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Aspen Review: Questions Posed by the Expanding Participation of a Many-to-Many Age

August 21 – It’s worthwhile to step back and examine the so-called digital revolution with an eye towards the future of innovation after the Progress and Freedom Foundation’s summit in Aspen, Colorado. What were the essential questions asked by the summit discussants? What are possible answers?

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August 21 – Looking back at three productive and engaging days at the Progress and Freedom Foundation’s Aspen Summit, it’s worthwhile to step back and examine the so-called digital revolution with an eye towards the future of innovation. What were the essential questions asked by the summit discussants? What are possible answers? I’d like to contextualize the issues that arose in regards to the mission of BroadbandCensus.com.

The stated goal of the Aspen Summit was to discover the contemporary keys to innovation. The market and policy issues addressed as a part of this discovery included online copyright enforcement, targeted web advertising, network traffic management, innovation and global economic competitiveness — and broadband connectivity in the US and around the world. While many of these issues have been around for a while, internet users, innovators and policy makers are confronting them today in substantively new ways.

The best way to sum up what’s new: internet communications have reached a new stage of maturity as a many to many medium. John Horrigan opened the Summit by reporting that 40% of internet users are also contributors to the medium. While the digital revolution may be old and champions of the web have always claimed it to be a democratizing technology, the emergence of the web as a true many-to-many medium is quite recent and still under development.

Discussants at Aspen from both the private and public sector were keenly aware of this profound evolution in the digital realm. Their analysis focused on two key characteristics of the many-to-many web: the renewed potential for monetization and the emerging scarcity of bandwidth.

There’s a sense in which both of these factors drive each other: profits are promised for those who can deliver bandwidth-intensive services, and bandwidth-intensive services offer new opportunities for profits through revenue streams like advertising. But I’d like to step-back and consider these factors separately, which is, in effect, what was undertaken at the Aspen Summit.

The first full day of the summit considered the following digital issues: protecting IP, liability and enforcement, and advertising and privacy. We can trace the emergence of all of these issues back to the potential for enhanced profits that now characterizes the many-to-many internet. Participants at Aspen were essentially asking what the new revenue streams will be in the many-to-many age, how can they be protected, and what are the political and legal boundaries that might restrain them? Further proof that we’ve only now entered the “many-to-many age”: In panel after panel, discussants focused on turning to the users for answers to these questions.

Cooperation, consensus, and communication were heralded repeatedly by both private-sector stakeholders and policy makers. Both groups also expressed interest in user-generated solutions to the many issues that will arise as new revenue streams are pursued online. As the many-to-many web matures and John Horrigan’s 40% turns into 60% and higher, these industry leaders will have no excuse for not following through on their promise to engage.

Day two at Aspen then considered the implications of a bandwidth-scarce digital age. If the monetization discussed on day one is to become a reality, then how can enhanced services in the digital medium be sustained and expanded?

Panelists focused on engaging with the global marketplace, fostering innovation in the US, and ensuring investment in expanded networks around the world. These, of course, are broad objectives and discussants offered many, and sometimes conflicted, answers to the question of how to achieve them.

For example, engaging with the Chinese marketplace offers a great opportunity to extend the many-to-many web and its profits. But that engagement will put further pressure on the necessary management of intellectual property. Many participants at the summit also agreed that network traffic management practices would be a larger part of the bandwidth-scarce many-to-many web, but there were unanswered questions regarding how “deep” these methods (e.g., “deep packet inspection”) should go before they encroach upon issues of privacy and competition. Everyone was interested in expanding networks to alleviate scarcity issues, there were also disagreements over how to achieve this expansion while preserving a competitive marketplace that will continue to facilitate innovation.

It’s no surprise that network expansion is also the core interest of BroadbandCensus.com, but the mission to develop better data on broadband connectivity is one that digs deeper than the current policy options. BroadbandCensus.com seeks accurate and transparent data to better inform the web and its users. It should also come as no surprise that in the age of many-to-many, the user is essential to this mission.

The defining information and communication policy debates for the forseeable future (and I don’t claim to see that far) will be over how to profit from and expand the many-to-many Internet. Some may argue that this is just the answer: “if the many-to-many internet is profitable, it will expand.” But I think at the heart of discussions at the Aspen Summit were concerns over the restraints on profit and expansion to which the market simply doesn’t offer a good answer.

Conflicts over privacy, property, competition and freedom of speech will expand just as the many-to-many web does. The summit engaged policy makers and industry leaders on these very issues. The issues remain, but strides were made towards more closely defining shared-interests, values, and policy objectives for the contemporary many-to-many web.

Expert Opinion

Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

Christopher Ali discusses his solutions to bridge the rural-urban digital divide in his most recent book, “Farm Fresh Broadband.”

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Professor Christopher Ali

By Christopher Ali

During my rural broadband road trip, one provider recalled a story of trying to convince his community to adopt fiber-to-the-home. In response, someone said, “You mean like bran flakes at my house every morning? What do you mean fiber to my home?”

In today’s connected world, broadband is as essential as bran flakes—one item in a nutritional toolkit of rural community development. Current policies do not encourage us to eat our digital fiber. Instead, money, markets, politics, and profits will define the forthcoming pages in this book. We will delve deep into the market failures of rural communication; we will learn how federal policies prioritize large telecommunications companies at the expense of small ISPs and co-ops.

We will see how many of these companies deliver only the legally required minimum speeds rather than treat these minimums as a floor to build on.

As much as rural broadband policy is a story of failure, it is also one of ingenuity and innovation in America’s heartland. It is here where we find some of the successes of rural broadband—like Luverne, Minnesota, seat of Rock County, whose leaders risked a $1 million bond to bring fiber-optic broadband to the county, or the PRTC (originally the People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative), which brought fiber-optic broadband to McKee, Kentucky, one of the poorest communities in the state.

These are the local companies and cooperatives more interested in serving their members and communities with a public service than earning a short-term return on investment. And there are many who are in need of these providers, like farmers and growers, who are all too often left out of the conversation, but for whom broadband to the farm would mean a new era of agriculture.

The story of rural broadband in the United States is equally one of failure and one of promise. “Farm Fresh Broadband” captures both, all the while reminding the reader that as much as technology policy is enacted in Washington, D.C., it is lived throughout the country.

Rural broadband policy, like all public policy, is a living, breathing, and changing creature, which means that, with the right attention and coaxing, we can make it work for the people who need it most.

Also see Broadband Breakfast’s interview with Christopher Ali

Christopher Ali is Associate Professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He is the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World.” This piece is excerpted by Ali from his latest work, “Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity,” which is available at the MIT Press.

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

Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline

The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society

In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.

As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.

In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.

The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.

And it needs to act before December 1.

Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.

Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.

First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.

Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.

Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.

  • The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
  • Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
  • The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.

Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.

Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.

The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.

Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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

Sen. Michael Bennet: Broadband Infrastructure Legislation Follows Colorado Model

Senate-passed legislation for broadband investment inspired by Colorado’s experience, says senator.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado

Washington may soon make the biggest broadband investment in U.S. history, and the first draft was written in Colorado.

Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a historic $65 billion for broadband. This section draws directly from the BRIDGE Act, the bill I wrote with Coloradans to reflect our state’s struggles and successes against the digital divide.

Long before the pandemic, broadband was a consistent source of frustration for people across our state. Parents on the Front Range, farmers on the Eastern Plains, and nurses on the Western Slope all told me the same thing: broadband was too slow or expensive to be of any practical use.

Too often, Washington’s answer was to shower the biggest telecom companies with billions in subsidies to build networks, usually in rural areas, that were outdated almost as soon as they were finished. At the same time, Washington had no good answer for working families, many in cities, who couldn’t afford existing broadband options.

As usual, Colorado didn’t wait on Washington to act. Cities created their own municipal networks, like Longmont’s NextLight, which PC Magazine named one of the fastest broadband providers in America. Electric coops like the Delta-Montrose and Yampa Valley Electric Associations deployed fiber-optic networks in rural communities at world-class speeds and prices. Through it all, the Colorado government demonstrated that it could get money out the door for broadband faster and more effectively than Washington.

With these lessons in mind, I wrote the BRIDGE Act with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio and Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King from Maine. Our bill became the model for the broadband provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now on the cusp of becoming law.

Based on the BRIDGE Act, the infrastructure bill gives the lion’s share of the broadband funding to states, not Washington. This is a sea change in policy, because it puts states and local leaders — not federal bureaucrats — in the driver’s seat. After all, they have the best understanding of needs on the ground and the greatest incentive to spend limited funds wisely.

Second, the bill more than quadruples the minimum speeds for new broadband networks, while prioritizing even faster networks. For a typical family, this means kids could download homework (or stream Netflix) even as parents work remotely — all without their connection slowing to a crawl.

Third, the bill includes $2 billion for broadband on tribal lands, including the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute here in Colorado. According to the FCC, one in three homes on tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband — a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country. Closing this gap is an economic and moral imperative.

Finally, the infrastructure bill prioritizes affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option. Inexplicably, Washington has never insisted on this before. And it can’t come soon enough.

All of these ideas came directly from the BRIDGE Act and what I’ve learned from Colorado. Now we have to pass them into law.

If we do, it would represent the biggest broadband investment in our history, but also one of the most transformative investments in our future. It will mean every worker in our mountain communities can connect remotely for their jobs. It will mean every farmer and rancher can deploy the latest technologies for precision agriculture. It will mean every family can connect with their doctors online, instead of traveling hours to the local clinic. And it will mean no student will be left without broadband, which today is no different than leaving them without textbooks.

We are on the verge of connecting every American to affordable, high-speed broadband. And if we succeed, we can take satisfaction in knowing that Colorado led the way.

Michael Bennet is U.S. Senator from Colorado. This piece was originally published in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel, and is reprinted with permission.

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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