The US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the Biden White House, top government health officials, and the FBI likely violated the First Amendment by improperly influencing social media companies’ decisions to remove or suppress posts on the coronavirus and elections. The decision, written unanimously by three judges nominated by Republican presidents, was likely to be seen as victory for conservatives who have long argued that social media platforms’ content moderation efforts restrict their free speech rights. But some advocates also said the ruling was an improvement over a temporary injunction US District Judge Terry A. Doughty issued July 4. Doughty’s decision had affected a wide range of government departments and agencies, and imposed 10 specific prohibitions on government officials. The appeals court threw out nine of those and modified the 10th to limit it to efforts to “coerce or significantly encourage social-media companies to remove, delete, suppress, or reduce, including through altering their algorithms, posted social-media content containing protected free speech.” The 5th Circuit panel also limited the government institutions affected by its ruling to the White House, the surgeon general’s office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.
Monday, September 11, 2023
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Government & Communications
Stories From Abroad
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 46 million U.S. residents living in rural areas make up 14 percent of the U.S. population. Historically, internet providers have underserved rural areas due to a myriad of factors, including smaller rural populations providing fewer customers, decreased rural adoption rates, and more difficult rural terrain in comparison to urban areas. Even when internet is available in rural areas, less competition among limited providers may result in higher prices and limited speed options for residents. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, rural adults remain less likely than suburban adults to have home broadband and less likely than urban adults to own a smartphone, tablet computer, or traditional computer. Roughly seven in ten rural Americans (72 percent) say they have a broadband internet connection at home. Rural residents go online less frequently than their urban counterparts: Eight in ten adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with roughly nine in ten of those in urban areas (88 percent). In addition, three in ten or more urban (37 percent) and suburban (30 percent) residents say they are online almost constantly, while about a quarter of rural residents (23 percent) say the same.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) sees reshaping USF as a key potential strategy for achieving digital equity. Five key recommendations for Congress as it considers the future of USF are:
- A National Digital Equity Plan should measure the effectiveness of the USF: Congress should mandate the creation of a National Digital Equity Plan. The USF programs could then be measured against the plan’s goals to determine its effectiveness.
- The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Lifeline should be funded through the USF: ACP should aligned with the Lifeline program. Modern communication requires access to voice, text, and data simultaneously.
- Congress should ensure bridge funding for ACP: To allow time for the Federal Communications Commission to modernize USF to include ACP, Congress must allocate bridge funding to sustain ACP through 2024, at a minimum.
- USF should fund the Digital Equity Foundation: Sustained funding for the Digital Equity Foundation would ensure that local, trusted organizations have the necessary resources to continue to assist their community members with ACP sign-ups and reach more people in need of services.
- USF contributions should stem from multiple sources: Contribution to USF should come from multiple sources to reduce the fee amount assessed to any one service.
There are pragmatic steps within reach to ensure connectivity for all, trust for all, and opportunity for all:
- Without Congressional action, millions of at-risk Americans could lose their internet access in 2024 if the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is not extended. It's imperative that Congress extend this vital program.
- We also need to connect the 6.5 million Americans living in low-income apartment buildings who are disconnected. Congress funded a key provision to extend hotel-style Wi-Fi into low-income apartment buildings so residents can access it for free. States now need to prioritize these projects in their broadband plans to get everyone online.
- Congress also needs to do more by passing a comprehensive national privacy framework to ensure that privacy protection is built into our technologies by design. To thwart bad actors, policymakers also should support and encourage the vigorous efforts already underway to provide robust protections for people's privacy, safety, and security on their devices — efforts that prevent billions in fraudulent transactions.
- While 92% of all jobs require digital skills, 50% of Black workers and 57% of Hispanic workers lack the basic digital skills necessary to succeed in the digital economy. We not only need to expand access to basic digital skills but also ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn the more advanced skills.
[Jim Kohlenberger is a technology and innovation policy strategist—and a member of the board of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He has served in both the Clinton and Obama White House and in the US Senate.]
The Department of the Treasury approved $167.7 million for high-speed internet projects in Oklahoma under the American Rescue Plan Act's (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund (CPF), which the state estimates will connect approximately 20,000 homes and businesses to affordable, high-speed internet. Oklahoma is approved to receive funds for broadband infrastructure projects. The state’s allocation will fund the Oklahoma Broadband Infrastructure Grants (OBIG) Program, a competitive grant program designed to reduce the financial barriers for internet service providers to build out broadband infrastructure in areas of the state where infrastructure investment has historically been cost-prohibitive due to population density and geographic constraints. As reported by Oklahoma, estimates show that investments made using the CPF will serve approximately 13% of locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state. The plan approved by the Treasury Department represents 100% of the state’s total allocation under the CPF program.
Comcast and the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) launched a Digital Navigator program that will utilize trained students to get more Baltimore-area residents and CCBC students connected to the internet at home, while also teaching digital literacy skills and how to use devices. The program is supported by a $150,000 grant from Comcast that will be used to hire and train nearly a dozen CCBC students. The CCBC Digital Navigators will focus on addressing barriers households face to getting online, namely affordability, access to devices, and digital skills.
The Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) has drafted the following document to meet the requirements for Volume 1 of its Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Initial Proposal. The CBO will commence a 30-day period for public comments on Volume 1 of the Initial Proposal. Volume 1 of the Initial Proposal includes the following requirements:
- Identification of existing broadband efforts;
- Identification of existing unserved and underserved locations;
- Identification and application of community anchor institutions (CAI), wherein the CBO has added the “Correctional facility” category to the definition of a CAI;
- Detailed challenge process plan that includes the following modifications and
The Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD) partnered with the Indiana University Center for Survey Research (IU-CSR) to gather data on Indiana residents on several digital equity indicators. A surprising finding was that the difference between Whites and racial/ethnic minorities was not statistically significant but more importantly, they were “reversed” to what was expected. In other words, White non-Hispanics in Indiana lag racial/ethnic minorities when it comes to paying for home internet for all previous 12 months. There are two possible explanations for this unexpected finding: (1) survey results may be capturing the effectiveness of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), as the program has a higher share of African American households enrolled compared to White non-Hispanic households; (2) may be due to a higher share of Indiana rural residents—more likely to lack home internet access, be less educated, and/or have lower incomes—being White non-Hispanic.
The key for states to unlock their portion of the $42.5 billion in federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funds is the submission and approval of their Five Year Action Plans and Final Proposal. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) requires states to first file an action plan, and then prepare more detailed Initial Proposals. Maine, Louisiana, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont have all filed their draft Five Year Action Plans. Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming are in the process of completing their Initial Proposals.
The role of data in broadband planning has undergone a transformative change, and it’s important to understand the cost drivers, location density, and other key metrics affecting the broadband economic landscape. Cost determinants such as cost of labor, materials, build complexity, and location density are some of the top drivers in cost that allow organizations to model the economic landscape of unserved and underserved areas. To close the digital divide for all, not just in the attractive areas, states are strategically consolidating geographic areas to enhance commercial viability and optimize bidding efficiency. Additionally, a well-defined broadband map acts as a compass. It helps in understanding the geography, the challenges associated with different terrains, and the areas that are in dire need of connectivity, thus helping drive well-informed decisions.
Fallout continues from the Wall Street Journal’s investigative journalism exposé that showed telecommunications companies in the US have left behind a massive network of copper cables covered in toxic lead. AT&T CEO John Stankey said “there is no public health crisis” to worry about, citing the release of lead test results by AT&T, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the state of New York. However, the EPA has said it is still taking the lead issue “very seriously.” The EPA did not comment on whether the latest lead test results—which do suggest that risk to public health could be low—should affect the urgency of remediation plans, but emphasized “the science is clear: there is no known safe blood lead level, especially for our children.”
Government & Communications
The National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC), a membership cooperative of rural electric and telecom providers, has acquired Pivot Group, a marketing and customer experience (CX) agency that serves rural broadband providers. NRTC traditionally has focused on technology, helping members plan, deploy and manage technology investments. Pivot’s in-house capabilities include market research, branding, web development, marketing strategy, creative services/advertising, digital/social marketing, CX consulting and employee development/training.
Charter Communications CEO Chris Winfrey believes fixed wireless access (FWA) won't meet speed and bandwidth demands. In fact, Winfrey likens it to DSL – a product that had its moment but saw many customers flee to cable's higher-quality connections. The initial success of FWA "shows there's a nice, niche market for limited-bandwidth, limited-capacity, and limited-reliability product," Winfrey said. However, "As consumer bandwidth needs increase over time and as the network capacity of these mobile networks shrinks as a result of the utilization, I think [FWA] turns into really just another form of DSL, particularly when you take a look at the capabilities of our network and where we're going with high-split DOCSIS 4.0." Winfrey also said he doesn't buy the notion that FWA holds a clear price advantage in the market, believing that Charter has the upper hand when home broadband and mobile are bundled.
Frontier Communications CEO Nick Jeffery said the company's fiber securitization will give it funding through the end of its target year of 2025, and a “very clear path” to hit 10 million fiber passings. In August, Frontier closed its fiber securitization notes offering as part of a $2.1 billion financing, a significant jump from its initial goal of raising $1.05 billion. Frontier is the first publicly traded company in the US to secure funds backed by fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) assets. The securitization gives Frontier “a very attractive pool of financing into the future to complete our 10 million build,” said Jeffery.
Despite the cable mobile virtual network operators' (MVNO's) success with bundled offerings and heavily discounted wireless service plans, don’t expect Verizon to follow suit. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg dismissed the cable MVNO's strategy of offering free or discounted wireless service plans when bundled with broadband. “Lowballing and discounting won’t help us,” he said, adding that the company recently ended its $25/month discounted pricing for its 5G Home fixed wireless access offering. Vestberg said that any MVNO partnership will be beneficial to Verizon’s revenue and added that he expects any of Verizon’s partners to realize that as the network improves “they will have to pay for it.”
The Leadership Conference Education Fund launched an unprecedented initiative to create a fair, just, opportunity-rich, and rights-advancing future for all in the face of artificial intelligence with the creation of "The Center for Civil Rights and Technology." The Center will serve as a convener, collaborator, and communicator on policy issues, ideas, and potential innovations that can advance, as well as protect, equity in society. It will be a pioneering hub for the civil rights community and other civil society organizations, academics, researchers, technologists, and the private sector to help shape the future we envision and demand. The Center will build on The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ advocacy on tech and AI. Dr. Alondra Nelson — who served as deputy assistant to President Joe Biden and acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—will serve as a senior advisor on Civil Rights and Technology to the Leadership Conference President and CEO Maya Wiley.
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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