Thursday, August 24, 2023
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The Federal Communications Commission committed more than $68 million in a new funding round through the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) Program, which provides digital tools and services to support students in communities across the country. The funding commitment supports applications from the third application window, benefitting approximately 110,000 students nationwide, including students in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Indiana, Washington, Arizona, and New Mexico. This announcement will support 184 schools and school districts, 13 libraries and library systems, and 2 consortia. The funding can be used to support off-campus learning, such as nightly homework, and summer online learning programs to ensure students across the country have the necessary support to keep up with their education
Two key Republican lawmakers are opposing a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would expand the E-rate program to allow it to pay for Wi-Fi on school buses and mobile hotspots that schools can loan out to students. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel on July 31 2023 asking her to “rescind this unlawful plan to vastly expand the E-Rate program.” The letter—from the top Republicans who sit on the congressional committees that oversee the FCC—came more than a month after the Chairwoman unveiled her “Learn Without Limits” initiative. The proposed changes, if adopted by the full FCC, would allow E-rate funding to be used for Wi-Fi on school buses and for Wi-Fi hotspot devices that schools and libraries can loan out to students and patrons. Though students are back to attending school in person, they still need reliable home internet to fully participate in their education. But the number of schools that say they are providing students with home internet access has dropped dramatically since September 2021, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The opposition from top Republicans in Congress, however, likely complicates the path to adoption for the Chairwoman's initiative. Sen. Cruz and Rep. Rodgers wrote in their letter that Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s proposal to use E-rate funding for Wi-Fi hotspots for schools and libraries to loan out is beyond the commission’s authority and would “duplicate programs across the federal government” and open the door to “wasteful” spending. The FCC’s E-rate authority is “explicitly confined to classrooms and libraries,” Sen. Cruz and Rep. Rodgers wrote, so the program shouldn’t be used off campus. They also wrote that E-rate should only be used to fund “services,” not “consumer devices.”
Broadband mergers and acquisitions have increased five-fold over the last 10 years, according to Jeff Brown, segment marketing manager for Calix. And Brian Vu, chief investment officer for Connect Humanity, estimates that there are about 50 investment funds at an average size of $2.5 billion that have invested or could invest in broadband. All that could be good news at a time when some industry observers are questioning whether the amount of broadband funding that the government has made available will be sufficient to get broadband to all Americans. Kristy Szabo, director of consulting for Vantage Point Solutions, estimates that there is a gap of $150 billion between the government funding available for broadband deployments and the amount needed to make fiber broadband available nationwide. CostQuest estimates the cost to reach nationwide broadband goals at $300 billion, of which government funding will cover about $100 billion. A key question is how interested private investors will be in investing in projects that also receive government funding. As Claude Aiken, chief strategy officer for Nextlink Internet, noted, the strings tied to private capital are based on financial performance and private investors may not be accustomed to the sorts of strings that are tied to public funding—such as meeting buildout deadlines or using minority contractors.
As of 2017, there were approximately 18.2 million veterans in the United States, constituting approximately 7.3 percent of the adult U.S. population. An analysis of 2016 American Community Survey data found that U.S. veterans lagged in internet access when compared with non-veterans. More recently, the lack of access to the internet became more visible when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) tried to employ telemedicine and other technology-enabled approaches to serving veterans. In a 2019 report assessing broadband access and adoption, the Federal Communications Commission found that a significant number of veterans (2.2 million households) lacked access to fixed broadband, mobile broadband, or both. Specifically, for 92.5 percent of veterans, at least one provider of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps fixed broadband services was available, but only 78.4 percent of veterans had 10 Mbps/3 Mbps mobile LTE broadband coverage. Among households with veterans, approximately 85 percent, or 14.4 million, reported that they had paid connections to the internet in their homes. (In comparison to non-veteran households, veteran households had at that time a slightly higher percentage subscription rate for fixed broadband.) However, households with veterans subscribed to mobile broadband services at lower rates than households without veterans. The FCC found that more veterans used a mobile device (62.2 percent) to connect to the internet in any location, compared with using a desktop (37.8 percent) or laptop (44.4 percent) computer.
The last time the Federal Communications Commission raised the standard for broadband, the internet was a much different place. Most people were still commuting to work, relying on their employer’s high-speed internet connection. It was 2015, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) had noticed that adoption was growing among groups that traditionally lagged, including senior citizens, minorities, and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment. But the agency also noted that internet use “may be nearing a plateau among segments of the population that have historically been more likely to go online. … [Still] efforts to further boost adoption in the [US] should target the particular challenges faced by those who have been less likely to use the Internet.” The Pew Research Center came to a similar conclusion about plateauing home internet use and found that smartphones were becoming an increasingly popular way to connect. That was the backdrop for the FCC’s decision to raise its broadband benchmark speed to 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, up from the 2010 standard of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps. The FCC was concerned that rural broadband wasn’t keeping pace with the “high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings” of the time and said the 2010 standard was “dated and inadequate” for closing that digital divide. Since then, demands on the internet and for greater connectivity have only increased. While bandwidth is increasing worldwide, the shift in how people learn, work and play has led to increased calls for high-quality broadband that far outstrips the current FCC standard. The status of the FCC’s push to raise broadband standards is unclear, but new research supports such an effort.
Low take rates have broadband experts talking about how to pique subscriber interest in the high-speed internet capabilities now available across the US. Matt Collins, chief commercial officer at Calix, said that building higher speed tiers as many providers have been doing “is an incredible capex investment strategy," and "something we all have to do.” Although, in spite of providers racing against each other to provide the highest speed tiers on the market, he noted “subscribers don't understand speed." When Calix researched over a million subscribers across the providers it works with, fewer than 20% opted for speed tiers at 1-gig or higher. According to Collins, take rates for 5-gig and 2-gig services are typically even lower. The answer to that problem for many providers will be educating subscribers on the benefits of high-speed offerings in terms they’ll understand. “The key is understanding the persona that you're going after,” Collins said, whether it’s someone who uses Zoom, someone who is gaming for hours each day, or someone who streams a lot. “These are very, very different subscribers. And so the key is to help them understand how your service will make your experience better, not the technical capabilities of their services,” he added.
Governor Kristi Noem (R-SD) and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) announced the final round of funding that will award up to $27 million to connect rural South Dakota to high-speed broadband. The Connect SD broadband program has connected tens of thousands of households and businesses to high-speed broadband since Governor Noem took office in 2019. Over $269.5 million has been invested into broadband expansion in South Dakota. This investment will be crucial for South Dakota’s workforce development and future economic efforts. The goal is to create vibrant, connected communities across the State.
On August 21, 2023, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development released its Draft Digital Opportunity Plan for public comment. According to the plan, Minnesota's vision for digital equity is a future where digital equity connects all Minnesota residents to opportunities, options, and each other. The Office of Broadband Development created this plan following extensive stakeholder engagement and digital equity data collection. Public comments can be submitted to the state using this form until September 29, 2023. Key strategies include:
- Establish a Digital Opportunity Leaders Network to coordinate support digital opportunity initiatives regionally and statewide.
- Expand OBD’s public data and mapping tools to include digital opportunity measures.
- Prepare reports exploring models for: (1) a statewide tech helpline; (2) state-level programs mirroring ACP or Lifeline; and (3) a state-managed system for loaning large-screen devices long-term.
- Partner with state offices serving people at high-risk for digital exclusion.
- Coordinate with ISPs to support newly connected households needing education and resources.
- Administer targeted grants to support:
- Local and tribal governments preparing their own digital opportunity plans.
- Community partners piloting positions focused on trust-based digital opportunity work.
- Small businesses improving technology access.
- Local and tribal governments improving web accessibility.
Since the late 1990s Colorado has tried to expand access to high-speed broadband. It’s been done in starts and stops, and sometimes not at all. Now Colorado is getting a huge amount of federal money, more than $826 million in Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding that was part of the 2021 infrastructure law to help expand broadband internet across the state and the country. It’s been a goal of countless lawmakers at the local, state and federal level for more than two decades, yet there are still thousands of households that lack access, as Governor Jared Polis noted: “Right now there's about 190,000 Colorado homes and businesses that have very limited access, low access, or no access at all.” The big question now is how to best use those funds to get all of the state connected. As past attempts have shown, money has been just one obstacle to spreading broadband across the state. Another has been figuring who to work with. Early attempts focused on big internet providers to do the work.
A growing Midwestern provider is continuing their Indiana expansion by bringing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and business services in southeastern Indiana. Great Plains Communications (GPC) will expand its network to the communities of Aurora and Vevay (IN). In addition, the company will utilize Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program funding to expand its network to reach more homes and businesses in specific unserved areas of southeastern Indiana. GPC currently owns over 18,000 miles of fiber network reaching 13 states. With fiber-driven services including symmetrical internet speeds up to 1 Gigabit, residential customers will enjoy highly reliable access to Cloud services, streaming video, gaming, working and learning from home. In addition to residential offerings, businesses will have access to the GPC full suite of fiber enterprise services. Construction is expected to be launched on all projects by mid-fall 2023.
Almost 20 years ago, the US Department of Justice observed that, “when government is constantly being asked to do more with less, the Internet is playing a vital role in allowing government to better serve all of its citizens.” For people lacking private internet access, officials should consider the options for public internet access and how to best educate community members on its availability. Online meetings “are another element of reaching people,” said Dan McLean, a communications professional based in Shelburne, VT. "It lowers barriers to access to some degree.” Online meetings, however, have not been without complications. It’s important to note that not all people have access to computers or high-speed internet. According to the 2017-21 American Community Survey, more than 1 in 10 US households don’t have an internet connection. The problem is especially pronounced in rural areas, which the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as places with fewer than 500 residents per square mile. A MapLight analysis found that only one urban county (Danville City, VA) ranks among the 500 counties with the smallest percentage of internet-connected households. It’s safe to assume that the vast majority of the nation’s 90,000-plus government bodies don’t have a dedicated information technology specialist (or two, or more) to ensure that online gatherings run smoothly. Officials should test their equipment in advance of their meetings.
As adoption of generative AI grows, providers are hoping that greater transparency about how they do and don't use customers' data will increase those clients' trust in the technology. There's a mad scramble to add AI features across the board in the software world — but worries about privacy and security are prompting some businesses to discourage employees from using the new features. Twilio, which helps businesses automate communications with their customers, announced it will place "nutrition labels" on the AI services it offers those businesses, clearly outlining how their data will be used. The labels report what AI models Twilio is using, whether those models are being trained on customer data, whether features are optional and whether there is a "human in the loop." A "privacy ladder" distinguishes between company data that is used only for customers' internal projects and data that is also being used to train models used by other customers, as well as whether personally identifiable information is included in the data. In addition to offering such labels with its own data collection, Twilio is providing an online tool that other companies can use to generate similar AI nutrition labels for their own products. Additionally, Salesforce is unveiling an acceptable use policy that governs what companies can and can't do with its generative AI technologies. While there is still an air of excitement around the potential of generative AI to improve productivity, many companies have been taking a cautious approach, warning employees not to put company data into tools like ChatGPT. Transparency is key to increasing trust, both Salesforce and Twilio say.
The CTIA is among wireless industry stakeholders cautioning the Federal Communications Commission against complicating the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system with additions of multimedia content and other requirements, which the CTIA told the FCC remains "fraught with practical and technical challenges." The New York State's Public Service Commission suggested that the FCC's well-meaning language proposal would face implementation hurdles. Instead, the FCC should "require WEAs to be translated to all languages spoken by at least 300,000 people, or 1%, of the United States population over 5 years of age" and "revisit this issue every three years to account for emerging immigration trends," according to New York.
Comcast and Charter intend to upgrade cable networks to DOCSIS 4.0 to be able to better compete against fiber networks. The goal is to be able to offer faster download speeds and drastically improve upload speeds to level the playing field with fiber in terms of advertised speeds. It’s anybody’s guess if these upgrades will make cable broadband equivalent to fiber in consumers’ eyes. From a marketing perspective, there are plenty of people who see no difference between symmetrical gigabit broadband offered by a cable company or a fiber overbuilder. However, a lot of the public has already become convinced that fiber is superior. From a technical perspective, engineers and broadband purists will tell you that fiber delivers a better broadband signal. The real question that will have to be answered in the marketplace is if cable companies can reverse years of public perception that fiber is better. They have their work cut out for them. Fiber overbuilders tell me that they rarely lose a customer to a cable company competitor. Even if the cable networks get much better, people are going to remember when they used to struggle on cable holding a zoom call. I think cable companies are scared of seeing a mass migration to fiber in some neighborhoods because they understand how hard it will be to win people back. Faster upload speeds may fix the primary issue that people don’t like about cable broadband, but will it be enough to compete with fiber?
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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