Monday, September 12, 2022
Headlines Daily Digest
Correction: In the September 9 newsletter we reported that Californians will vote on Sept 15 on Proposed Decision 20-02-008 concerning California LifeLine. In fact, the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on the proposal on the 15th. We regret the error.
Broadband Data & Mapping
Elections & Media
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is accepting applications for ReConnect Program loans and grants to expand access to high-speed internet for millions of people in rural America nationwide. USDA is making more than $1 billion available from the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act (IIJA). The USDA has made several improvements to the ReConnect Program for the current round of applications:
- Allowing applicants to serve areas where at least 50% of households lack sufficient access to high-speed internet,
- Adding a funding category for projects where 90% of households lack sufficient access to high-speed internet where applications submitted under this category, no matching funds will be required, and
- Waiving the matching funds requirement for Alaska Native Corporations, Tribal Governments, projects proposing to provide service in colonias, projects proposing to serve persistent poverty counties, and projects proposing to provide service in socially vulnerable communities.
Additionally, all awardees under this funding round are required to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to help the low-income, un-, and underserved afford the broadband service. The application deadline is November 2nd. More details can be found here.
While policymakers continue to make substantial investments toward universal broadband, these investments still leave gaps in Tribal connectivity. The three primary general-purpose broadband deployment grants accessible to Tribes include the Federal Communication Commission's High-Cost program, the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) Reconnect program, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA's) Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. However, several no-cost policy changes can fill these gaps and #ConnectTribes. Thus, policymakers should look to implement the following:
- Tribal Priority Windows - a window of time where Tribes are given access to spectrum up for auction at no cost before regular bidders
- Spectrum “Use or Share” - a requirement where spectrum license holders must deploy said spectrum on Tribal lands, or give it to someone who will
- Federal Interagency Cooperation - coordination between federal agencies (i.e., NTIA, USDA, etc.) to ease Tribal navigation of various broadband grants and programs
- Tribal Consultation - coordination and consultation with Tribes early in the Tribal connectivity rule-making process
- Modifying Build-out Requirements - requirements that encourage broadband deployment providers to build-out infrastructure in Tribal lands early and not last
- Tribal Control Over Rights of Way - giving land held in trust by the federal government to individual Tribes, Tribe members
- Use Spectrum Auction Proceeds for Tribal Broadband Adoption - utilizing spectrum auction proceeds to promote Tribal digital inclusion initiatives
The Ensuring Phone and Internet Access Through Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Program Act (H.R. 4275) would require the Federal Communications Commission to report to Congress annually on enrollment in its Lifeline program and its Affordable Connectivity Program, disaggregated by how applicants qualify for support. For example, Lifeline applicants may qualify based on prior enrollment in Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or the Supplemental Security Income program. Affordable Connectivity Program qualifications are similar. In addition, the bill would require the Government Accountability Office, within one year of enactment, to report on efforts to promote participation and enrollment in both programs. CBO estimates the report would cost less than $500,000; any additional spending would be subject to the availability of appropriated funds.
The FCC, through the Universal Service Administrative Company, already collects this information and publishes it online. CBO estimates that any additional costs to report to the Congress would not be significant. Moreover, because the FCC is authorized to collect fees each year sufficient to offset the appropriated costs of its regulatory activities, CBO estimates that the net cost to the FCC would be negligible, assuming appropriation actions consistent with that authority. If the FCC increased fees to offset the costs associated with implementing the act, H.R. 4275 would increase the cost of an existing mandate on private entities required to pay those fees. CBO estimates that the incremental cost of that mandate would be small and fall below the annual threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) ($184 million in 2022, adjusted annually for inflation).
Data & Mapping
The Federal Communication Commission Chairwoman is aiming to publish a first-draft map of its nationwide broadband coverage map in November. First, though, comes a "challenge period," when state, local and tribal officials, as well as internet carriers, can examine and potentially correct the underlying data. For Nate Denny, Deputy Secretary of Broadband and Digital Equity at the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, this phase represents an opportunity to further hone the state's plan for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grants. Denny noted that his office has already queued up $1 billion for broadband expansion out of the funds NC got from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Additionally, Denny states that NC's data on broadband coverage has been developed in concert with GIS analysts and public-safety officials around the state, meaning the NC Broadband Office is confident that it will be operating from a "really accurate baseline," with BEAD and other federal funding. However, during the FCC challenge period, Denny said he expects to see layers of data the state hasn’t had on file.
T-Mobile and Starlink made a joint announcement recently about an arrangement where Starlink will enable voice and texting capabilities to T-Mobile cellphones by the end of 2023. Elon Musk touted this as being able to reach people lost in the wilderness, but the much bigger use will be to fill in cellular coverage in rural areas for T-Mobile. While the two companies made a big splashy announcement about the arrangement, they are late to the game as other industry players already have similar plans underway. Companies such as AST SpaceMobile, Lynx, and Globalstar have already been working to deploy cellular satellites. All of these plans raise a lot of questions that we won’t get answered until somebody has a working satellite product. For example, could somebody inside a vehicle connect to a satellite? This is a much-needed service for a lot of people—specifically those in rural areas where 30% or more rural homes have no cellular coverage and the many parts of the world where modern cellular towers are a rarity.
Comcast Executive Vice President and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Jason Armstrong said the biggest threat to the cable business is coming from fiber, not just from fixed wireless access (FWA). While there have been several factors attributed to the accelerated slowdown in cable broadband growth -- sluggish new home formation, minimal housing moves, and the transition to a new federally subsidized program for low-income families -- competition from both fixed wireless and, especially, fiber-based broadband providers have emerged as significant players. Dave Watson, CEO of Comcast Cable, also commented that although FWA is having its "moment" due to low cost and novelty, it falls short on speed and reliability. Watson noted that fiber is the real long-term competitor.
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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