Friday, September 11, 2020
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Media & Democracy
Getting the internet to everyone is not just about tech: It’s even more a policy question, one tied up in politics. Success will mean a multi-layered effort at the local, state, and federal levels. “There’s been this notion that somehow broadband service is something that we should leave to the marketplace, and it’s a colossal failure," said Benton Institute senior fellow and public advocate Gigi Sohn. “We need policymakers to understand that broadband is absolutely essential in the ability of people to be able to participate in society, in democracy, and in the economy,” said Jon Sallet, also a senior fellow at the Benton Institute. His worry: “We have a digital divide that we’ve talked about for years, but the threat of this crisis is that it becomes a digital chasm.”
Getting everyone on the internet is impossible without government action at the state and, ultimately, federal level, though there is hardly a consensus on what exactly needs to happen. Some proposals cost money; others do not. Multiple experts I spoke with pointed to the $100 billion Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act put forth by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) as a solid option. But there are areas where the federal government can act that don’t involve new money, or at least not sweeping public investments and policy changes, and instead are aimed at patching issues right now. The FCC has $2 billion in E-Rate funds that could be directed to the surrounding communities (outside of the classroom), but thus far, it hasn’t happened. “I do believe the FCC could do that tomorrow if it wanted to,” Sohn said. But if it won’t, she said, “Congress could move the needle without paying a red cent right now.”
Can the country undertake some sort of internet-for-everyone moonshot? If there were ever momentum around the issue, it’s now. It’s been done before, as part of the New Deal and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to bring electricity to rural America. The idea of public electrification was met with enormous resistance from private industry in the 1930s, but today, the idea that everyone should have accessible, affordable electricity is a no-brainer. It’s time we think about the internet that way, too.
Cisco unveiled its network solutions for rural broadband designed to help US service providers extend and improve the cost-efficiency of their networks for infrastructure buildouts in rural areas.
- Cisco announced plans with MuralNet to launch a Sustainable Tribal Networks program to provide consistent internet access and services to the 574 federally recognized, sovereign, Native American Tribes (close to three million people) to foster better economic, health and educational opportunities.
- Cisco technology and USDA Re-connect program funding help TruVista to upgrade its core network to reach unserved rural customers in South Carolina.
- Cisco announces its Rural Broadband Innovation Center in North Carolina, featuring the latest internet technologies to extend connectivity to rural communities.
MoffettNathanson researchers say funding through the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction and other government programs could play a key role in fueling rural cable broadband footprint growth. To date, cable footprint growth has been minimal, according to the researchers, who note that Comcast’s footprint has grown at an average rate of 1.1% annually since 2016 and that Charter’s has grown an average of .7% per year over the same period. That’s likely to change, however – at least for Charter, as the company plans to bid in the RDOF auction, as does Altice USA, the researchers note.
As MoffettNathanson notes, deployment costs are higher in rural areas, but competition is less, which means that government-supported buildouts could be a means of “de-risking” broadband and creating a longer “runway” for sustained broadband subscriber growth for the cable companies. The MoffettNathanson researchers see a strong likelihood of additional government funding being made available for rural broadband buildouts moving forward. They also note that they expect cable companies, driven by the allure of cable footprint growth, to be “significant players in all rural broadband buildouts going forward.”
The Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) released a poll conducted by Morning Consult revealing that nearly all American voters support Congress using federal funds to expand high-speed broadband internet access. The majority of voters in the US want Congress to act “immediately” to close the Digital Divide.
According to the poll, nine out of 10 US voters (90%) support Congress using federal funds to expand broadband internet network infrastructure to reach those living in areas not currently serviced by a broadband internet provider, and 62% want Congress to do so “immediately.” Nine out of 10 voters (88%) also support Congress creating new programs and increasing federal funding for existing programs that either partially subsidize or provide free broadband internet access to those who cannot currently afford it, including students in low-income families. Sixty-two percent (62%) want Congress to leverage these powers immediately.
The Trump Administration announced that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing nearly $10 million to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Tennessee. This investment is part of both the $100 million Congress allocated to the ReConnect Program through the CARES Act and the $550 million available in the second round of ReConnect Program Funding. In rural Tennessee, Ardmore Telephone Company will use a $4.9 million grant and a $4.9 million loan to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network to connect 4,005 people, 263 farms, 28 businesses, four educational facilities and one fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Benton, Giles and Lincoln counties.
To take advantage of technology, farmers require broadband connectivity in the fields where they operate. However, rural farm communities continue to be underserved with access to broadband infrastructure. In order to feed the world now and in the future, we must act, and act urgently, to expand rural broadband infrastructure—including delivering wireless connectivity to farming operations – to take full advantage of future precision agriculture technologies.
Connectivity and technology’s role in sustaining our food supply isn’t confined to our increasing experience of ordering groceries online. It is essential to how food is grown by a farmer at the inception of the food supply chain. We must support farmers by ensuring they have connectivity to run their operations, regardless of the headwinds they face in a growing season, because ultimately, they’re supporting all of us.
[Jahmy Hindman is the CTO of John Deere.]
NCTA – the Internet & Television Association, in partnership with EducationSuperHighway (ESH), announced a new initiative to help increase home connectivity solutions for students, as many schools adapt to remote and hybrid learning classrooms amid the coronavirus pandemic. The core principles reflected in the K-12 Bridge to Broadband framework released today by EducationSuperHighway and NCTA include:
- NCTA member companies will create a “sponsored” service offering for school districts or other entities — school systems purchase broadband on behalf of low-income students at a discounted rate provided by broadband service providers.
- NCTA member companies will work together with school districts to facilitate the confidential exchange of information to identify which students need service.
- NCTA member companies will agree to a baseline set of eligibility standards. At a minimum, the baseline standards will include households containing students on the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program.
- To maximize adoption, NCTA member companies will minimize the amount of information necessary to sign up families. In a sponsored service program, providers should limit the data they require from families only to that required for providing service (i.e. confirming the service address) and reducing fraud (i.e. proof of identity).
- NCTA member companies offering sponsored service arrangements to schools should not use school-supplied information for targeted marketing of collateral services to families covered by the program.
Cable broadband providers that have committed to this unique initiative include Comcast (Xfinity), Charter (Spectrum), Cox, GCI, Mediacom, Midco, Sjoberg’s and Vyve. These providers offer broadband service to 80% of U.S. homes or 110 million housing units.
I thank NCTA and the EducationSuperHighway for launching this initiative to make it easier for students in low-income families to connect to the Internet. With the start of the school year and the continued reliance upon remote learning in many parts of the country, it is essential that students have the connectivity they need to continue their education through this and similar initiatives. I therefore reiterate my call for states and school districts to take advantage of the $16 billion in CARES Act funding that can be used to connect our nation’s students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The US Chamber of Commerce urgently calls on Congress to provide the funding necessary to ensure students without sufficient access to digital tools do not fall behind. In addition, Congress should fully fund the “Broadband DATA Act” signed into law in March, which would allow the Federal Communications Commission to better facilitate long-term digital resilience.
To urgently address [the pressing issue of the digital divide], Congress should appropriate timely and temporary funding in a technologically-neutral manner outside the existing E-Rate and other Universal Service Fund programs to provide: 1) wired or wireless connectivity; 2) service equipment such as modems, routers, and hotspots; and 3) devices like tablets, computers, and smartphones.
Data collected from an April 7-12 Pew survey found 59% of parents with lower incomes who had children in schools that were remote at the time said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles asked about. Overall, 38% of parents with children whose K-12 schools closed in the spring said that their child was very or somewhat likely to face one or more of these issues. In addition, parents with middle incomes were about twice as likely as parents with higher incomes to report anticipating issues. 29% of parents with homebound schoolchildren said it was very or somewhat likely their children would have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone. About one-in-five parents also said it was at least somewhat likely their children would not be able to complete their schoolwork because they did not have access to a computer at home (21%) or would have to use public Wi-Fi to finish their schoolwork because there was not a reliable internet connection at home (22%).
Some groups – in particular, those who view the internet as essential or worry about affording it – were more likely to believe that the government should be responsible for ensuring internet access during the pandemic. Overall, 37% of U.S. adults said in spring that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure all Americans have a high-speed internet connection at home during the outbreak, but this varied by people’s concerns about paying for these services.
Chicago Public Schools started the school year remotely Sept 8, and district officials say they are stepping up efforts to reach families about a new $50 million initiative, "Chicago Connected," which aims to connect low-income students to the internet. But they have run into a "trust gap:" skepticism in some communities that they would get this service for free, no strings attached. The program has so far signed up a quarter of the 100,000 students that officials estimate can benefit from it. "Some of the folks we are trying to reach don't believe this is true," said Philip DiBartolo, the school district's chief information officer. "(They think) 'I'm going to get a bill at the end of the month.'"
Ensuring all US households have high-speed internet will help provide similar education opportunities to students at different income levels, particularly during the pandemic, Democratic policymakers said. “Education justice involves giving everybody the same access to information,” said Rep Donna Shalala (D-FL). Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “We need a national policy of 100 percent of our households online. No individual, household, or community is going to have a fair shot at success in the 21st century without it.” Commissioner Rosenworcel touted the E-Rate program, which provides discounts for telecommunications services, internet access and connections for low-income schools and libraries, and criticized the Trump administration for what she called a lack of ambition to get underprivileged children connected through FCC programs.
Recently, the Federal Communications Commission’s first-ever Rural Tribal Priority Window (TPW) came to a close. This special spectrum application window allowed for rural tribal nations to apply for valuable Educational Broadband Service (EBS) frequencies over their lands that had never been licensed. The agency received applications for spectrum on 266 separate tribal lands; 418 applications and amendments were filed in all. The decision to auction unassigned EBS was made in a July 2019 FCC rulemaking regarding EBS. But is auctioning the remaining EBS spectrum the right decision? Absolutely not. Here’s why:
- The main reason the FCC created the TPW was because of a lack of broadband access on rural tribal lands. The same is true for non-tribal rural lands. Why not give rural communities the same opportunity to access EBS as rural tribal nations?
- The TPW clearly demonstrates that rural communities are hungry for tools to help them deliver broadband, namely wireless spectrum. In its paperwork to the Office of Management and Budget in 2019 following the EBS rulemaking, the FCC severely underestimated the number of tribal nations that would apply for spectrum in the window.
- A commercial auction will slow the deployment of broadband in rural communities.
- There is already a significant amount of spectrum in the hands of commercial providers all across the country, including rural areas. Giving them more won’t necessarily solve the digital divide.
- Commercial carriers are set to get even more spectrum. Carriers will control over 1100 MHz of spectrum, not to mention their hundreds of MHz of high-band frequencies. Does the commercial sector really need all of EBS, too?
- Licensing EBS to educators does not mean commercial carriers are denied access. Most EBS spectrum that has been licensed is leased to a commercial provider – either mobile or fixed. Issuing new licenses in a Rural Educator Window would give local communities an option to either deploy their own network or partner with a commercial carrier.
The Rural Tribal Priority Window demonstrates just how eager rural communities are for tools to help close the digital divide. But the TPW also shows that auctioning EBS rather than offering it to local educators and communities will foolishly forego a critical opportunity to help other rural communities meet their connectivity needs.
20 Members of Congress from the California Delegation issued a joint statement regarding the application for rehearing that was recently filed by wireless carriers at the California Public Utilities Commission. They wrote: “We are outraged that wireless carriers are arguing against safeguards that will protect Californians during wildfire season and that they are doing so as devastating wildfires burn across our state. Critical wireless networks need to be able to operate even when fires shut down power service, and that is why the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) 72-hour backup power safeguards will save lives."
For the 2020 American Views survey, Gallup and Knight polled more than 20,000 U.S. adults and found deepening pessimism and further partisan entrenchment about how the news media delivers on its democratic mandate for factual, trustworthy information. Many Americans feel the media’s critical role of informing and holding those in power accountable is compromised by increasing bias. As such, Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide. At the same time, Americans have not lost sight of the value of news — strong majorities uphold the ideal that the news media is fundamental to a healthy democracy. This report is based on data collected between Nov. 8, 2019, and Feb. 16, 2020, just before the novel coronavirus became a global pandemic and the burgeoning movement for racial justice swept the nation. Some findings:
- The vast majority of Americans (84%) say that, in general, the news media is “critical” (49%) or “very important” (35%) to democracy.
- Nearly 8 in 10 Americans (79%) say news organizations they distrust are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint, while 12% say they are trying to report the news accurately and fairly but are unable to do so.
- Almost three-fourths of Republicans (71%) have a “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable opinion of the news media, compared to 22% of Democrats and 52% of independents.
The Trump Administration is considering an unconventional pick for the next commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission: Nathan Simington, a senior adviser at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) who has played a significant role in the agency’s social media regulation agenda. The choice is still tentative, but if confirmed, the nomination would represent a significant blow to Republicans who favor a light-touch approach to telecom policy.
Three sources close to the matter say Simington has emerged as a leading candidate to take over Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s seat at the FCC. Simington is said to have helped draft the administration’s social media executive order, and his nomination would be a victory for Republicans who want to see the FCC take a larger role in regulating social networks. In Aug, President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew Commissioner O’Rielly’s nomination after O'Rielly gave a speech opposing making changes to Section 230. O’Rielly has served at the FCC for six years and was expected to serve a third term. It’s still unclear whether a nomination will be submitted before the Nov election.
In a joint effort by Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has created the Early Career Staff Diversity Initiative to advance equitable opportunities for underrepresented undergraduate, graduate, and law school students. The Early Career Staff Diversity Initiative has the following components:
- Beginning in January 2021, the FCC will provide a select number of paid internships to law, graduate, or undergraduate students each semester and summer. These internships should create opportunities for students who may otherwise be financially unable to participate in unpaid internships at the FCC.
- The FCC will invest additional resources to recruit students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other Minority Serving Institutions to increase the diversity of the applicant pool for the FCC’s internship, Attorney Honors, and Honors Engineering programs.
- The FCC will increase recruitment efforts with affinity groups, such as chapters of the National Black Law Students Association and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, to increase awareness about available internship and career opportunities.
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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