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Recovery Act

Industry, State, Nonprofit Groups Urge Changes to Broadband Stimulus Programs

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2009 – A number of groups took the opportunity Monday to weigh in on the government’s efforts to distribute the $7.2 billion allotted by Congress in January to expand broadband deployment and adoption.

“Many of our nation’s most experienced broadband providers were forced to sit on the sidelines during the first round of funding,” said U.S. Telecom Association President Walter McCormick Jr., in a Monday statement.

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WASHINGTON, November 30, 2009 – A number of groups took the opportunity Monday to weigh in on the government’s efforts to distribute the $7.2 billion allotted by Congress in January to expand broadband deployment and adoption.

“Many of our nation’s most experienced broadband providers were forced to sit on the sidelines during the first round of funding,” said U.S. Telecom Association President Walter McCormick Jr., in a Monday statement.

“We are hopeful that now—with the wisdom of experience—we can make some changes that allow more of the broadband community to contribute and help achieve the important goals set by Congress to create jobs and spark economic growth by expanding the availability of broadband,” he said.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service are administering the broadband funds. Broadband Census News reported in November that the agencies planned to complete the first round of funding by the end of 2009, but due to delays, they now plan to so by February 2010.

The agencies also plan to then limit the remaining grant awards to one more round of funding, which they recently said “will begin early in 2010.” All stimulus funding for the broadband initiatives must be distributed by September 30, 2010, according to a statutory deadline set by Congress.

The National Telecommunications Cooperative Association on Monday asked the agencies to delay grant awards for the Broadband Initiatives Program and Broadband Technology Opportunities Program until March 2010 “to provide the agencies more time to investigate and rectify the known flaws associated with the first NOFA and ensure it meets in the agencies’ objectives.”

The U.S. Telecom Association, the trade association that represents broadband service providers – including AT&T and Verizon Communications – and their manufacturers, recommended that the two agencies target unserved areas and “urges the NTIA not to exceed the scope of existing FCC policy on non-discrimination and interconnection obligations.”

USTA said that “other roadblocks include restrictions on the sale of assets and the duration and breadth of program-related requirements.”

The association also would like NTIA and RUS to “require each applicant to demonstrate both the technical and financial ability to complete the proposed project and to ensure the sustainability of the project after funds have been awarded.” The association further said in official filings to the agencies that it would like to see steps taken to improve program transparency.

NTCA, an association that representing locally-owned and controlled telecommunications cooperatives and commercial companies, would like the agencies to “modify the point system relating to the proportion of rural residents served in unserved areas” and reconsider the definition of what it means to be a remote rural Areas. NTCA advocates revising the system that currently provides equal weight to last and middle mile, to make middle mile just five points and last mile 10 points.

Also on Monday, the American Library Association said it would like the agencies to simplify the application and review process and prioritize funding for “community anchor institutions.”

“Libraries are uniquely positioned to deliver on the promise and objectives of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the Broadband Initiatives Program,” said Carrie McGuire, director for the program on networks for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, in a statement. “We strongly encourage the NTIA and RUS to make changes to the program prior to Round 2 to ensure that libraries can take maximum advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

Also weighing into the thrall was the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which on Monday said it believed that there are several ways the agencies can improve the application and review process.

“This can be achieved primarily by streamlining the application process, especially by removing the requirement that applicants submit a list of census blocks for large projects and simplifying the online service area mapping process; revising the rules so that BTOP applicants proposing coverage in rural areas are not required to also apply to BIP; increasing transparency, particularly with respect to the application review process and incumbent provider coverage challenges; improving outreach and support; and using only agency or contracted staff to review applications,” according to documents filed on behalf of Massachusetts. (RUS – NTIA Joint RFI Comments from Massachusetts EOHED; Cover letter for joint RFI comments from Massachusetts EOHED.)

“Massachusetts believes that the RUS and the NTIA should prioritize projects that will deliver highperformance broadband service to anchor institutions, especially public safety sites. Priority should be given to middle-mile projects that have a “comprehensive community” approach, promote regional economic development, and address last-mile solutions …The NTIA and the RUS should also provide more information about how provider coverage challenges are evaluated and weighed, and challenges to proposals for deploying infrastructure through served census blocks should be precluded if the purpose is simply to transport the public Internet into unserved and underserved areas,” according to the filing.

Winter covered technology policy issues for five-and-a-half years as a reporter for the National Journal Group. She has worked for USA Today, the Washington Times, the Magazine Group, the State Department’s International Visitor’s Program, and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. She also taught English at a university in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Broadband Mapping

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

Liana Sowa

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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

Elijah Labby

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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

Adrienne Patton

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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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