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Recovery Act

With Stimulus Fight Complete, Advocates Shift Focus to Universal Service

WASHINGTON, February 16, 2009 – With $7.2 billion in fiscal stimulus grants and loans marked to expand broadband infrastructure, industry groups, consumer advocates and some state regulators are supporting a proposal to fund broadband for low income households by tapping into the Universal Service Fund.

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WASHINGTON, February 16, 2009 – With $7.2 billion in fiscal stimulus grants and loans marked to expand broadband infrastructure, industry groups, consumer advocates and some state regulators are supporting a proposal to fund broadband for low income households by tapping into the Universal Service Fund.

Thus far, the USF established by the Federal Communications Commission principally funds universal telephone service (and internet connections for schools and libraries), although there are numerous concerted efforts to extend USF monies to broadband.

The USF is funded by assessments on voice telephone service and administered by a Federal-State board of regulatory commissioners.

Last November, the FCC sought comment on a proposal supported by then-Chairman Kevin Martin for a pilot program that would subsidize broadband internet to low-income households.

Martin’s proposal would make broadband Internet providers meet eligibility criteria for the USF’s Lifeline and Link Up funds. The programs are used to offset the cost of both monthly telephone service and connection charges for households that fall under a certain income threshold.

The Martin plan was put forward after TracFone, a reseller of prepaid wireless service, became the first wireless company eligible to receive Lifeline subsidies. Rick Brecker, a Greenberg Traurig attorney who represents TracFone before the FCC, told the audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference here that the company’s success at providing subsidized voice service made it natural to look at doing something similar with wireless broadband.

Several consumer groups filed comments in support of TracFone’s petition. And NARUC’s telecommunications committee is considering a resolution sponsored by D.C. Public Service Commissioner Betty Ann Kane supporting a modified version of the two year, $30 million program suggested by Martin.

Free Press research director Derek Turner said his organization supports both the FCC pilot and the NARUC resolution, but called the both proposed $300 million cost of the pilot and 40 percent target adoption rate “a fantasy.” Turner suggested the true cost of a program on the scale Martin envisioned would require spending $1 billion over two years.

But a more modest proposal for using the $300 million could provide service for 812,000 homes that don’t currently subscribe to broadband services, Turner said. Because “broadband is no longer a luxury,” Turner said Free Press believes any increase in the use of broadband – “a technology that is vital for any individual to effectively participate in today’s world” – is worth pursuing,

Computer and Communications Industry Association Vice President Cathy Sloan called increased broadband service — whether via digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, or wireless, would be “a component of a more enlightened public policy.” But any FCC program should be “harmonized” with the grants funded under the stimulus package.

Sloan cautioned the state commissioners at the NARUC meeting that broadband providers need not currently be eligible to receive funds under USF programs. And start-up companies that use new technologies should not have to pay into the fund to receive funds, she said. “New and more efficient business models should not be walled off [from the program].”

But Sloan warned against adopting too broad a definition of “Internet access devices” — a category that could conceivably include smart phones. “We don’t need to be subsidizing iPhones and Blackberries,” she said.

The current FCC definitions for Lifeline service are obsolete, said AT&T regulatory counsel Beth Fujimoto. “Existing programs are very POTS-centric,” she said, using industry slang for Plain Old Telephone Service.

Regulators shouldn’t make broadband service follow rules designed for the voice era, Fujimoto said, calling for an FCC rulemaking to establish a new “Lifeline service provider” category.

Asking if any in the audience feared a return to rotary phones in the absence of rules mandating touch tones, Fujimoto called for a broad overhaul of the Lifeline program. “We really need to take a fresh look at what services should be offered.”

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Broadband Mapping

In Discussing ‘Broadband and the Biden Administration,’ Trump and Obama Transition Workers Praise Auctions

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Screenshot from the November 2 Broadband Breakfast Live Online webcast

November 22, 2020 – In the event that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden seeks substantial funding for broadband infrastructure, there is a strong likelihood that such monies would be channeled through a reverse-auction mechanism, said panelists at the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on November 11.

See more from Broadband Breakfast Live Online, including “Broadband and the Biden Administration, Part II,” on December 2, 2020.

In a discussion with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, two broadband policy experts who served on the transition teams for Donald Trump and Barack Obama, respectively, championed the role of such a mechanism as efficient and fair.

Previous attempts to run funding through other selection processes provided funds only to the well connected, claimed to Mark Jamison, research and education director at the University of Florida, and who served on then President-elect Trump’s 2016 transition team.

Places with a Democratic governor or a congressman of either party that sat on a powerful committee were funded more often compared to other regions, Jamison said.

Whether or not funding mechanisms were in fact biased in that way, both Jamison and Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten both praised the transparency and economic efficiency of the Federal Communications Commission’s reverse-auction funding mechanism.

Wallsten, an economist who was involved in the transition for then President-elect Obama, and who also served on the National Broadband Plan implemented in the first year of the Obama administration, criticized the Rural Utility Service and the old funding process of Universal Service Fund. Both said under these mechanism, a lot of money is spent without good information about how such funds are awarded or distributed.

Wallsten and Jamison agreed that more data would help make broadband funding more effective, they also said that the FCC was right to move forward with its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction on October 29 – part of the new auction-based approach to the Universal Service Fund – despite imperfect mapping.

In part, this was because any inadequacy of mapping data can be resolved in the challenge process, said Wallsten. Additionally, it is not clear that auctions like RDOF, or the Connect American Fund auction in 2018, would have yielded better results had the FCC waited to update their maps.

Jamison and Wallston also projected how the Biden administration might tackle net neutrality, Section 230 and antitrust regulation.

Jamison said that if the Biden administration reinstitutes net neutrality, it will quickly see that that won’t work very well.

Wallsten said that if it’s reinstituted the debate will be different than in the past. A large part of net neutrality is paid prioritization where third parties can pay ISP’s to put their content “at the front of the line.” He said that the pandemic has demonstrated why no paid prioritization may be a mistake, as many people need guarantees of stable connection for their schooling and telehealth applications.

Wallsten also noted that many made doom and gloom forecasts when the Trump administration FCC removed net neutrality protections in December 2017. None of those predictions came to pass, he said.

Both also agreed that the FCC should not be involved the regulation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from liability for user-generated comments.

They also were wary of changes to the consumer welfare standard governing antitrust because, said Jamison, “If you’re not regulating for consumers, who are we regulating for?”

See “Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, November 11: Broadband and the Biden Administration,” Broadband Breakfast

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National Broadband Plan

National Broadband Plan Has Held Up Well, With Notable Downsides, Say Authors

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Photo of Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan, by New America used with permission

June 29, 2020 — The National Broadband Plan has been successful, despite notable downsides, said panelists in a Federal Communications Bar Association webinar on Friday.

The plan, first released ten years ago, aimed to increase competition, provide lower-cost service to more Americans and decrease regulatory barriers to broadband rollout.

“Ten years in this space in terms of technology is remarkable,” said Rebekah Goodheart of Jenner & Block. “At the time only 15 percent of people had access… of 25 megabits… The fact that this plan was able to stand up through time shows how visionary it really was.”

“All the stuff that we’re taking for granted now are things that came out of recommendations from the plan,” she added.

Participants noted that, despite broadband access deficiencies amid the coronavirus, “overall broadband adoption rates [are] going up reasonably well right now,” said John Horrigan, Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

But there are still significant barriers to unfettered telework capabilities, he said.

“We’re also waking up to the fact that smartphones, as useful as they are, have significant limitations for completing homework,” he said.

Ruth Milkman of Quadra Partners agreed.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do on a smartphone,” she said. “It’s hard to read papers… and there are data caps, and it can be quite expensive if you try to use it in the same way that you would use a fixed wireline network.”

Blair Levin, non-resident Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Project of the Brookings Institution, said that sections of the National Broadband Plan held up remarkably well, even ten years later.

“In the healthcare section which says, ‘We really need to utilize telehealth because someday there’ll be a pandemic’… it does look very prophetic,” he said.

Despite the proactivity of the policy, Levin said, it has certain shortcomings that the FCC should address.

“We’ve become much more aware in this society of different ways in which our institutions do not include everyone and lead to inequalities,” he said. “I would argue that absolutely needs to be a new plan… now it’s more important than ever because we recognize the importance of closing that digital divide.”

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Digital Inclusion

Authors of the 2010 National Broadband Plan Say That a ‘Refresh’ Should Not Only Be Up to FCC

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Photo of INCOMPAS policy summit panelists discussing the National Broadband Plan by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2020 – Panelists at the INCOMPAS policy summit Tuesday looked back with fondness on the Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan that was released 10 years ago this month. They agreed that if the plan is refreshed, the FCC should not be the lone agency to lead in the changes.

The 10-year-old plan was designed to “ensure robust competition” and “maximize the benefits of broadband,” while fostering the spread of broadband across the country, said INCOMPAS General Counsel Angie Kronenberg.

New Street Research Policy Analyst Blair Levin, who led the plan’s development, called it a “three-act play.”

The first act was the hiring people. The second act was holding hearings and acquiring data. The third act was an extensive writing process, Levin said.

When asked how the United States is doing in regards to the plan, Levin said there have been great improvements and some complications.

Mattey Consulting Principal Carol Mattey who worked on the plan, said it was a “long and evolutionary process,” that often required “nitty gritty details” from complex concepts.

Technology Policy Institute Senior Fellow John Horrigan, who also worked on the plan, said that while the statistics do not show a large increase in Americans that have wireline broadband at home, smart phones and mobile devices have made a huge difference.

Even so, Horrigan admitted that for children who have to do homework at home, smart phones are not enough.

However, Horrigan said the way that policy makers understand and think about the digital divide has improved.

A decade ago, city mayors were not concerned about digital inclusion, and now that has changed, said Horrigan.

Levin disclosed his frustration with the “metrics” section of the plan. The availability of bandwidth should not hinder economic growth, said Levin. But, “fundamentally we’ve made progress,” Levin admitted.

“The regulatory process is too slow to catch up,” and legislators are hesitant to look so far in the future while also considering cost concerns, said Mattey.

Looking ahead to a possible refresh of the plan, Horrigan said the FCC should not be the sole organization reworking the document.

Levin agreed and added that broadband has changed over the past decade as well. He called broadband a “mixed bag.”

The whole federal government should be thinking about how to revive the plan and take into consideration cybersecurity and privacy, Levin advised.

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