Wednesday, September 9, 2020
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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai touted inaccurate broadband-availability data in order to claim that his deregulatory agenda sped up deployment despite clear warning signs that the FCC was relying on false information. Chairman Pai claimed in Feb 2019 that the number of Americans lacking access to fixed broadband at the FCC benchmark speed of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream dropped from 26.1 million people at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017, and he attributed the improvement to the FCC "removing barriers to infrastructure investment." The numbers were included in a draft version of the FCC's congressionally mandated annual broadband assessment, and Chairman Pai asked fellow commissioners to approve the report that concluded the broadband industry was doing enough to expand access.
But consumer-advocacy group Free Press subsequently pointed out that the numbers were skewed by an ISP called BarrierFree suddenly "claim[ing] deployment of fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless services (each at downstream/upstream speeds of 940mbps/880mbps) to census blocks containing nearly 62 million persons." Although the FCC is trying to fine BarrierFree for submitting inaccurate data, the FCC is not penalizing the ISP for failing to submit over 10 years' worth of required Form 477 reports. "The Pai FCC slept on BarrierFree's repeated violation of FCC rules," Free Press Research Director Derek Turner said, calling the FCC's attempt to downplay its own role in spreading inaccurate data "shameful."
Defeating the digital divide is much more than wiring up a home with an Internet connection. Families, particularly those with school-age children, often experience gaps in device access, digital literacy and cyberhygiene. There might not be enough devices, the hardware may be outdated or incompatible, and there may be a lack of security software. The household may also need training, have privacy concerns or require additional digital wraparound services. Our public library allies will continue to play a vital role in supporting these programs and needs.
Government CIOs and IT directors are well-positioned to step forward to wear another hat as a visionary technology leader for their communities. There needs to be a collective sense of urgency to move this effort forward. We can help connect dots among nonprofits, our residents and the private sector. It’s time to lobby the broadband carriers to be true partners in bringing everyone online. Our communities need this vision from us now more than ever.
[Luke Stowe is CIO and interim director of administrative services for Evanston (IL)]
In their platform, the Democratic Party specifies that the Federal Communications Commission should retain network neutrality as a policy and hold internet service providers accountable. It also pledges to invest “in broadband and 5G technology, including rural and municipal broadband.” The 2016 Republican Party platform, which was extended to include this election cycle, aims “to encourage the sharing economy and on-demand platforms to compete in an open market.” The party wants to make sure that the internet continues to advance through competition-driven innovation.
But Seth Ervin, the chief innovation officer at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, disagrees with that strategy. “I’m for the free market,” he said. “But I don’t think (internet access) is a commodity anymore.” Ervin works with the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance, which promotes digital access for underserved communities. He sees ties between internet access and socioeconomic mobility, as well as systemic racism. For example, access to the web is necessary to find a job and, during a pandemic, to even have an interview. Children are taking classes online. Patients see their doctors virtually. “The keys to (equal access) are the internet and a computer, period,” Ervin said. “How do you make sure that folks are getting an equal chance to participate in your community?” Nearly one out of every 10 households in Charlotte lacks internet access at home, Ervin said. One in five don’t have a computer.
If you live in rural Wisconsin, you know how bad the internet service can be. More than 40 percent of rural residents lack access to high speed internet, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin government has done relatively little to help. From 2013-2019, the state funded about $20 million in grants for expansion of broadband, an amount experts say is less than negligible.
Since 2019, Gov Tony Evers (D-WI) has tried to invest more money into the rural broadband gap. After his request, the Republican-controlled legislature increased funding for broadband expansion, but also blocked several of the governor’s other attempts to speed the expansion. Some Republicans cringe at the high cost of installing fiber optic cables throughout rural Wisconsin, where there can be so few customers. Instead, some point to wireless options as a way forward. But wireless is slower than fiber, and can be affected by weather, trees and topography.
State law mandates that a city or town in Wisconsin complete a three-year feasibility study and hold a public hearing before building its own internet infrastructure. Telecommunications professor emeritus at UW-Madison Barry Orton says the legislation is a gift to private companies enjoying a lack of competition, which can use the feasibility report and their own deep pockets to attack the plan in the community and at public hearings. “Forcing a public hearing based on the economics spelled out in the statute gives opponents all they need for a taxpayer scare campaign that would force any proponent to cave,” Orton said.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Sept agenda looks like a well-balanced fantasy team; we’re rolling out a diverse lineup featuring at least one item from each of the FCC’s seven bureaus.
- Building on a rulemaking launched in 2019, I have circulated to my fellow commissioners a Report and Order to remove the secondary, non-federal allocations from the 3.3–3.55 GHz band. We will also vote on seeking comment on further changes to the band to enable future commercial use, such as reallocating the 3.45–3.55 GHz band on a co-primary basis for non-federal fixed and mobile (except aeronautical mobile) services, rules for limited future federal incumbent use of the band, and licensing, operating, and technical rules for commercial operations.
- A second spectrum item is a Report and Order that would give states the opportunity to lease 4.9 GHz band spectrum to commercial entities, electric utilities, and others.
- On April 4, 2020, the President issued an Executive Order formally establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector. Our International Bureau has prepared a Report and Order to streamline and improve the timeliness and transparency of this inter-agency review process.
- Our Wireline Competition Bureau has crafted a new Order to take the next steps toward STIR/SHAKEN implementation.
- Our Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau has crafted a Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on the effects of 911 fee diversion and exploring additional steps the FCC or others could take to discourage states from diverting 911 fees.
- Our Media Bureau has led the Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, and its two latest offerings are on our Sept agenda. The first seeks to make sure consumers are accurately informed rather than confused when there are disputes between video programmers and cable operators. The second item is an Order to eliminate our rule requiring that cable operators maintain in their online public inspection file information regarding their attributable interests in video programming services and their carriage of vertically programming on systems in which they have an attributable interest.
- The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has crafted an Order to bring expenditures for the Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) service more in line with costs, preserving the viability of IP CTS for those people with hearing loss who need it.
For our 11th year of speed testing major wireless networks across the country, we drove to 26 US cities to see if 5G lives up to the hype. The answer: Not quite yet. While Verizon regains the title of fastest mobile network in our first nationwide 4G and 5G test, the carrier still has very little coverage. And AT&T's and T-Mobile's 5G networks don't help their overall performance much.
Verizon takes the crown in 2020 in a tight race with AT&T. Of the 26 cities we tested, Verizon won 13 of them, AT&T took 12, and T-Mobile grabbed one. The good news is that speeds are generally up across the board for all carriers compared with 2019, even if that's largely the result of improved 4G performance rather than the emergence of 5G.
So Wait...5G Isn't as Fast as 4G? We admit it, we bought into the 5G hype. Carriers, phone makers, and chip makers alike have all been selling 5G as faster and more powerful than 4G, with lower latency. So I was shocked to see that our AT&T 5G results, especially, were slower than 4G results on the same network. All three US carriers showed significantly higher download speeds and better broadband reliability than they did in our 2019 tests. It's just that these gains, particularly on AT&T, are largely because of improvements in 4G, not 5G networks. The good news is, with few exceptions, you don't need to rush out and buy a 5G phone.
5G may hold promise for the years ahead — but across most of America in 2020, a 5G phone does diddly squat. Testing 5G phones, I’ve been clocking download speeds that are roughly the same as on 4G LTE ones. And in some places, like inside my house and along the California highway, my 5G phones actually have been slower. Your experience with a 5G phone in 2020 is likely to be all over the map. I got searing fast 750 Mbps downloads from AT&T in one corner of downtown. But in the same spot, my 4G phone got an also extremely fast 330 Mbps. Moreover, because of the pandemic, those aren’t places I go very often. As I write this from my home office in the middle of San Francisco, I’m getting 11 Mbps downloads on my AT&T 5G phone. On T-Mobile, I get a laughable 8 Mbps on 5G, which is barely enough to stream HD Netflix.
For now at least, the three big US carriers are not charging extra fees to access 5G. But they do require you to buy a new smartphone to use the new network. And for most people, today’s 5G just isn’t a good reason to upgrade. It’s like buying a sports car and then realizing it can’t go over 65 mph very often. You’re stuck in the slow lane while faster ones are built.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai shared with his colleagues a draft proposal which would take decisive steps toward making the 3.45-3.55 GHz band available for commercial use throughout the contiguous US. This item will be on the agenda of the FCC’s Sept 30 Open Meeting and, if adopted, would position this 100 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for commercial 5G use.
The item would be an important step toward satisfying Congress’s directive in the MOBILE NOW Act to make new spectrum available for flexible use and to work with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to evaluate the feasibility of allowing commercial use in this band. The item includes a Report and Order that would remove the secondary, non-federal allocations from the 3.3-3.55 GHz band, as the FCC proposed to do late in 2019. The item also includes a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on proposed changes to the rules governing the band to enable commercial use and coordination between federal and non-federal users. This Further Notice follows the Aug 10 announcement by the White House and the Department of Defense (DoD) that they had determined that DoD operations in the band could accommodate commercial 5G operations.
The Federal Communications Commission released the results of its efforts to identify use of Huawei and ZTE equipment and services in US telecommunications networks that receive support from the federal Universal Service Fund. The FCC’s Nov 2019 order barring the use of USF support for the purchase of equipment and services from companies that pose a national security threat initially designated Huawei and ZTE as covered entities and directed FCC staff to conduct this information collection. In June 2020, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau issued final designations of Huawei and ZTE as posing national security threats to the integrity of communications networks. Sept 4’s announcement includes a list of eligible telecommunications carriers, or their affiliates and subsidiaries, that have reported using at least some Huawei and ZTE equipment or services in their networks.
Based on data FCC staff collected through the information collection, all filers report it could cost an estimated $1.837 billion to remove and replace Huawei and ZTE equipment in their networks. Of that total, filers that appear to initially qualify for reimbursement under the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Act of 2019 report it could require approximately $1.618 billion to remove and replace such equipment. Other providers of advanced communications service may not have participated in the information collection and yet still be eligible for reimbursement under the terms of that Act.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, (R-MS), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sen Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced the Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The legislation would clarify the original intent of the law and increase accountability for content moderation practices.
The Online Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Act would:
- Clarify when Section 230’s liability protections apply to instances where online platforms choose to restrict access to certain types of content;
- Condition the content moderation liability shield on an objective reasonableness standard. In order to be protected from liability, a tech company may only restrict access to content on its platform where it has “an objectively reasonable belief” that the content falls within a certain, specified category;
- Remove “otherwise objectionable” and replace it with concrete terms, including “promoting terrorism,” content that is determined to be “unlawful,” and content that promotes “self-harm.”
- Clarify that the definition of “information content provider” includes instances in which a person or entity editorializes or affirmatively and substantively modifies the content created or developed by another person or entity but does not include mere changes to format, layout, or basic appearance of such content.
The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) released the Rural Action Plan, the first HHS-wide assessment of rural healthcare efforts in more than 18 years and the product of HHS’s Rural Task Force, a group of experts and leaders across the department first put together by Secretary Alex Azar in 2019. The plan lays out a four-point strategy to transform rural health and human services, with a number of actions that can be launched within weeks or months. Leveraging tech and innovation was one of the strategies, which includes:
- Supporting a new HHS Health Challenge to leverage technology to improve screening and management of post-partum depression for rural women.
- Providing more than $8 million in grant funding for the Telehealth Network Grant Program to provide emergency care consults via telehealth to rural providers without emergency care specialists.
- Developing new flexibility for Medicare Advantage (MA) plans to improve access to managed care options in rural areas through changes in network adequacy assessments for MA plans and to take into account the impact of telehealth providers in contracted networks.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor to the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, said there are multiple challenges with implementing telehealth across the nation. Many initiatives for robust telehealth programs need fast bandwidth, yet getting the money and setting up the necessary infrastructure is very difficult, he said. “It will be a long time before this kind of technology will be readily available to much of the country,” he said.
Seven years after the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone records, an appeals court has found the program was unlawful – and that the US intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth. In a ruling handed down Sept 3, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional. Snowden, who fled to Russia in the aftermath of the 2013 disclosures and still faces US espionage charges, said that the ruling was a vindication of his decision to go public with evidence of the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping operation.
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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