Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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Government & Communications
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The Coalition for Local Internet Choice and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors asked for my view of the Federal Communications Commission’s pending order, proposing to cap the fees that state and local governments may charge for small-cell attachments. According to the FCC’s draft order, these price‐caps will save the industry $2 billion in costs to operate in metropolitan areas—which will translate into $2.5 billion in new wireless investment, primarily in rural areas. Here are my concerns:
- First, focusing on state and local government fees and processes is a distraction from the real obstacles to accelerated and ubiquitous deployment of next-generation mobile services, which are that broadband deployment economics are very challenging and have to be addressed at all levels of government and through creative collaboration with the private sector.
- Second, local governments have a strong recent track record of endeavoring to enable and facilitate broadband deployment, as the Google Fiber experience conclusively demonstrated.
- Third, the FCC’s draft order is based on a fallacy that no credible investor would adopt and no credible economist endorse: that reducing or eliminating costs for small cell mounting on public property in lucrative areas of the country (thus reducing carriers’ operating costs), will lead to increased capital expenditures in less lucrative areas– thus supposedly making investment more attractive in rural areas.
- Finally, the draft order presents a framework in which industry gets all the benefits (reduced fees to access state and local property) with no obligations to reinvest the resulting profits in rural broadband—even though the purported rationale for the reduced fees is that they will lead to new investment.
On September 5, the Federal Communications Commission released the text of an order in its ongoing proceeding to streamline the rollout of infrastructure for broadband services, including small cells for 5G wireless service. The order is expected to be adopted at the FCC’s September 26th meeting. The order is a blatant effort by the FCC to strengthen the hand of carriers in negotiations with local governments over small cell deployment and to limit the ability of local governments to negotiate in the public interest around small cells. The good news is that the FCC has left local governments with some power and flexibility to enact reasonable regulations governing small cell deployments. With the right approach and partner, local governments have a higher hill to climb but can still negotiate win-win outcomes that benefit carriers while addressing citizens’ concerns.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has called on the Federal Communications Commission to prove its commitment to “closing the digital divide” by adding home broadband affordability, the broadband adoption rates of low income households, and the digital redlining of urban neighborhoods to the issues covered by the agency’s upcoming 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. NDIA’s challenge was included in comments submitted recently by Executive Director Angela Siefer in response to an FCC Notice of Inquiry “Concerning Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans in a Reasonable and Timely Fashion”.
Both 2018’s NOI and the 2018 Report, issued last March, include sections entitled “Commission Efforts to Close the Digital Divide”. But neither the “Digital Divide” sections nor the documents as a whole have anything to say about the affordability of broadband access; about measuring (let alone increasing) broadband access for lower-income households; or about any other aspect of digital inclusion. And except for a passing reference to NDIA’s comments in the last NOI process, both documents are silent about the history of Internet service providers’ deliberate non-deployment policies (redlining) affecting millions of urban residents.
In comments to the Federal Communications Commission, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) urged the FCC to raise its broadband speed benchmark from 25/3 Mbps to 100/10 Mbps. “The United States is falling behind other nations in terms of broadband speeds,” CWA’s comments read. “On the peak speeds global ranking, the US does not break the top-10.” “Part of the problem is our current broadband benchmark, which is insufficiently audacious and falls short of the Commission’s goals in the 2010 Broadband Plan,” the comments continue. “The Commission should raise its broadband benchmark to 100/10 Mbps to encourage high-speed broadband deployment that will ensure the United States leads the world in Internet speeds and deployment instead of struggling to keep up.” In addition, CWA reiterated that broadband is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, as more than 24 million Americans still lack access to a broadband connection; noted that mobile services are still no substitute for fixed broadband; and recommend changes to the Commission’s 477 data, which is too old and unrefined to be useful in the public’s analysis of broadband deployment.
The proposed Universal Service contribution factor will exceed 20%. It will be 20.1% for the fourth quarter of 2018, according to a new Federal Communications Commission public notice. An FCC spokesperson confirmed that it is the highest ever. And it means that just over one-fifth of every dollar that users spend on interstate and international telecom services (essentially long-distance voice services) will go toward the Universal Service Fund (USF) program. The USF contribution factor has been creeping up for years. Back in 2012, the contribution factor had reached a then-whopping 17.4%. This situation has occurred, even though the FCC has essentially capped the budget for all four Universal Service Fund (USF) programs, because the revenues that carriers collect from voice services have been declining. At one time the USF was primarily a voice-focused program but as it has transitioned over the years to focus on broadband, the contribution base has not been adjusted accordingly.
Windsor's (MA) go-to broadband leader, Doug McNally, found himself sitting this past week with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Not long after the introductions, Chairman Pai quoted a word McNally used to describe the impact of a newly won FCC grant. "Lifesaver," McNally had said. This past week, the former educator and current Select Board member added another description of the $886,172 grant his small Berkshire County town will receive in installments over the next decade: "Game changer."
Chairman Pai stopped in Westfield (MA) to check in with people who will benefit from a $10.3 million Connect America Fund allocation to towns working on fiber-optic network projects with Westfield Gas & Electric. Six Berkshire County towns will receive $2.4 million over 10 years. McNally and another local broadband advocate, David Kulp of Ashfield, used their time with Chairman Pai both to offer thanks for critical financial support and to press for help overcoming obstacles that slow their progress. "Anything in particular the FCC can help with?" Chairman Pai asked. "What time do you have to leave today?" came one reply, prompting laughter. The main challenge towns face is delays with "make ready" work, the process of preparing utility poles to receive fiber lines in the telecommunications zone of the poles. Chairman Pai asked during his Westfield stop whether the FCC's "One-Touch Make-Ready" draft policy on utility poles is helpful. Not at all, Kulp said, because it doesn't apply in Massachusetts. The state has its own law overseen by the Department of Telecommunications and Cable. The state's rules on "make ready," Kulp said later, "are woefully out of date and lack sufficient regulatory teeth."
Advocacy groups pouring money into independent campaigns to impact the Fall 2018 midterm races must disclose many of their political donors beginning the week of Sept 17 after the Supreme Court declined to intervene in a long-running case. The high court did not grant an emergency request to stay a ruling by a federal judge in Washington who had thrown out a decades-old Federal Election Commission regulation allowing nonprofit groups to keep their donors secret unless they had earmarked their money for certain purposes.
With less than 50 days before this fall’s congressional elections, the ruling has far-reaching consequences that could curtail the ability of major political players to raise money and force the disclosure of some of the country’s wealthiest donors. Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Caroline Hunter said that the names of certain contributors who give money to nonprofit groups to use in political campaigns beginning Sept 19 will have to be publicly reported. Chairman Hunter and other conservatives warned that the decision could have a chilling effect just as the fall midterms are heating up. Advocates for stricter regulation of money in politics celebrated the move. “This is a great day for transparency and democracy,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsiblility and Ethics in Washington, which brought the case, said in a statement,” adding: “We’re about to know a lot more about who is funding our elections.”
Facebook has been criticized in recent years over revelations that its technology allowed landlords to discriminate on the basis of race, and employers to discriminate on the basis of age. Now a group of job seekers is alleging that Facebook helps employers exclude female candidates from recruiting campaigns. The job seekers, in collaboration with the Communications Workers of America and the American Civil Liberties Union, are filing charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Facebook and 9 employers. The employers appear to have used Facebook’s targeting technology to exclude women from the users who received their advertisements, which highlighted openings for jobs like truck driver and window installer. The charges were filed on behalf of any women who searched for a job on Facebook during roughly the past year. Debra Katz, a Washington-based employment lawyer not involved in the case, said the advertising campaigns appeared to violate federal law, which forbids employers and employment agencies like recruiting firms from discriminating on the basis of gender, among other categories. Some state laws also forbid aiding and abetting discrimination.
The US Senate has approved the Music Modernization Act of 2018, S.2334, with unanimous consent, bringing the first reform for music licensing in 20 years on the cusp of becoming law. The companion version in the House previously passed in April, also with unanimous consent. The bill now must be reconsidered by the House and then ultimately signed by President Trump. Both of those are likely to happen, so the Senate was the last major hurdle. The bill revamps Section 115 of the US Copyright Act, combining three major pieces of legislation:
- The Music Modernization Act, which streamlines the music licensing process to make it easier for rights holders to get paid when their music is streamed online.
- The CLASSICS Act (Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, & Important Contributions to Society Act) for pre-1972 recordings.
- The AMP Act (or Allocation for Music Producers Act), which improves royalty payouts for producers and engineers from SoundExchange when their recordings are used on satellite and online radio. Notably, this is the first time producers have ever been mentioned in copyright law.
Government & Communications
The Federal Communications Commission must stop withholding records that may shed light on fraudulent comments submitted in the FCC's network neutrality repeal proceeding, a US District Court judge ruled the week of Sept 10. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in Sept 2017 by freelance journalist Jason Prechtel, who sued the FCC after it failed to provide documents in response to his Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request. Prechtel sought data that would identify people who made bulk comment uploads; many of the uploads contained fraudulent comments submitted in other people's names without their knowledge. Prechtel called the ruling "a huge victory for transparency over an issue that has gone unanswered by the FCC and its current leadership for too long."
Making the documents public will allow scrutiny of the FCC's process for taking comments on the net neutrality repeal, said the ruling written by Judge Christopher Cooper of US District Court for the District of Columbia. "In addition to enabling scrutiny of how the Commission handled dubious comments during the rulemaking, disclosure would illuminate the Commission's forward-looking efforts to prevent fraud in future processes," Judge Cooper wrote. Disclosure "would clarify the extent to which the Commission succeeded—as it assured the American people it had—in managing a public-commenting process seemingly corrupted by dubious comments." While Cooper didn't give Prechtel everything he asked for, the judge's ruling ordered the FCC to turn over the email addresses used to submit .CSV files that were used to submit comments in bulk. Judge Cooper also ordered the FCC to work with Prechtel on potentially releasing the .CSV files themselves.
European laws and proposals meant to rein in tech giants are inadvertently empowering them. The laws — governing everything from privacy to copyright to content filtering — stem from concerns about the behavior of big platforms, like YouTube and Facebook. But big companies have more resources to comply with complicated regulations than small firms. The European Parliament recently passed a directive that would overhaul its copyright law and would force platforms to impose strict filters for copyright violations or face fines. Regulatory analysts argue that the law seems manageable for Google and Facebook, while some activists say it would crush smaller firms.
The big question is whether EU-initiated regulations will be somehow copied in the US. Even though the EU has taken the lead in regulating the platforms, most analysts agree that some of its proposals would be hard to implement in the U.S. because they are at odds with America's culture of free speech and free markets and — at least in the current political environment — less appetite for big government regulations.
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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