Monday, September 28, 2020
Headlines Daily Digest
When we talk about the digital divide, we need to peel back the layers. When we do, it is readily apparent that nearly three times the people who live in urban areas remain unconnected to broadband as those in rural areas. Additionally, according to Pew Research data, 34% of Black people in America do not have a home broadband connection, a disproportionately higher percentage than their white counterparts. That is why we need to solve the issue of affordability and expand the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline and E-Rate programs that are designed to meet the connectivity needs of low-income households and students across the nation.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai recently announced a couple of changes to the Lifeline program, which supplies phone and broadband services to people without the income to pay for them. Since his appointment in 2017, the former commissioner has worked to reduce costs while phasing out support for voice-only options in favor of high-speed Internet. The changes are simple: Starting Dec. 1, Lifeline’s mobile carriers will have to offer 4.5 GB of data each month, up from 3 GB. This has extra urgency now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven unemployment to levels not seen since the Great Depression. The announcement sent shock waves from corporate boardrooms to nonprofits that serve asset-limited people. Public interest groups fear the impasse, if left unresolved, could undermine the premise of the 35-year-old program, which is to “ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services,” as the FCC describes Lifeline.
Here’s the problem: Lifeline is based on the $9.25 subsidy it provides each month to qualifying customers, those who receive federal help through Medicaid, Tribal Head Start, Federal Public Housing Assistance or similar programs, or can show earnings of less than 135% of the poverty line. The $9.25 rate hasn’t changed since 2016, when Lifeline’s minimum service standards (MSS) were created. That’s a deal-breaker for service providers.
I’m leading 45 of my colleagues in the Senate to fight for at least $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program so students receive the Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and internet connected devices they need to learn at home. Excluding this critical aid from a new coronavirus relief package—as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Republican lawmakers recently did—will exacerbate already substantial inequities for decades. Sixteen million of our nation’s most vulnerable children will continue to suffer. They will continue to fall behind. And it will be because Republican lawmakers don’t think their education and well-being are worth it.
An alternative approach sidesteps the Senate GOP’s intransigence. Under existing law, the Federal Communication Commission has clear authority and available funding to begin connecting students to the internet at home through the E-Rate program. The FCC does not need to wait for Congress to act. So far, it has waited. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has let disconnected students languish for months through his overly narrow interpretation of the E-Rate program. I led a group of Senators demanding that he change course. And I’ll continue to fight until Chairman Pai recognizes that internet access isn’t a luxury, but rather an urgent necessity for all students.
All it takes is a nationwide crisis to underline the most glaring equity issues our society faces. The one that has captured my attention during COVID-19 is the chronic lack of home internet access for people of color, low-income households, and rural residents. That lack of access puts schools in an especially difficult position as they expand their use of technology during the pandemic, and beyond. It's important to remember that this technology challenge has been staring us in the face for decades. It is not just a COVID-19 issue—it is a civil rights issue of the utmost importance.
To ignore the digital divide, and the generation of students suffering as a result, is to uphold the boundaries of race and class that keep American society hostile to tens of millions of its people. To tackle it head-on is to imagine how much better America could be if internet access were no longer a luxury afforded only to those who have inherited its privilege. No longer would schools have to bend over backward for students who want to learn at home but don't have the means. No longer would a person's ability to safely access learning opportunities, and the life circumstances they facilitate, be contingent on their means and the color of their skin.
In a small, one-story house in Ames, central Iowa officials got a look at a futuristic living space powered by what Mediacom calls "the next generation of broadband technology." The company debuted its "smart home," touting it as the first field trial in the country for a new 10G platform and showing more than 70 smart devices including many "bandwidth intensive" ones at work at once. The platform allows a ramp-up to 10 gigabits per second from the 1 gigabit speeds available today, Mediacom said. Such speeds allow devices in the house – smart kitchen appliances like a voice-activated faucet, smart coffee maker mug and water bottles; smart security systems like flood, smoke and motion detectors; and virtual and augmented reality for communication and gaming – to work together. Mediacom worked on the house in collaboration with CableLabs and NCTA – The Internet & Television Association.
The Federal Communications Commission's top priority is closing the digital divide. In its latest inquiry into broadband deployment, the FCC asks how successful its efforts have been. Congress requires the FCC to determine each year if broadband is reaching all Americans in a timely fashion. For the past three years, the FCC's Republican majority, relying on its faulty data, has concluded that broadband is being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis. Will it do so again? Benton collects news on universal broadband every day for our Headlines newsletter. During the COVID-19 national emergency, we've featured article after article about how stay-at-home orders have impacted people. For people with robust residential broadband service, lockdowns may have been somewhat bearable. For people without reliable broadband, the pandemic has been devastating. We quickly review what we've been reading over the last six months, in hopes we get a sense of how close we are to ensuring that affordable broadband reaches everyone in America. Without accurate broadband data, perhaps a survey of reporting from communities across the country can help us answer the question.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) has released its Worst Connected Cities of 2019, a list of the cities in the US facing the biggest struggles with Internet connections by drawing from the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) One-Year Estimates. This data is not an indication of the availability of home broadband service, but rather of the extent to which households are actually connected to it.
At the top of the list were a pair of cities in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, which can be found in the southeast corner of the state. Pharr (TX) which is adjacent to McAllen (TX) ranked as the least-connected city in the country, with 59.66 percent of residents there having no access to Internet at all, including via cellular data plans. In addition, 68.75 percent of residents of the city, which is near the US-Mexico border, did not have wireline Internet connections. Larger cities (more than 100,000 people) that fared poorly on the list included Cleveland, Miami, and Newark (NJ), all of which have a substantial number of households that lack broadband of any type. At least 30% of households in 185 large and medium-size US cities still lack a wireline broadband connection in 2019.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and nearly 40 other senators are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to take action on the learning gap, urging FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to allow broadband connection into students' homes by expanding the E-Rate Program, which helps schools and libraries connect to the internet. "The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families," they wrote. "We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need." Chairman Pai has argued that the program is specifically for classrooms, not students' homes. "We always have the discretion to waive our rules, for good cause shown," Chairman Pai said during a June congressional hearing. "But we can't waive a statute." Chairman Pai said that "the statute says specifically that services to classrooms is what the FCC can support through the E rate program." But Sen Van Hollen argued that the FCC has the ability to expand the program without permission from Congress.
Across the country as American schools struggle with whether to reopen or stay virtual, many rural districts are worried their students will fall even further behind than their city peers. This pandemic has shone a glaring light on a lot of inequalities. The federal government estimates that more than a third of rural America has little or no Internet. In numerous recent interviews, educators say they're concerned the rural-urban divide will only worsen if kids can't get online to learn. Rural leaders have been lobbying Congress for a big public works project to build out broadband here, much like when the government paid to bring electricity to rural areas during another crisis, the Great Depression.
As anchors of the community, upgraded broadband infrastructure will help Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) serve the needs of unserved and underserved communities that are too often overlooked or ignored. That is why it is imperative to invest in HBCUs in the digital age by (1) expanding access to broadband for students, faculty, and staff on and off campus and (2) creating opportunities to recruit and retain HBCU students and alumni in the technology and telecommunications sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that access to affordable, reliable broadband is necessary to participate in modern life. It is the tool that we use to access educational platforms, create businesses, and remain connected to loved ones, no matter the distance. Despite the necessity of this tool, millions of Americans lack access to broadband, largely people of color, rural areas, and low-income populations. In HBCU communities, many of which are concentrated in the South, geographic location and income inequality compounds the impact of the digital divide.
Many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are located in rural areas and blighted urban centers. These are the same places where large communities of color struggle with access to health care and face innumerable obstacles to access affordable and reliable broadband. But in the wake of COVID-19, HBCUs nationwide have stepped in to provide life-saving solutions to Black and brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. Given their ability to assist with community data collection and analysis, HBCUs may be the change agents we so desperately need in the fight for universal broadband access and adoption in some of the most disconnected communities. HBCU partnerships could help improve broadband data collections in order to identify which residents actually have access to broadband and which still do not. Serious improvements in broadband mapping are needed to solve crippling inequities in broadband access. Flawed data sets from communities of color, as well as rural and urban communities, continue to impact the level of broadband connectivity available to those who need it most.
[Brittany-Rae Gregory is the Communications Director for Next Century Cities]
A host of companies, are challenging the way Apple runs its App Store. The App Store generates at least $15 billion in annual sales for the tech giant. Critics say Apple takes too big a cut of app makers’ sales and wields monopoly power over the gateway that connects hundreds of millions of users to mobile apps. Apple disputes that characterization, saying that it collects only a portion of sales from a small percentage of the almost 2 million apps available on the App Store and that its practices are in line with competitors’ app marketplaces. Here is an overview of recent challenges to the App Store model and what they mean for consumers and the company (fee skirmishes, competition, etc).
Deregulation of broadcast television station owners has also helped highlight just how backward and outdated certain aspects of our media regulation regime really are, and therefore, how much work remains to be done. To facilitate this process, I would humbly submit a few more ideas that the Federal Communications Commission could quickly implement to improve the plight of America’s struggling broadcasters and support local journalism:
- End Freeze on License Modifications: Stations should be permitted to start filing applications for needed upgrades.
- Update Failing Station Criteria: We should establish separate criteria, perhaps even a new process that is separate from the failing station test, for presuming certain mergers that improve local and/or live programming are in the public interest.
- Low Power Station Relocations: Limit unnecessary regulatory burdens by allowing waivers of our LPTV processing rules for in-market station moves that would otherwise be approved.
- VHF to UHF & Communities of License Changes: Update the rules related to VHF stations seeking to upgrade to UHF channels and easing the process for television stations to change their community of license in certain cases.
Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) is planning on moving forward with Trump’s recent nomination of Nathan Simington, a Commerce Department staffer that President Donald Trump chose to take over the seat of GOP veteran Mike O’Rielly. Chairman Wicker met with Simington Sept 23 in a meeting that a senior aide called highly detailed. The nominee was scheduled to meet with Senate Commerce’s policy and legal teams on Sept 24, and Chairman Wicker is urging all panel Republicans to meet with Simington. No word yet on a possible confirmation hearing or vote. Many observers question whether Congress will have enough time to process Simington’s nomination before the end of the year. Controversy lurks given the abrupt way President Trump yanked Commissioner O’Rielly’s nomination this summer following his pushback about regulating social media companies. Simingon worked in a supporting role on the Commerce Department’s summer petition seeking an FCC crackdown on online liability protections.
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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