rate plans, but those plans are still new or new-ish, so time will tell how much they help the wireless carriers.
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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