Thursday, September 7, 2023
Headlines Daily Digest
Stories From Abroad
In early 2020, as the coronavirus spread, schools around the world abruptly halted in-person education. To many governments and parents, moving classes online seemed the obvious stopgap solution. In the United States, school districts scrambled to secure digital devices for students. Almost overnight, videoconferencing software like Zoom became the main platform teachers used to deliver real-time instruction to students at home. Now a report from UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational and cultural organization, says that overreliance on remote learning technology during the pandemic led to “staggering” education inequality around the world. It was a worldwide “ed-tech tragedy.” The UNESCO researchers argued in the report that “unprecedented” dependence on technology — intended to ensure that children could continue their schooling — worsened disparities and learning loss for hundreds of millions of students around the world, including in Kenya, Brazil, Britain and the United States. The promotion of remote online learning as the primary solution for pandemic schooling also hindered public discussion of more equitable, lower-tech alternatives, such as regularly providing schoolwork packets for every student, delivering school lessons by radio or television — and reopening schools sooner for in-person classes, the researchers said.
US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona made stops in Kansas and Missouri as part of a multi-state tour, labeling internet access “the new pencil” as he discussed the government’s efforts to expand broadband connectivity. While speaking to superintendents and education leaders in Kansas, he declared lack of access the “equity issue of our moment.” Secretary Cardona was joined by Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to discuss the “digital divide,” with school superintendents and education leaders from corporate and nonprofit companies. Chairwoman Rosenworcel hopes that communication from community partners will help form trust around the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) to reach those who may not otherwise sign up for the federal program.
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, Black and Hispanic adults in the United States remain less likely than White adults to say they own a traditional computer or have high-speed internet at home. Eighty percent of White adults report owning a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 69 percent of Black adults and 67 percent of Hispanic adults. Eighty percent of White adults also report having a broadband connection at home, while smaller shares of Black and Hispanic adults say the same—71 percent and 65 percent, respectively. When it comes to accessing the internet, mobile devices play a larger role for Hispanic adults compared with White adults. A quarter of Hispanics are “smartphone-only” internet users—meaning they own a smartphone but lack traditional home broadband services. By comparison, 12 percent of White adults and 17 percent of Black adults fall into this category. Bias by internet service providers further exacerbates the impact of poverty: Internet providers prefer to serve areas that have higher incomes, so lower-income neighborhoods are often at a disadvantage in terms of accessing internet services even if individuals can afford them. Research has even shown that communities of color are more likely to pay higher rates for the same level of internet access in the same city, often only blocks away from where lower rates are charged. A 2022 investigation by The Markup found that AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink, and CenturyLink disproportionately offered slow internet service to lower-income and least-White neighborhoods for the same price they offered speedier connections in other parts of town.
Internet consumers benefitting from the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) are experiencing significant improvement in education and employment opportunities, according to the results of a survey of Bluepeak Internet customers conducted in August 2023. The survey results indicate subscribers in ACP households were able to find jobs, apply for financial aid or college, do homework, and participate in distance learning. In addition, some reported having home internet helped a member of their household become a first-generation college graduate, according to the Bluepeak survey findings.
The Department of the Treasury approved $158 million in federal funds for broadband infrastructure and multi-purpose community facility projects in Puerto Rico under the American Rescue Plan Act's (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund (CPF). Puerto Rico is approved to receive $85.7 million to improve the resiliency, reliability, and speed of the island’s high-speed internet access. This funding will specifically promote the Puerto Rico Submarine Cable Resiliency (PRSCR) Program, which will construct a new submarine fiber route to the island of Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands and create three new cable landing stations on the island’s coastlines. Puerto Rico will invest an additional $64.7 million of CPF funding in the Puerto Rico Multi-Purpose Community Technology Center Program, which seeks to create multi-purpose community technology centers / “Centros Tecnológicos” in areas across Puerto Rico where the public can access high-speed internet, use on-site devices, borrow devices for at-home use, have access to educational opportunities in technology, digital learning, work remotely, and access healthcare services. Together with their administrative funding, these projects represent 100 percent of the territory's total allocation under the CPF program. The remainder of the funds (approximately $8 million) will be used by Puerto Rico to administer the programs.
The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) commited nearly $50 million to four organizations to expand middle-mile high-speed Internet infrastructure in the following states:
- New Hampshire: The County of Grafton will use $12 million to develop the 222-mile County of Grafton middle-mile backbone through population centers by building new fiber optic cable to close gaps and leveraging existing infrastructure to reduce the cost of buildout.
- Tennessee: Built over four years, Blue Ridge Advisory Services Group will use $20 million to create a route that will be 155 miles of new fiber cable that significantly improves the existing Scott County Telephone Cooperative (SCTC) network architecture by creating 4 new rings, closes several unprotected laterals, spans across unserved areas, and interconnects (via a network-to-network interface NNI) with East Kentucky Networks (EKN).
- Virginia: Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation plans to construct approximately 130 miles of new, $16 million fiber to enable open-access middle-mile connectivity and enhance grant funds for local broadband providers and existing carriers.
- Wyoming: Visionary Communications plans to use approximately $1.3 million on an 11.5-mile project that will bring critical fiber backhaul to the main tower site feeding Oriva Hills, substantially increasing the capacity available which addresses the primary limitation of broadband availability and will be available for all last-mile providers to utilize.
The Federal Communications Commission committed nearly $7 million in a new funding round through the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) Program, which provides digital tools and services to support students in communities across the country. The funding commitment supports applications from the third application window, benefitting approximately 50,000 students nationwide, including students in California, Colorado, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The Federal Communications Commission made final funding allocations for the Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program (ACP Outreach Grant Program), and Tribal Competitive Outreach Program (TCOP) Round 2. The total amount of final funds announced for TCOP Round 2 is over $1.2 million. The extensive demand for ACP outreach funding so far underscores the need for these funds and the importance of reaching the eligible households that have not yet enrolled in the ACP. This new funding opportunity for ACP outreach is intended to provide funding to five additional Tribal organizations, beyond the 20 TCOP grant recipients that were announced as part of the FCC's March 10, 2023 funding announcement. The awardees are as follows:
- Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, ID: $305,571
- Waimanalo Hawaiian Homes Association, HI: $309,103
- Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Radio, SD: $282,046
- Burns Paiute Tribe, OR: $87,360
- Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, WA: $231,959
Twenty-five years ago, when I headed up the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), my colleagues and I identified what has come to be known as the digital divide while researching the growing gap between the haves and have-nots of internet access. Back then, we never dreamed that the US government would one day commit $42 billion dollars in the form of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program to close the divide. Yet, the Biden administration and Congress have provided the focus and the funds we need to get every American online. Despite this, we are at risk of squandering this once-in-a-generation opportunity. The requirements for a BEAD grant include something called a letter of credit. The current rules say any broadband service provider applying for a grant to connect underserved communities must deposit 25% of the award amount with a bank. That deposit will remain untouchable until well after the build is complete. This is in addition to a separate minimum 25% match requirement. Together, these two rules mean grantees will have to front millions of dollars before they receive a dime from Uncle Sam. Without a course correction to the BEAD program, this record investment could be an opportunity wasted. Large companies and populous communities are capable of bearing these costs; but these rules will exclude many of the providers most capable of assisting in the effort to close the digital divide, slowing broadband expansion and keeping America’s most marginalized communities out of the digital revolution for another generation.
[Larry Irving was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information (NTIA) during the Clinton Administration. He is president of the Irving Group and is the outgoing Board Chair at Connect Humanity.]
The Senate working group tasked with assessing the Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund (USF) collected comments on what it should focus on when considering potential reforms for the program. The USF funding mechanism was developed at a time when home phone service was the predominant method of communication. As a result, voice service revenues were and continue to be the primary means by which USF’s programs are funded. With this outdated funding framework, a handful of companies and their customers provide nearly all of the funding for the USF. The most efficient and equitable way to reform USF funding and ensure that broadband benefits continue to be available to all is through direct congressional appropriations. Rather than relying on a contribution system that is patently outdated and no longer fits the fund’s original scope and relies on a quickly vanishing revenue stream, Congress should secure annual appropriations that will support the USF programs in a fair, straightforward, and reliable way. However, if ongoing direct appropriations are not possible, then Congress should provide the FCC with the authority to expand the base of contributors to the USF fund to include the types of companies and services that most benefit from expanding broadband availability. Contributions from large technology companies, edge service providers, and others that directly benefit from the nation’s universal service goals will ensure the fund is big enough to continue to support American connectivity needs and the USF’s objectives.
The Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) developed a vision for digital equity in Washington state: Everyone in Washington has affordable broadband internet technology as well as the tools and skills needed to participate in our digital society before 2028. The WSBO has established three goals designed to achieve the stated vision:
- Eliminating barriers: Provide Washington state residents with infrastructure, devices, and tools, to maintain reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband service to bridge the digital divide.
- Empowering residents: Provide Washington state residents the information, support, and skills to obtain and cultivate digital knowledge and skills to improve access and reap the benefits of digital inclusion.
- Ensuring sustainability: Establish and build partnerships across Washington state needed to deliver and sustain broadband service and support programs for learning and engaging in civil society.
Kentucky is investing a record $386 million to expand access in 46 counties, bringing high-speed internet access to more than 42,600 homes and businesses for the first time. The funding will allow providers to run fiber to each location. More than 25,000 locations are considered to have no service and more than 17,000 are considered unserved. Governor Andy Beshear (D-KY) awarded 56 grants totaling more than $196 million from the Kentucky Broadband Deployment Fund, part of his Better Internet program. Internet service providers that received grant funding will also contribute more than $190 million in matching funds. The awards were allocated from the $300 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to the Kentucky Broadband Deployment Fund.
The Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) Project Office unveils the ARA, a new testbed in Central Iowa dedicated to research on rural wireless systems and applications. The ARA combines both commercial and programmable network systems. The multi-modal platform is based on the Iowa State University (ISU) campus with coverage extending to local crop and livestock farms and parts of the City of Ames (IA). The ARA platform uniquely combines several types of technologies in both the backhaul and radio access portions of the network from Aviat, Skylark Wireless, NI, and Ericsson. For backhaul connectivity, ARA uses Aviat radios operating in the 11 GHz and 80 GHz bands. The testbed also maintains fiber connections as a backup. In the radio access network, the ARA team has partnered with Skylark Wireless in developing and deploying production-grade, many-antenna MIMO systems with research APIs for communications using TV White Space (TVWS) spectrum, and it has deployed software-defined radios from NI using mid-band connectivity.
Highline completed the construction of “The Thumb” service area, now offering fiber broadband to over 8,000 households in Sanilac, Tuscola, Lapeer, and St. Clair (MI) counties. Highline’s 823-mile fiber optic network was built with a combination of private investment backed by ITC Capital Partners and the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant program. While representing 14% of Highline’s total RDOF location commitment, Highline was able to complete this geographic portion of the network in two years rather than by the end of 2027.
The newly released Virginia proposed Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grant rules highlight an issue that was included in the original grant rules. The BEAD program gives significant power to local governments through local letters of support. Internet service providers (ISP) have always asked for letters of support for broadband grants, and most communities have handed them out like Halloween candy. The Virginia BEAD grants rules and I think most other states as well are going to award a significant amount of grant scoring points for an ISP that gets a local letter of support. In the Virginia grant scoring, a letter of support represents 10% of the total points needed for an ISP trying to win a grant. Since most BEAD grants are going to be awarded in rural areas, county governments are the local government entities that will matter the most for BEAD. A county needs to carefully think about the ISPs it wants to support if the county provides a local support letter for only one ISP, that ISP has an instant advantage over others in the grant scoring.
Dish Network defended its request for more time to buy 800 MHz spectrum from T-Mobile, telling a Washington (DC) court that it boils down to the final judgment the court approved in 2020. Dish originally was supposed to exercise its option to purchase the spectrum by June 30, 2023, but received an extension. It’s now seeking a 10-month extension because it doesn’t have $3.6 billion on hand to buy the licenses. T-Mobile responded with its opposition, arguing that Dish can’t claim hardship or difficulty as grounds for modifying the final judgment and that rising interest rates, whatever their cause, have always been a known risk of financing. Dish seized on that, telling the court: “T-Mobile’s cavalier attitude toward unprecedented interest rate hikes notwithstanding, the global financial turbulence resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and a war in Europe was certainly not foreseeable by Dish when the Division commenced this action in mid-2019. But those events have seriously impaired Dish’s ability to close the purchase of the 800 MHz spectrum licenses in the near term.”
Vodafone’s announcement that it has formed a partnership with Project Kuiper, Amazon’s low Earth orbit satellite (LEO) communications initiative, joins a growing list of operator tie-ups with satellite service providers to solve backhaul and rural connectivity challenges. Vodafone and its African Vodacom group plan to use Project Kuiper’s network to extend the reach of 4G and 5G services to more of their customers in Europe and Africa, serving areas that “may otherwise be challenging and prohibitively expensive to serve via traditional fiber or microwave solutions.” Amazon has yet to launch any satellites, so delivering access for Vodafone on the ground is still some way off.
Google has reached a tentative settlement with more than 30 US states and 21 million customers -- but not app developers -- who sued the company for allegedly violating antitrust laws by overcharging for apps in the Google Play Store. The settlement comes after a court revoked the lawsuit's class-action status. At one point, plaintiffs estimated that Google might owe them $4.7 billion in damages; however, it was previously reported that losing the class-action status would significantly reduce damages for states and customers suing. Nothing will be finalized until the settlement is approved by the State Attorneys General and Google owner Alphabet Inc’s board of directors. The court filing said that the long-form settlement agreement will likely be submitted to the court for approval within the next 30 days. Both parties agreed to appear at a status conference on October 12, to provide an update on the settlement and outline a plan to secure court approval.
Following nearly a year of sustained pressure on brands from the #StopToxicTwitter coalition, showing the dangers of advertising on Twitter (now “X”), Elon Musk is now singling out coalition members to blame for the company’s extensive revenue losses. Musk threatened to sue the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for these losses, continuing his penchant for using lawyers to silence his critics. Musk’s acknowledgment of these significant losses comes as X is also claiming — without evidence — that many major brands have returned to advertise on the platform. #StopToxicTwitter member ADL is among Musk’s chief critics, repeatedly calling out his amplification of antisemitic voices and memes.
LICT completed its spinoff of Michigan Broadband on August 31, 2023. The spinoff company is now known as MachTen. LICT, a rural broadband consolidator with operations in several states, withdrew from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program due to “substantial cost increases and other significant changes within the organization since we first participated and won in the RDOF public auction.”
Comcast has continued to shed broadband subscribers, despite domestic broadband revenue being a bright spot in its second quarter (Q2) earnings. CEO Brain Roberts noted average revenue per user (ARPU) for broadband grew “four and a half percent” in the first half of 2023. As to what’s driving Comcast’s broadband growth, Roberts pointed to an influx of broadband usage, which “almost doubled” in the last couple of years. The average non-linear video customer uses 700 gigabits of data per month, he said. And in the last four years, the company has seen "13 times more attached devices to Wi-Fi than we did in 2018…and we’ve got a billion devices attached in our homes.”
AT&T’s CEO John Stankey said, “There’s a fallacy to say there’s fixed networks and wireless networks. There are only fiber networks with different access technologies on the end of them. That’s where this is all going.” He said the most important thing is having “robust fiber infrastructure with the right capillaries in the right places.” Those “capillaries” can end with different types of access technologies, whether that’s a broadband router or a cell site or a managed router at a business location. He continued, saying, "The first version of convergence typically ends up being some kind of bundle, but ultimately it morphs into product evolution. The product is the network.”
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), Grace Tepper (grace AT benton DOT org), and David L. Clay II (dclay AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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