Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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Ever since Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) was first elected to the House in 2006, he has sought to ensure that Iowans and other rural Americans can access the internet. But Rep Loebsack, who is set to retire at the end of the 116th Congress, remains frustrated that the federal government still lacks accurate data showing where Americans can get a signal — and where they can’t. How to best go about correcting federal broadband maps is disputed. And despite cooperation between Democrats and Republicans designed to force the Federal Communications Commission to fix them, sniping over who bears the responsibility for the persisting inaccuracies is a matter of partisan debate. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai blamed Congress, which he claimed has hamstrung the agency’s ability to fix the maps by withholding the necessary funding even though the agency approved a plan to fix the maps in 2019. But fellow-FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel blamed Chairman Pai.
INCOMPAS, the internet and competitive networks association, filed comments Spet 18 at the Federal Communications Commission in conjunction with its 16th Broadband Deployment Report Notice of Inquiry (706 Comments). INCOMPAS, which has long fought to raise the current internet speed benchmarks from 25 Mbps to 1 Gigabit, says COVID has been a wake-up call to all Americans who are dependent on faster, more affordable internet for school, healthcare and working from home. “With 5G well on the way, 1 Gbps represents a sensible standard and it is time for the Commission to adopt a future-proof definition of broadband for our nation.” In terms of wireless broadband, INCOMPAS stresses what all consumers know: mobile options are simply not an adequate solution to fixed broadband connections, especially in an age of rapidly increasing bandwidth needs, multiple connected devices in our homes and businesses need to deliver robust bandwidth, privacy, and data security. INCOMPAS notes the digital divide continues to be a pressing and punishing issue for far too many Americans living in both urban and rural communities. Helping to prevent barriers to competition at the local level – including bogus duplicative taxes and fees as well as denying new builders access to poles and infrastructure are critical steps the FCC can take to facilitate fiber networks. INCOMPAS also urges a rapid and immediate better broadband solution for the 30% of Americans currently living in apartment and condo buildings who are forced into monopoly contracts.
Internet connectivity remains a weak link for the disaster-wracked US territory Puerto Rico, and some experts fear a new tranche of Federal Communications Commission subsidies set aside just for the island might not help the people most in need of a broadband connection. Puerto Rico is locked out of most federal funding available to US states to help expand internet service. The island risks being left behind as carriers expand and upgrade high-speed internet networks elsewhere, even as infrastructure-damaging tropical storms come faster and harder and the pandemic makes broadband even more of a must-have.
The FCC is in the process of reviewing applications from companies vying for some $505 million in subsidies to be used over the next decade to build out broadband service in Puerto Rico, in a program called Uniendo a Puerto Rico.The FCC will select winning bidders for the Uniendo a Puerto Rico funds through an auction process. Then it will be tasked with making sure the money is put to its best use.
Other parts of the US can tap federal funds to close the connectivity gap. Yet Puerto Rico, despite much of the island being heavily rural, is either disadvantaged in or outright excluded from most federal rural broadband subsidy programs. One reason: Puerto Rico's small size means most areas are too close to the capital city of San Juan to qualify as rural under the programs. And some parties worry the end result of Uniendo will be more subsidies for major providers that have operated in Puerto Rico for years without delivering the reliable, fast, widely available and resilient networks that are badly needed on the island.
Montgomery County (MD) offers its low-income and special needs citizens Internet access via a 600-linear-mile fiber route as part of its Digital Equity program. In a new pilot project, the county will add onsite Wi-Fi—by way of Plume superpods—to its existing basic Internet access. Joe Webster, Montgomery County's Chief Broadband Officer, said that although the county has been providing free or low-cost Internet service to residents in need for some time, significant challenges remain beyond the demarc. If you're unfamiliar with the term, "demarc" is ISP shorthand for "point of demarcation"—the point beyond which your IT problems are your own, not the service provider's. A working partnership with a Wi-Fi mesh vendor like Plume—particularly one that, like Plume, can take the bulk of end-user support off the county's metaphorical shoulders—could make it possible to extend Internet access not only to the residences, but directly to the devices of the county residents in need.
Charter Communications announced a relaunch of its Remote Education Offer providing free Spectrum Internet – with speeds up to 200 Mbps in most markets – and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12th graders, college students and/or educators. The promotion is available for customers who live in a Spectrum market and do not currently have Spectrum Internet services.
Charter first offered its Remote Education Offer in March, resulting in 448,000 new households added through June 30, 2020 to Charter’s high-speed Spectrum Internet for two free months. In addition to the Remote Education Offer, Charter is making high-speed broadband more accessible through Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA), its high-speed, low-cost broadband program available to eligible low-income households and seniors. SIA includes a free internet modem, high-speed data at 30 Mbps, no data caps or contracts, and optional in-home Wi-Fi service for an additional $5/mo. SIA is available to households in which one or more members are a recipient of assistance through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP, or Supplemental Security Income (for applicants age 65+). Charter will offer two-free months of Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA) to eligible low-income households with students or an educator not already a Spectrum customer.
Apjit Walia, the global head of technology strategy at Deutsche Bank, has a free market suggestion for ending the digital divide: Big technology companies should pay for millions of lower-income Americans to get what they need to go online. And not out of the goodness of their heart. In Walia’s view, it would be a smart business decision to reach new customers and repair Big Tech’s reputation. Walia penciled out a five-year plan for big tech companies to collectively spend about $15 billion on three things for millions of Black and Latino households with an annual income below $30,000: providing discounted internet service, supplying basic computers, and providing mentorship and education on technical skills.
Why would tech companies do this? Self-interest. This internet gap is an economic liability for these Americans and the country as more jobs have digital components, Walia said. It’s bad for tech companies, too. “This is about investing in a market that is going to be a large demographic group in a generation,” he said. Walia also said that by starting to tackle the digital divide, tech companies build good will among lawmakers and regulators, who are more closely watching how Big Tech uses its power.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai implored governors around the country to take action to ensure incarcerated individuals can maintain vital community connections by addressing the too-often exorbitant rates and fees charged for inmates to make intrastate phone calls. Chairman Pai and Brandon Presley, President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), wrote to the leadership of the National Governors Association to highlight this issue and focus the attention of state leaders on their unique power and responsibility to address this problem. The letter includes a list of every prison and jail in the country that, according to an FCC information collection, charged intrastate rates above the interstate caps in 2019, with some exceeding $20 for a 15-minute call.
The city of McAllen (TX) is tapping unlicensed Citizen Band Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum to provide backhaul for a citywide Wi-Fi hotspot deployment aimed at enabling students in the city to gain internet connectivity to support distance learning during COVID-19. A large percentage of students are low income and do not have high-speed broadband at home. Many of the costs of constructing the network were covered through a CARES Act grant. The new network has 1,000 CBRS access point/ hotspots, enabling many students to connect from their homes, and there are plans to add at least 5,000 more access points over the next year.
Traditionally, public Wi-Fi hotspots would have fiber backhaul, but using CBRS spectrum enabled the network to be deployed more quickly. “The city has a mandate of utility poles every 600 feet, which worked out very well for this,” said Drew Lentz of Frontera Consulting, who helped advise McAllen on the CBRS deployment. “We were not able to get on all of them, but in some of the neighborhoods, there’s an access point as close as 600 feet from each other.”
The Department of Justice’s impending lawsuit against Google has narrowed to focus on the company’s power over internet search, a decision that could set off a cascade of separate lawsuits from states in ensuing weeks over the Silicon Valley giant’s dominance in other business segments. In presentations to state attorneys general, the department is expected to outline its legal case centered on how Google uses its dominant search engine to harm rivals and consumers. Meeting with the state attorneys general is one of the final steps before the department files its suit against the company. The Justice Department’s action against Google is set to be narrower than what some states and several career lawyers in the department had envisioned. The department also investigated Google’s reach in ad technology and how the company prices and places ads across the internet. But in an effort to file a case by the end of September, the agency decided to pick the piece that was furthest along in legal theory and that it felt could best withstand a potential challenge in court.
Facebook has said it will take aggressive and exceptional measures to “restrict the circulation of content” on its platform if Nov’s presidential election descends into chaos or violent civic unrest. Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global affairs, said it had drawn up plans for how to handle a range of outcomes, including widespread civic unrest or “the political dilemmas” of having in-person votes counted more rapidly than mail-in ballots, which will play a larger role in this election due to the coronavirus pandemic. “There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances,” Clegg said, though he stopped short of elaborating further on what measures were on the table.
The K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative will enable more students to participate in remote or hybrid learning for the 2020-21 school year by identifying student needs, standardizing eligibility, and facilitating enrollment for sponsored services. NCTA—the Internet & Television Association, USTelecom, and NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association and their member companies are committed to common principles to work with public school districts or states to identify and connect students.
The K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative is modeled off the innovative Chicago Connected program which brought together philanthropists, city leaders, the school district and local broadband providers to efficiently identify and connect students without service at home. The K-12 Bridge to Broadband program will now take this model to national scale in partnership with broadband providers across the country so that every school district can quickly identify and connect their students to remote learning.
The lack of broadband internet access in West Virginia is a microcosm of a global issue. Almost half of the world’s population lacks access to the internet, but many people are unaware of the extent of the digital divide. At the Internet Society, we work with local communities in remote, underserved and indigenous areas around the world to extend internet access using low-cost wireless technologies and equipment. These “community networks” are built by and for locals and have connected communities in such varied places as the heart of Baltimore and indigenous communities in Canada and Hawaii by working with on-the-ground experts, advocates, engineers and service providers. Community Networks can serve as a viable solution for expanding internet access in the US and around the world. Innovative approaches and working with communities to identify and solve their own access needs are needed if we want to ensure that the internet is available to everyone.
[Katie Watson Jordan is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Internet Society]
The Trump Administration said it would challenge a federal court ruling Sept 20 that temporarily blocked its attempt to curb the use of Chinese messaging and e-commerce app WeChat in the US. WeChat's ban has had a lower profile than TikTok's, but the fate of the app, widely used by Chinese people around the world to stay in touch with family and friends, is at least as consequential. The ruling suggests that WeChat's fate in the US could be decided not only on grounds of national security and commercial regulations but also around freedom of speech principles.
"It's a mistake to think of this as (only) a sanction on TikTok and WeChat," said Jameel Jaffer, the inaugural director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. "It's a serious restriction on the First Amendment rights of US citizens and residents — a restriction that the Trump admin should have to justify." In her ruling, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler of the US District Court of Northern California, said that she would issue an injunction to block the Commerce Department's ban of WeChat because the case's plaintiffs, a group representing WeChat users, made a compelling enough case that the ban violated their First Amendment rights. The judge noted there are no substitute apps for Chinese-speaking Americans to use. Millions of Americans use WeChat to communicate with loved ones in China. The app is also relied on by many Chinese-owned businesses in the US.
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