Thursday, September 10, 2020
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Tens of millions of Americans still lack access to affordable broadband, leaving them stranded on the wrong side of the country's stubborn digital divide at one of the worst possible moments in American history. While the Covid-19 crisis is an immense tragedy, it has created an opportunity for Congress to fix this longstanding problem. Several promising proposals already exist, including one in which the federal government would provide a "broadband benefit" in the form of a monthly subsidy to ensure that essential broadband access is affordable for all. Some of these proposals are even being supported by the broadband industry, which has long resisted government involvement in its business.
For the first time, industry is admitting that it can't do this on its own and the government has a major role to play in ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to an essential service during a health and economic crisis. With industry, public interest groups, and many lawmakers already on board, Congress has a huge opportunity to make sure that every American is online during this national emergency and beyond. It should pass a monthly broadband benefit for low-income and recently out-of-work Americans without delay.
[Gigi Sohn is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law & Policy and a Benton Institute senior fellow and public advocate]
Our networks still don’t reach everyone, and private dollars alone won’t solve this challenge. Our country needs to close that gap, and now is the time for legislators and policymakers to act to ensure the educational and economic success of all Americans by making broadband connectivity more accessible, affordable and sustainable. Market forces and private companies can’t do it alone because of the lack of return on the significant investment necessary to reach all Americans. But it is in society’s interest for our government to financially incentivize the investments necessary to ensure that all children can learn, and all workers can do their jobs. Through a mix of public subsidies for low income households and smart policies that encourage new infrastructure investment in unserved areas, we can finally close this gap.
Here are four specific things Congress and the administration can do to meet the goal of bringing high-speed broadband to every American family:
- We need to identify where broadband is unavailable with geographic precision.
- The Federal Communication Commission’s program that supports connectivity for low-income households needs to be modernized.
- As Congress debates earmarking up to $80 billion for rural broadband as part of the next round of pandemic relief, we should give equal weight to wired and wireless options.
- Washington should enact a policy framework that incorporates sustainable funding mechanisms for the long run.
[John Stankey is CEO of AT&T]
There are almost three times as many Americans without a broadband subscription in blue urban areas than in red state rural areas. The Trump Federal Communications Commission, by focusing its attention on rural areas with a lack of access (i.e., those unable to get broadband) is dealing with only part of the digital divide. The larger part of the digital divide is adoption; those Americans who may have broadband available, but don’t or can’t use it. Here are three solutions the Trump FCC could pursue if they really were dedicated to making the digital divide their “number one priority.”
- Spend E-Rate Surplus to Connect the New “Classrooms”
- Make Cable Companies Eligible for Lifeline
- Repeat What the FCC Has Already Done for a Favored Constituency. In July, Trump-appointed FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr proposed the creation of a new health care support program for rural residents. If the Trump FCC were serious about overcoming the educational digital divide, it could similarly modify the E-Rate program to move from supporting services to buildings housing schools and libraries and allow support of services to individuals.
A 21st Century Civil Right: Amidst the overriding national challenges of racial equality, a poorly managed pandemic, and economic upheaval it is legitimate to ask whether broadband for all Americans rises to the level of a national priority. The Trump FCC, however, has politicized the programs created to attack the digital divide. Targeting effort to help the base of rural Trump voters while largely turning a blind eye to the plight of blue state low-income Americans is hardly the promised “bringing the internet to all Americans.”
The Western Governor’s Association (WGA) represents all of the states west of the line starting with Texas north to North Dakota, includes Alaska, Hawaii, and the western American territories. In July, the WGA issued a policy position paper that lays forth goals for broadband for 2020 through 2028.
The policy paper begins with the simple statement that broadband is critical infrastructure. The WGA states that the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband is obsolete and that western economies and communities need faster broadband to prosper. They strongly support the use of more spectrum for rural broadband. The governors support an expansion of the eligibility of telephone and electric cooperatives to build new broadband since these are entities that are tackling a lot of western broadband gaps. They ask for better coordination of efforts to help find broadband efforts for tribal lands, which still are far behind the rest of the West in broadband availability and adoption. They ask the federal government to provide more aid in the form of block grants. They say that states know better on how to solve local broadband problems than do federal agencies.
The Broadband Infrastructure Office and the NC Department of Health and Human Services Office of Rural Health conducted a feasibility study that examined the broadband, health care and telehealth assets – including the health disparities and broadband gaps as well as opportunities – for the 20 counties in North Carolina’s Appalachian region that are most affected by the coal industry. The study confirmed that:
- A disproportionate number of individuals in the study area live without access to basic health care services and access to specialists, such as cardiologists, because of distance and limited provider availability.
- Health care access is improved in areas where broadband and telehealth services exist.
- Patients are more aware of their conditions and equipped with self-management techniques to seek medical care when concerns arise.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced that the items below are tentatively on the agenda for the Open Commission Meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Sept 30, 2020:
Facilitating Shared Use in the 3.1-3.55 GHz Band – The FCC will consider a Report and Order that would remove the existing non-federal allocations from the 3.3-3.55 GHz band as an important step toward making 100 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.45-3.55 GHz band available for commercial use, including 5G, throughout the contiguous US. The FCC will also consider a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would propose to add a co-primary, non-federal fixed and mobile (except aeronautical mobile) allocation to the 3.45-3.55 GHz band as well as service, technical, and competitive bidding rules for flexible-use licenses in the band. (WT Docket No. 19-348)
Expanding Access to and Investment in the 4.9 GHz Band – The FCC will consider a Sixth Report and Order that would expand access to and investment in the 4.9 GHz (4940- 4990 MHz) band by providing states the opportunity to lease this spectrum to commercial entities, electric utilities, and others for both public safety and non-public safety purposes. The FCC also will consider a Seventh Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would propose a new set of licensing rules and seek comment on ways to further facilitate access to and investment in the band. (WP Docket No. 07-100)
Improving Transparency and Timeliness of Foreign Ownership Review Process – The FCC will consider a Report and Order that would improve the timeliness and transparency of the process by which it seeks the views of Executive Branch agencies on any national security, law enforcement, foreign policy, and trade policy concerns related to certain applications filed with the FCC. (IB Docket No. 16-155)
Promoting Caller ID Authentication to Combat Spoofed Robocalls – The FCC will consider a Report and Order that would continue its work to implement the TRACED Act and promote the deployment of caller ID authentication technology to combat spoofed robocalls. (WC Docket No. 17-97)
Combating 911 Fee Diversion – The FCC will consider a Notice of Inquiry that would seek comment on ways to dissuade states and territories from diverting fees collected for 911 to other purposes. (PS Docket Nos. 20-291, 09-14)
Modernizing Cable Service Change Notifications – The FCC will consider a Report and Order that would modernize requirements for notices cable operators must provide subscribers and local franchising authorities. (MB Docket Nos. 19-347, 17-105)
Eliminating Records Requirements for Cable Operator Interests in Video Programming – The FCC will consider a Report and Order that would eliminate the requirement that cable operators maintain records in their online public inspection files regarding the nature and extent of their attributable interests in video programming services. (MB Docket No. 20-35, 17-105)
Reforming IP Captioned Telephone Service Rates and Service Standards – The FCC will consider a Report and Order, Order on Reconsideration, and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would set compensation rates for Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS), deny reconsideration of previously set IP CTS compensation rates, and propose service quality and performance measurement standards for captioned telephone services. (CG Docket Nos. 13-24, 03-123)
Enforcement Bureau Action – The FCC will consider an enforcement action.
Apparently, a European Union privacy regulator has sent Facebook a preliminary order to suspend data transfers to the US about its EU users, an operational and legal challenge for the company that could set a precedent for other tech giants. The preliminary order was sent by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission to Facebook late in Aug, asking for the company’s response. It is the first significant step EU regulators have taken to enforce a July ruling about data transfers from the bloc’s top court. That ruling restricted how companies like Facebook can send personal information about Europeans to US soil, because it found that Europeans have no effective way to challenge American government surveillance.
To comply with Ireland’s preliminary order, Facebook would likely have to re-engineer its service to silo off most data it collects from European users, or stop serving them entirely, at least temporarily. If it fails to comply with an order, Ireland’s data commission has the power to fine Facebook up to 4% of its annual revenue, or $2.8 billion.
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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