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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 has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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