Monday, September 21, 2020
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Broadband speeds in the US have ticked up on average since March, easing fears of network disruptions as businesses widened the use of videoconferencing and other data-heavy tools during the pandemic. But even with the gains, many work-from-home employees continue to struggle with patchy internet connections, especially workers living in rural regions, employers say. As of July, average home internet speeds across the U.S. were running at 94.6 megabits per second, up from 84.9 megabits in March, according to a report by WhistleOut, a website that compares broadband and wireless plans. The results are based on an analysis of data from more than 700,000 internet speed tests nationwide, WhistleOut said. States that notched the biggest increases include Wyoming, Alaska and Kentucky, while declines were reported in Virginia, Hawaii, and Delaware. While most internet service providers were equipped to handle sharp upturns in traffic brought on by the pandemic, many home networks were far less prepared, said Bill McFarland, chief technology officer at smart-home services provider Plume Design. He said massive loads created by a combination of videoconferencing, home schooling, and online video streaming—sometimes all under the same roof—can cause congestion within home Wi-Fi networks and slow connections to a crawl.
On Jan 29, 2020, Reps Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Doris Matsui (D-CA), and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai expressing concern that the FCC was moving forward on its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) in a haphazard manner without consluting states that share the goal of effectively serving residents with broadband. "In particular, the requests of the State of California, the most populous state in the country, are being overlooked....We understand that the staff of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) met with FCC staff to request federa l-state partnerships as part of ROOF, which the FCC has ignored."
On Sept 11, Chairman Pai responded by saying "Far from 'ignor[ing]' their 'request [for] federal-state partnerships as part of RDOF,'' the FCC took into consideration the CPUC's views, as well as comments filed by other state commissions. The problem was a practical one: The CPUC made a generalized request to delay the auction until some unspecified future time in order to develop some new state-specific grant programs for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but it presented no concrete plan on the way forward. They offered no budget, no methodology for determining where subsidies would be directed, no criteria for provider eligibility, no timeline for distribution of funding and deployment, no auction design-in short, no partnership for the FCC to join as a practical matter. Moreover, their suggestion, if accommodated, would cause significant delay and confusion in the entire program, as the Commission created separate mechanisms and statespecific rules for each state, instead of connecting millions of unserved Americans to broadband networks as quickly as possible. It would cause still further delay to ensure that each state's unique proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund mechanism for awarding support operated consistently with the Commission's decision to allocate support using market-based mechanisms."
The Federal Communications Commission’s top priority must be connecting all Americans to modern high-speed communications networks. Solving this problem was always a moral imperative, and COVID-19 has raised the stakes. When this pandemic first hit, I called for a connectivity stimulus to increase access to broadband service by expanding the Lifeline program, funding the purchase and distribution of mobile hotspots by schools and libraries, opening up new spectrum bands on a temporary basis, and encouraging broadband service providers to waive their data caps and increase or expand their affordable offerings. Over the last six months, some of those proposals have been adopted. But much remains to be done. We should start by addressing the Lifeline program, which was designed to help connect the most vulnerable Americans. At a time when so many need Lifeline’s benefits, fewer than 20 percent of eligible households participate in the program, and its current benefits are wholly inadequate for this moment.
Comcast says that a broadband reseller illegally sold Comcast Internet service in residential buildings in the Denver area and has terminated the connections to those buildings. The shutoff affected hundreds of people who live in buildings serviced by AlphaWiFi, "which installs and services Internet in approximately 90 apartment buildings across Denver." The shutoff came as a surprise to residents, including Kaley Warren, who has been working at home during the pandemic. "It is my entire lifeline," said Warren, who said that without warning her Internet service disappeared. "I felt lost. It was truly the first time during the pandemic that I...had the feeling of 'What am I supposed to do?'"
Comcast said that "AlphaWiFi is under a standard commercial agreement which expressly prohibits the resale of Comcast services." AlphaWiFi President Keith Lawton said that "we absolutely dispute Comcast's take on this matter. Comcast knew our business plan, and we made it clear to Comcast that despite our disagreement, we wanted to work with them in order to transition these accounts with no disruption. Unfortunately for these customers, Comcast opted to cancel their service instead of working with us and unnecessarily impacted these consumers."
Farms could contribute billions more dollars to the US economy with the help of precision agriculture technology, but this can’t happen without more broadband, said experts during a National Telecommunications and Information Administration webinar. Titled “Smart Agriculture: Driving Innovation in Rural America,” the webinar featured, among other speakers, Megan Nelson, an economic analyst with the American Farm Bureau Federation. She shared research showing that US farms could generate $18 billion to $23 billion annually if they had high-speed connectivity and adopted the latest technologies. “We need broadband access,” Nelson said during the webinar. “We need accurate broadband maps … We can’t have spotty service because there’s a rainy day.” Both Nelson and Dennis Buckmaster, agricultural and biological engineering professor at Purdue University, outlined numerous ways technology can boost American farms.
New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) and Access Now filed comments urging the Federal Communications Commission to recognize the inadequate state of broadband availability in the United States. Congress requires the FCC to report annually on whether advanced telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” and to take “immediate action” if it is not. OTI and Access Now urge the FCC, specifically, to 1) increase the benchmark for broadband from 25/3 Mbps in download and upload speed; 2) determine that mobile broadband is a complement, not a substitute, to fixed broadband; 3) incorporate affordability as part of its Section 706 report, given the impact of affordability on broadband availability; and 4) ensure that its analysis of broadband availability does not depend on its flawed Form 477 data.
The reality of the ongoing COVID pandemic means that many of us must continue to work virtually, enter classrooms remotely, and engage with the world through broadband internet service. From a recent Consumer Reports American Experiences Survey, we know that four-fifths of Americans now believe that access to broadband is as vital as electricity and running water. And while the high cost is a factor in many households — including so many of the most financially vulnerable, with nearly half of low-income households lacking connectivity — there are other factors holding back reliable access as well. Part of the reason why the United States is falling behind the world on broadband internet connectivity is a lack of competition and adequate coverage. We can and must ensure that broadband is available, accessible, and affordable for all Americans. We need a national commitment to reliable broadband access from our leaders and lawmakers who supply the infrastructure — and we need cable companies to step up to do their part, too. Short-term “special offers” extended during a pandemic from these same companies that haven’t prioritized connecting every community should not be seen as a sufficient fix.
[Marta L. Tellado is president and CEO of the nonprofit Consumer Reports]
Seattle is one of the most “connected” cities in the country. 95% of Seattle households have internet access in the place where they live. But internet adoption is lacking in specific geographic areas and is driven primarily by the affordability of broadband service. Despite an extensive and robust broadband infrastructure, unfortunately, there is still a 5% gap in internet adoption for Seattle residents. This gap is concentrated geographically in certain areas of the City. Despite being in a service area for broadband internet, as the map above shows, areas of Central and South Seattle represent the largest portions of the 5% gap in internet adoption: South Central Seattle (Pioneer Square, Yesler Terrace, and International District), South Seattle (New Holly, Rainier Valley, and Beacon Hill), West Seattle (High Point and South Park), Areas of downtown, and Lake City
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced new funding for two grant programs focused on meeting students' unique learning needs and improving student outcomes. The Expanding Access to Well-Rounded Courses Demonstration Grants Program supports school districts' efforts to develop distance-learning opportunities, expand their course offerings, and ensure students have access to a broad range of advanced, career or technical, and other courses. The Well-Rounded Education Through Student-Centered Funding Demonstration Grants Program allows funding to follow individual students so that school districts can allocate resources in a way that provides a customized approach to education that considers individual needs in order to improve academic achievement.
- The Expanding Access to Well-Rounded Courses Demonstration Grants Program provides $9.6 million this year to six state educational agencies to develop or expand and implement models for providing well-rounded educational opportunities through increased course access for all students, including rural, disadvantaged, or those with disabilities. Potential course options that could be added by participating states include those related to the arts, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, computer science, career and technical education and advanced level coursework.
- The Well-Rounded Education Through Student-Centered Funding Demonstration Grants Program provides over $1 million this year to two local educational agencies (LEAs) to demonstrate model programs for providing well-rounded education opportunities through the development and implementation of student-centered funding systems. The goal of the program is to help LEAs develop models for expanding and enhancing delivery of such opportunities for educationally disadvantaged students.
Both grant programs are funded through a required 2% set-aside of funds for technical assistance and capacity building under Title IV, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Federal Trade Commissioner Rebeca Kelly Slaughter agrees with FTC Chairman Joseph Simons that political speech is outside the agency’s purview. “We are not the political speech police,” she said. Commissioner Slaughter said tech’s liability shield — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — is an “important area to consider reform,” but she rejects the idea that the law requires companies to be viewpoint neutral. Two of Slaughter’s colleagues have proposed the FTC use its unique research authority to conduct a study on targeted advertising. “I think it is a good idea,” she said. Two of Slaughter’s children are taking part in online learning this school year and she said it’s hard for parents to figure out what information is being collected from various programs. The commissioner said she would also support an FTC study into education technology.
As the country’s most powerful newsmaker and the person in charge of a government that’s been aggressively pursuing antitrust cases against big tech companies, President Donald Trump does have leverage over Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. So the chief executive officer could be forgiven for flattering President Trump. Any moment that the president is happy with Facebook is a moment he’s not pursuing hostile regulation—or more likely, sparking a bad news cycle. Zuckerberg isn’t easily influenced by politics. But what he does care about—more than anything else perhaps—is Facebook’s ubiquity and its potential for growth. The result, critics say, has been an alliance of convenience between the world’s largest social network and the White House, in which Facebook looks the other way while President Trump spreads misinformation about voting that could delegitimize the winner or even swing the election.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Transportation Subcommittee Chairman Deb Fischer (R-NE), and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced the Setting an American Framework to Ensure Data Access, Transparency, and Accountability (SAFE DATA) Act. The legislation would provide Americans with more choice and control over their data and direct businesses to be more transparent and accountable for their data practices. The bill would also enhance the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) authority and provide additional resources to enforce the Act. [more at the URL below]
In response to President Trump’s Executive Orders signed August 6, 2020, the Department of Commerce is prohibiting transactions relating to mobile applications WeChat and TikTok to safeguard the national security of the United States. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the US. These prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the US by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality. As of September 20, 2020, the following transactions are prohibited:
- Any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok mobile applications, constituent code, or application updates through an online mobile application store in the US;
- Any provision of services through the WeChat mobile application for the purpose of transferring funds or processing payments within the US.
As of September 20, 2020, for WeChat and as of November 12, 2020, for TikTok, the following transactions are prohibited:
- Any provision of internet hosting services enabling the functioning or optimization of the mobile application in the US;
- Any provision of content delivery network services enabling the functioning or optimization of the mobile application in the US;
- Any provision directly contracted or arranged internet transit or peering services enabling the function or optimization of the mobile application within the US;
- Any utilization of the mobile application’s constituent code, functions, or services in the functioning of software or services developed and/or accessible within the US.
China's TikTok sought to tamp down domestic controversy over its deal with Oracle and Walmart, saying that there would be no technology transfer to Oracle, though the US company would be able to check its software for safety. The TikTok deal has been a vivid example of the Trump administration’s policy of reciprocity toward Chinese businesses. Supporters of the approach say it’s only fair to treat Chinese companies by the same standards to which US companies are held in China. Critics say the United States should not stoop to the strong-arm negotiating tactics that it criticizes other governments for using. US officials have followed Beijing’s playbook in demanding the viral video app give the government a cut of the deal, and in applying eleventh-hour pressure in threatening to remove TikTok from US app stores. China’s government has oppposed the Trump administration’s push to force a sale of TikTok’s US operations, tightening its technology export restrictions in late August. These export restrictions included “personalized information recommendation service technology based on data analysis,” which industry experts saw as a nod to TikTok.
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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