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Want Better Broadband in America? Take the Broadband Census!

Commentary WASHINGTON, July 15 – Most Americans who have high-speed Internet can’t imagine life without broadband. How could you connect to the Internet of today without it? In today’s world, broadband is as basic as running water and electricity. And yet the U.S. is falling behind globally.

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Commentary

The following commentary appears in the current issue of Opastco Advocate, a monthly newsletter published by the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. Reprinted by permission.

By Drew Clark, Executive Director, BroadbandCensus.com

Most Americans who have high-speed Internet can’t imagine life without broadband. How could you connect to the Internet of today without it? In today’s world, broadband is as basic as running water and electricity. And yet the U.S. is falling behind globally. As a technology reporter, I’ve been writing about the battles over broadband and the Internet for nearly a decade in Washington. Yet there is one fact about which nearly everyone seems to be in agreement: if America wants better broadband, America needs better broadband data.

That’s why I’ve recently started a new venture to collect this broadband data, and to make this data freely available for all on the Web, at http://BroadbandCensus.com.

The information and news that is available for free at BroadbandCensus.com is more important now than ever before. The FCC has just made important changes to how it will collect data from carriers. The agency may make even more significant changes in the near future. Public and private sector groups of all stripes are demanding, ever more loudly, that government take steps toward a national broadband policy. That cannot be done without solid information about broadband. Finally, many large carriers are beginning to implement plans to meter out bandwidth in tiers and with usage caps. This marketplace development makes the mission of an independent monitoring Website like BroadbandCensus.com even more critical.

BroadbandCensus.com Serves Consumers, Policymakers, and Carriers

BroadbandCensus.com is designed to help three constituencies: Internet consumers, policymakers, and broadband carriers focused on customer satisfaction. In the long term, we believe that the interests of carriers are aligned with those of their customers and their potential customers.

Internet users benefit by being able to measure and understand information about the availability, competition, speeds and prices of broadband within their areas. When an Internet user goes to the BroadbandCensus.com Website, he or she types in a ZIP code. By doing so, the consumer will find out how many broadband providers the FCC says are available. The consumer can compare that number to his or her own sense of the competitive landscape, as well as the names of the carriers published by BroadbandCensus.com.

The site then invites visitors to Take the Broadband Census! This is a short questionnaire, and it is followed by a free Internet speed test. Each consumer that takes the census puts in their ZIP code, or their ZIP+4 code, selects their broadband carrier from a drop-down menu, and rates that company’s performance on a scale of one to five stars.

The consumer then has the opportunity to add their own comments about the carrier. They may then take a bandwidth speed test. Each of these steps adds data into BroadbandCensus.com. That means that the next visitor to the Website will be better informed about the availability, competition, speeds and customer service of their local broadband options. It also produces a free database of consumer data about more than 1,600 broadband carriers in the U.S.

BroadbandCensus.com also aims to aid policymakers crafting sensible broadband policies based on solid research. We have a contract with the Pew Internet and American Life Project to contribute our information and research to their annual broadband report, and we are working with other broadband researchers around the country.

Consider just three hot-button broadband issues: the Universal Service Fund; whether carriers are engaged in blocking or degrading Internet traffic; and ensuring that all sections of the country – rural as well as inner-city – are digitally included in our broadband world. Better data about competition, speeds and prices are necessary to craft each of these policies. This is what we aim to provide, free of charge, to policymakers on the federal, state and local level, as well as to the public at large.

BroadbandCensus.com is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License. That means that the contents of the site are available, for free, for all to view, copy, redistribute and reuse provided that attribution is made to BroadbandCensus.com, and that such use is done for non-commercial purposes. This is more than just legalese. It means that government agencies and university researchers can benefit from our platform showcasing the best and most accurate broadband data publicly available. State, county and regional development agencies, for example, may republish our data through their own Websites so long as they attribute it to BroadbandCensus.com.

Putting Carrier-Level Information Into BroadbandCensus.com

BroadbandCensus.com aims to collect information from the bottom up. This helps to keep the Internet consumer at the center of the broadband experience. But carriers are obviously integral to this process. We seek to build upon the relationships that we have with dozens of carriers. We also want to form new relationships with hundreds more carriers, such as yourselves. Rural carriers and other special providers of broadband are natural candidates to work with BroadbandCensus.com. We want to build constructive ties with all of you.

The data within BroadbandCensus.com is aggregated from at least four sources: (1) “bottom-up” data from consumers; (2) publicly available information about which providers offer broadband service within each ZIP code; (3) FCC data about the number of broadband providers in each ZIP code; and (4) local broadband information collected and published by state and county regulators.

We also seek information about the availability, prices and speeds that are offered by OPASTCO’s member carriers. Only individuals can make service ratings and measure actual Internet speeds, of course. But carriers are far more likely to have the most up-to-date information about the ZIP codes, and the ZIP+4 codes, in which they offer service. Carriers are also better suited to provide pricing data and information about the speed tiers that they offer to their consumers.

Would each of you be willing to provide us with information about the areas that you serve, the speeds at which you offer services, and the prices at which you sell those services?

Some carriers may resist the notion that they should provide information about where they offer service, let alone the prices at which they do so, on a public Website. Doing so, they believe, would simply aid their competitors. This kind of thinking isn’t uncommon in the business world today. But it is at odds with the notion of radical transparency being followed by many of the most successful technology and communications companies.

The April 2007 issue of Wired magazine cast a spotlight on this development. “You can’t hide anything anymore,” said Don Tapscott, co-author of The Naked Corporation, about corporate openness, as well as Wikinomics, in the piece. “Trying to hide something illicit – trying to hide anything, really – is an unwise gamble,” said Clive Thompson, author of the article entitled “The See-Through CEO.” “Transparency is a judo move,” Thompson continued. “Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway…so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”

BroadbandCensus.com agrees. Consumers are going to find out where you offer service. Indeed, they must know in order to get service! They will also find out whether or not you deliver on your promised speeds, and whether or not other customers out there are satisfied or dissatisfied. The Internet simply provides all of these individuals with the wherewithall – the virtual gathering space, if you will – to come together and talk about you. Transparency about broadband availability, competition, speeds and prices is the raison d’être for BroadbandCensus.com. But it doesn’t benefit anyone to close the doors of communication with you, the telecom carriers.

Take the issue of broadband pricing. Many different broadband service providers offer different bundles and pricing plans for different speeds and service options. This creates a myriad of choices involving voice and video (with many different channel options and prices), as well as additional services, such as wireless data, home security and maintenance services, etc. This complicated patchwork of options is one reason that BroadbandCensus.com has held off, for now, with systematically collecting “bottom up” data about broadband prices. Consumers are the best gauge of customer service – but they may not remember all of the services they take. They also may not accurately report the prices for the packages that they buy.

It would be better to get this pricing and bundle options information directly from carriers. We have built a back-end interface on BroadbandCensus.com that allows carriers who wish to participate the ability to upload information about locations, prices and offered speeds. We are still working on the best way to display prices within a particular ZIP code or ZIP+4 code. We are more than open to your suggestions on this matter.

Participation in the Broadband Census is completely optional. Carriers that choose not to participate are identified, on our Website, as “[Particular carrier] does not provide the Broadband Census with local Internet information.” When carriers do participate, that label does not appear.

Understanding the Speed Test

BroadbandCensus.com was officially launched on Jan. 31, 2008, and we launched the beta version of our speed test on Feb. 21, 2008. For our beta speed test, we use NDT, or the Network Diagnostic Tool, an open-source speed test under active development by the research consortium Internet2. We have assembled thousands of speed tests, census entries and comments from everyday Internet uses – all of which are freely accessible at BroadbandCensus.com. We are well aware of the great diversity of results obtained through our beta speed test. We understand that many variables, including network configuration, Internet congestion, and customer equipment, affect the actual speed test results. We strive to be as transparent as possible about the technology that we are using to conduct our speed tests, and to help publicize the methodology employed by our version of the NDT speed test.

Policy Agenda for a Broadband Census

BroadbandCensus.com builds on the momentum behind federal, state and local efforts to collect more detailed information about broadband. Consider that Rep. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has introduced legislation that would provide the public with better broadband information. Markey’s Broadband Census of America Act, H.R. 3919, has passed the House of Representatives and is still before the Senate.

In addition to providing money for state initiatives to map out broadband, the Broadband Census of America Act calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create a publicly available map of broadband deployment. The map would feature not only broadband availability, but also “each commercial provider or public provider of broadband service capability.”

Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.) has introduced S. 1190, the “Connect the Nation Act.” Durbin’s bill would authorize $40 million a year, for five years, for state efforts to map out broadband inventory on the census block level. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, (D-Hawaii) has introduced S. 1492, the Broadband Data Improvement Act, which takes a similar approach. The goal, stated in the identical language of both bills, is to “identify and track the availability and adoption of broadband services within each state.” Neither of these bills has cleared the chamber.

Additionally, the broadband data bills have been inspired by a growing movement in the states to map out broadband availability within their territories. This effort began with Connect Kentucky, a non-profit initiative designed to compile statistics about regional broadband deployment. In partnership with the regional Bell operating companies and cable operators, Connect Kentucky identified gaps in coverage and underserved areas. It is now replicating its efforts in Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and South Carolina. Other groups unconnected to Connect Kentucky are engaged in similar mapping efforts, including the California Broadband Task Force and Massachusetts Broadband Initiative.

Now the FCC will be drilling into broadband availability information in greater detail. On June 12, the agency released an order requiring broadband providers to report the number of subscribers they have, not only in each ZIP code (as has been required since 2000), but also in each Census tract.

This is a welcome development. We applaud those who have pushed the FCC to collect more granular data. As soon as the agency collects, and then releases, information about broadband availability within a particular Census tract, we will immediately include this additional information in BroadbandCensus.com. ZIP codes are larger than Census tracts, and Census tracts are larger than ZIP+4 codes. While BroadbandCensus.com currently displays data at the ZIP code level, in the future we will display data at the ZIP+4 code level – and that will also include the Census tract level. Knowing where broadband is and is not available is indeed the first step toward making sure that broadband truly is accessible to all Americans.

But availability alone doesn’t go far enough. The next steps include understanding broadband competition, broadband speeds and broadband prices. On this score, BroadbandCensus.com has criticized the FCC’s order as inadequate to help consumers know and understand their broadband options. Because the agency continues to exclude carrier information from the public data that it releases, Internet consumers are not likely to benefit from the more granular information collection. The FCC appears to acknowledge this limitation. The order included a “further notice” section in which the agency seeks comments on whether, and how, it should conduct information about delivered speeds and prices.

Conclusion

Fleshing out this complete picture – broadband availability, competition, speeds, prices and customer service – is the long-term goal of BroadbandCensus.com. By including the names of carriers, and by allowing consumers to rate their service quality, BroadbandCensus.com will enable Internet users to make true headto- head comparisons. We believe that these types of comparisons are an essential part of understanding connectedness, fostering a competitive Internet, and in building a national broadband strategy for America. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at drew at broadbandcensus.com.

Articles Referenced in this Article:

Digital Inclusion

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Debra Berlyn: Online Shopping is Here to Stay for Older Adults

Helpful tips for safe shopping this summer.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, executive director of Project GOAL

Summertime and online shopping can be easy – and safe – for everyone, particularly older adults.

As a result of the unexpected years of the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in consumers’ adoption of technology to purchase products and services. There has also been a growing acceptance of technology by older consumers who were forced to adopt an online existence as access to the outside world around them quickly shuttered.

Today, the aging community is growing more familiar and comfortable with technology.

Consumers continue to embrace e-commerce, spending $871.78 billion in 2021 in online transactions, a growth of over 14% from the previous year.  The pandemic also served to increase these dollars, particularly among older adults who recognized the ease, convenience, and safety of shopping from home.

A significant overall force in the marketplace, the “buying power potential” of older adults, in general, has been growing in the past decade. In 2018, consumers 50 and older spent $7.6 trillion, accounting for 56 percent of overall U.S. spending.

For older adults, the significant shift from traditional brick-and-mortar stores to online retail continues to move forward. The 65+ community has jumped into the game and today they wield ever-increasing online retail power.

In 2020, many of those 65+ were averaging $187 in online shopping per month.  It’s also clear the online shopping habits that started during COVID-19 are not going to disappear anytime in the near or distant future.

Unfortunately, just as online spending has increased, so have the opportunities for fraudsters to build new tactics to scam significant dollars from unsuspecting online users.  All consumers need to have the proper tools to ensure they can feel confident when engaging in online retail.

In particular, older adults will benefit from having clear information on how to shop safe online.

Solutions for Older Adults to Engage in E-Commerce with Tips to Stay Safe and Additional Resources

Seven Tips to Shop Safe Online:

1) Always use a trusted online shopping “store” for your purchases and beware of phony online shopping sites that often reside on social media sites and may offer enticing prices.

Beware of phony online shopping sites and check out any unfamiliar stores with the Better Business Bureau. Consider trusted online stores like Amazon, which offers an A-to-z Guarantee for items purchased on their site that can help resolve issues with third-party vendors.

2) It’s best to use a credit card for your purchases.

If you purchase an item on your credit card, you can always then dispute that charge. Federal law limits liability to $50 if there’s an unauthorized charge to your account, and if you report it to your credit card company as soon as you discover it, they often will remove it entirely.

3) Make sure you’re on a secure site when entering financial information during your purchase transactions.

Always make sure you’re on a secure site before entering financial or other sensitive information. Look for the address bar “http” to shift to “https” when asked to input financial information, such as a credit card number. This indicates it will be transmitted securely.

4) Protect your privacy and security.

Engage the privacy settings, “cookies” choices, and clear your history on a regular basis to avoid unwanted marketing from companies.

5) Watch out for online “phishing scams” that can target older adults.

Scammers use email or text messages that look like they’re from a company you know or trust, such as your bank, credit card company, or an online store. Phishing emails request your personal information, such as a log-in or Social Security number to verify your account, or may ask that you update your credit card payment.  Then they use that information to steal your personal and financial information.

To avoid a phishing scam, carefully check the email address to see if it’s from the company (the email address is often incorrect or is off by a letter or two). Some companies have implemented email verification technology to make it easier to identify legitimate emails. For example, if customers see the ‘Smile’ logo next to emails coming from an @amazon.com sender, that will indicate that the email came from Amazon – not a scammer.

Click here to see if your email provider supports this technology. A dose of healthy skepticism is in order if you receive any unsolicited emails asking for your personal and/or financial information.

6) Keep this adage in mind: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!

Be careful of unsolicited email come-ons and special deals that ask you to “click here.” They can take you to illegitimate sellers or scams.

7) Report any scams or fraud that you experience online.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC): Report a Fraud, Scam, or Problem with a Company:

For additional information on online shopping safety, check out these helpful websites: 

Debra Berlyn serves as the executive director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the president of Consumer Policy Solutions. She represented AARP on telecom issues and the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns.  She serves as vice chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and is on the board of the National Consumers League and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Rahul Sen Sharma: The Metaverse is Not Web 3.0

The Metaverse is at the forefront of developments in seamless payments and richer information flows.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Rahul Sen Sharma, managing partner at Indxx.

Web 3.0 is a concept for the next generation of internet architecture that envisions a decentralized ecosystem based on blockchain technology. It is an evolution of how users would control, own, and manage their online content, digital assets and identities.

Web 3.0 marks a departure from the centralized mega platforms and corporations that currently dominate the Web 2.0 ecosystem.

The Metaverse is at the forefront of the Web 3.0 internet revolution. It can be defined as a set of interconnected, experience driven 3D virtual worlds where users can socialize in real-time to form a persistent and thriving user-owned internet economy regardless of any physical or geographical constraints.

Both the technologies of Web 3.0 and Metaverse support each other perfectly. Even though the Metaverse is a virtual space whereas Web 3.0 favours a decentralized web, it could form the basis for connectivity in the Metaverse. While the development of the Metaverse is in nascent stages, the exponential growth of non-fungible tokens, P2E (Play to Earn) games and decentralised autonomous organisations have boosted the development of Web 3.0.

A future involving distributed and anonymous users

Web 3.0 envisions a future involving distributed anonymous users and machines interacting without the need for an intermediary, to form a composable human-centric and privacy preserving computing fabric.

These interactions would range from seamless payments and richer information flows, to trusted data transfers via a mechanism of peer-to-peer networks without the need for third parties.

The shift should lead to a wave of new business models that bypass the existing global co-operatives that we currently have, and replace them with decentralised, autonomous organisations and self-sovereign data marketplaces.

As mentioned, Web3 is built on blockchain technology and DAOs rather than the current model of centralized servers owned by large corporations. In the same way, the ideal structure of the Metaverse is also full decentralisation.

The technologies behind achieving decentralization would be distributed ledgers and blockchain technology which enables value-exchange between softwares, self-sovereign identities and the creation of a transparent and secure environment.

The blockchain is central to the Metaverse, and to Web 3.0

In an ideal form, both Web 3.0 and the Metaverse takes advantage of blockchain to give unrestricted, permissionless access to everyone with an internet connection.

Currently, development towards the Metaverse is being spearheaded by big tech corporations such as Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia, and more, all of which are major players in Web 2.0. The model of centralised Metaverse being built by them involves closed ecosystems that are only designed to extract value at the expense of their most valuable assets – users, content creators and customers.

This contrasts with the envisioned form of Metaverse and Web 3.0 with decentralization, interoperability and seamless interaction between different virtual worlds and the real world.

Still, the big tech corporations are investing resources into their Metaverse development and have their own vision and plans for what the Metaverse would be.

Meanwhile, decentralized Metaverses and Web3 initiatives are currently attracting record investment, pulling in around $30 billion in venture capital last year alone.

As we shift to what will likely be a more decentralized web, the creator economy is also evolving and likely to become a multibillion-dollar industry with immense potential for creators and publishers.

The creator economy in the Metaverse can supplement the vision of web 3.0 for developing a new financial world with decentralized solutions.

In Web 3.0, users can create content while owning, controlling, and monetizing them through the implementation of blockchain and cryptocurrencies. However, the model of this creator economy is likely to disrupt the business models of many current big-tech corporations.

Regardless, the Metaverse requires both big tech companies to build the technology and the creator economy to produce interesting content for driving engagement. Partnerships, reduced platform fees and creative commissions by big tech to creators within the metaverse can be a way to stimulate the already fast-growing creator economy.

Rahul Sen Sharma is a managing partner at Indxx and has been instrumental in leading the firm’s growth since 2011. He manages Indxx’s Sales, Client Engagement, Marketing and Branding teams while also helping to set the firm’s overall strategic objectives and vision. Prior to joining Indxx, Rahul was the Director of Investment Research for RR Advisory Group (now part of Mariner Wealth Advisors), a full service private wealth management firm based in New York that caters to high net worth individuals. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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