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Obama’s Third Generation of Broadband Policy and the Universal Broadband Imperative

WASHINGTON, August 22, 2011 – The beauty of the internet has always been the disconnection of content and infrastructure.

Landline phone service was a one-to-one medium. It required the phone company’s infrastructure of wires and switches and telephones. Broadcast television was one-to-many. It relied upon the towers and transmitters of the broadcasters, plus a standard-issue television.

Let alone the fact that today we largely watch televisions connected to wires, and largely talk into mobile phones untethered to Ma Bell’s cords. There is the wealth of many-to-many communication through the multiplicity of applications that make the internet what it is today.

None of this, of course, is new – until one considers Washington’s subsidization schemes.

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WASHINGTON, August 22, 2011 – The beauty of the internet has always been the disconnection of content and infrastructure.

Landline phone service was a one-to-one medium. It required the phone company’s infrastructure of wires and switches and telephones. Broadcast television was one-to-many. It relied upon the towers and transmitters of the broadcasters, plus a standard-issue television.

Let alone the fact that today we largely watch televisions connected to wires, and largely talk into mobile phones untethered to Ma Bell’s cords. There is the wealth of many-to-many communication through the multiplicity of applications that make the internet what it is today.

None of this, of course, is new – until one considers Washington’s subsidization schemes.

What’s new is what’s next. And in the evolution of telecom and technology policy in Washington, a big debate is coming about the modernization of the Universal Service Fund into a Universal Broadband Fund.

Why the Internet’s Layers Need Each Other

There may be some yawns among those of you reading this. But think: we spend time online because of the content, the games, the Facebook updates and iPhone utilities that make us more productive or entertained or engaged. This is content. Think of it as the good stuff at the top of the internet layer cake.

Cut through the candles and the icing and we’re surrounded by internet protocols and open standards that, thank goodness, generally work well together. This is the “glue” that keeps us online.

All of the content and software and internet protocols rest on a physical base. This is the layer of wires, cell towers, “middle mile” connectivity and of transceivers that make all the connectivity possible.

This is infrastructure, and we need more of it. We need better and faster infrastructure. We need it to get us to universal broadband connectivity. And because broadband’s capabilities are always increasing and evolving, we’re going to get more good stuff on top of a layer cake with a bigger platform.

Obama’s First Two Broadband Eras

What about to happen is nothing less than a new era in Washington’s broadband policy.

There is no doubt that the 2008 presidential campaign opened up a dialogue on broadband. This was followed in early 2009 by congressional and executive branch action on broadband. And if we follow the guide of Moore’s law, in which technological progress marches forward with a new generation of processing power 18 months, we’re now entering Obama’s third generation broadband policy.

First, from the election until early 2010, we saw the “broadband stimulus.” The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed February 17, 2009, allocated approximately $7.2 billion for broadband investment. Although about $300 million of these funds were later rescinded by Congress, the vast bulk of these dollars were appropriated for infrastructure investments.

In particular, the U.S. Department of Commerce put a focus on high-speed “middle mile” connectivity through comprehensive community infrastructure investments that are now rolling forward throughout the states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was already experienced in administering broadband loans as part of its Rural Development portfolio, received significant new funding for remote-area broadband projects.

The Recovery Act also put in place the seeds of the next phase of Obama’s broadband policy — the National Broadband Plan. Issued in March 2010, the Federal Communication Commission’s plan had many critics. Some called it too ambitious, or at least too long at 376 pages. Others insisted its speed and coverage goals were not aggressive enough.

I think the plan’s brilliance lies in its framing. Its Part I on “Innovation and Investment” hearken to competition and spectrum policy. I’ll discuss Part II, “Inclusion,” and its focus on universal broadband in a moment. But in Part III, the National Broadband Plan put “national purposes” into a broadband focus. By linking Health Care, Education, Energy and the Environment, Economic Opportunity, Government Performance, Civic Engagement and Public Safety to better broadband, the plan did a real service. It set the agenda for the infrastructure of public and private institutions that are seeking to ensure that broadband is meaningfully used by all.

In turn, the FCC relied upon the work performed organizations such as the U.S. Broadband Coalition led by Jim Baller, by the Benton Foundation, and by the now-defunct Knight Center for Digital Excellence.

The Next Broadband Policy Topic: The Universal Broadband Fund

The next major battle over broadband policy will be over the future of the Universal Service Fund. It’s telling that the Universal Service Fund spends more than $8 billion each year on providing telephone connectivity to rural areas, and also to low-income individuals. Two other components of the Universal Service Fund offer internet connectivity to schools and libraries, and to hospitals and health care centers. This amounts to more, on an annual basis, than Obama’s one-time investment in broadband infrastructure.

How the Universal Service Fund should be reconfigured is, as of now, up for grabs. The existing mechanisms in the Universal Service Fund have been criticized by academics and by economists. In their eyes, it wasn’t cost-effective at meeting its telephone-connectivity mandate. Now the mandate itself needs to be different.

At the Broadband Breakfast Club last month, “Making the Universal Service Fund into a Universal Broadband Fund,” BroadbandBreakfast.com hosted experts from a range of stakeholders, including Russell Hanser of Wilkinson Barker Knauer, Hank Hultquist, vice president of federal regulation for AT&T, Joshua Seidemann, director of policy for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, Michael Spead, senior technical specialist for broadband at ICF International, and Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Three key points emerged from the debate.

First, unlike plain old phone service, there is a multiplicity of technologies, and a multiplicity of business models, in broadband connectivity. That means the government needs to be clearer about what it wants when it comes to universal broadband, said Hank Hultquest of AT&T.

Second, not every consumer is going to wants or needs a land-line phone. A new broadband connectivity fund may identify consumer and offer them a choice between land-line phones, mobile phones, or broadband access, said Darrell West of Brookings.

Finally, several panelists alluded to the possibility of a new digital divide: between low-speed broadband, such as 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) or less, and higher-speed broadband, such as 45 Mbps.

Watch the debate online.

Remember that getting to universal broadband connectivity, by itself, won’t do anything. Just as telephone wires and broadcast towers’ value was limited by the people with whom you could talk, or the shows that you could watch.

But because of the internet’s protean nature, and because of the vastness of its nooks and crannies of content, it is and will remain far more useful and important for individuals, for businesses and for the anchor institutions of our society.

Making sure that the good things offered by the internet are available and accessed by all is the true next challenge for our nation’s broadband policy.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group the Self-Insurance Institute of America. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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Education

FTC Approves Policy Statement on Guiding Review of Children’s Online Protection

The policy statement provides the guiding principles for which the FTC will review the collection and use of children’s data online.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2022 – The Federal Trade Commission last week unanimously approved a policy statement guiding how it will enforce the collection and use of children’s online data gathered by education technology companies.

The policy statement outlines four provisions in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, including ones related to limiting the amount of data collected for children’s access to educational tools; restricting types of data collected and requiring reasons for why they are being collected; prohibiting ed tech companies from holding on to data for speculative purposes; and prohibiting the use of the data for targeted advertising purposes.

“Today’s statement underscores how the protections of the COPPA rule ensure children can do their schoolwork without having to surrender to commercial surveillance practices,” said FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan at an open meeting on Thursday.

Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter added Thursday that although COPPA provides the strongest data minimization rule in US law, it’s enforcement may not be as strong, saying that “this policy statement is timely and necessary.”

Slaughter, who was the acting FTC chairwoman before Khan was approved to lead the agency, said last year that the commission was taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to tackling privacy and data collection practices of ed tech companies, which has seen a boom in interest since the start of the pandemic.

Thursday’s statement comes after lawmakers have clamored for big technology companies to do more to prevent the unnecessary collection of children’s data online. It also comes after President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address earlier this year that companies must be held accountable for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

Lawmakers have already pushed legislation that would reform COPPA – originally published in 1998 to limit the amount of information that operators could collect from children without parental consent – to raise the age for online protections for children.

Thursday’s FTC statement also seeks to scrutinize unwarranted surveillance practices in education technology, such as geographic locating or data profiling. Khan added that though endless tracking and expansive use of data have become increasingly common practices, companies cannot extend these practices into schools.

Review is nothing new

“Today’s policy statement is nothing particularly new,” said Commissioner Noah Phillips, saying that the review started in July 2019.

Commissioner Christine Wilson, while supporting the statement, was also more withdrawn about its impact. “I am concerned that issuing policy statements gives the illusion of taking action, especially when these policy statements break no new ground.”

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Health

Digital Literacy Training Needed for Optimal Telehealth Outcomes, Healthcare Reps Say

Digital literacy should be a priority to unlock telehealth’s potential, a telehealth event heard.

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Photo of telehealth consultation from Healthcare IT News

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – Digital literacy training should be a priority for providers and consumers to improve telehealth outcomes, experts said at a conference Tuesday.

Digital literacy training will unlock telehealth’s potential to improve health outcomes, according to the event’s experts, including improving treatment for chronic diseases, improving patient-doctor relationships, and providing easier medical access for those without access to transportation.

Julia Skapik of the National Association of Community Health Centers said at the National Telehealth Conference on Tuesday that both patients and clinicians need to be trained on how to use tools that allow both parties to communicate remotely.

Skapik said her association has plans to implement training for providers to utilize tech opportunities, such as patient portals to best engage patients.

Ann Mond Johnson from the American Telemedicine Association agreed that telehealth will improve health outcomes by giving proper training to utilize the technology to offer the services.

The Federal Communications Commission announced its telehealth program in April 2021, which set aside $200 million for health institutions to provide remote care for patients.

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