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Broadband's Impact

On Broadband: At the Beginning of a Cycle, a Low-Controversy Federal Communications Commission

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WASHINGTON, December 16, 2013 – Last Thursday’s testimony, by the full group of Federal Communications Commissioners at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, restores the pulse of the nation’s technology and communications policy issues to a “low-tension” state.

We’ve seen this perennial cycle before: first, an issue stirs immense conflict among the agency’s five members. Next, that issue incites intervention by the agency’s congressional overseers. Extensive inter-industry lobbying follows, generally resulting in a pre-emptive rule-making by a majority of FCC commissioners. Soon enough, the five-year term of one or more members of the FCC expires. The tension with Congress is too high for the President and/or the Senate to nominate and confirm a new commissioner. Thus ensures – most of the time – a long period of near-dormancy by the agency. Finally, the tension is broken, mew commissioners are confirmed, and balance in the universe is once again restored.

This has played out dramatically in recent years. Here are a few examples the teleco-political conflict cycle:

  • The triennial review of competition under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It incited full-scale war between the long-distance provider AT&T (who lost) and the Baby Bells (who won);
  • Divisive mandates — ultimately killed — that would have required technology companies to stymie potential copyright thievery;
  • Cable networks and broadcasters duking out the details in the transition to digital television, with an upper hand by big cable;
  • Network neutrality mandates, pitting Google and internet search giants and the broadband barons, a battle is still in court;
  • The need to address a perceived shortfall in the nation’s broadband capacity, an issue still simmering in the marketplace and in the legislature.

As we’re in a new beginning of the “low-tension” state, it’s hard to find any issue of this caliber perplexing the FCC. However, last week’s testimony by the full group of five commissioners – complete with the newly-confirmed Chairman Tom Wheeler, and new commissioner Mike O’Reilly – offers a handful of sleeper issues that might ultimately break out of the box and become an issue of unusual conflict through the next telecommunications policy cycle.

Broadcast Television Spectrum Incentive Auction in 2015

One of Chairman Wheeler’s first actions at the agency has been to do what many thought was inevitable: pushing the next-phase auction of broadband television spectrum to mid-2015 from 2014. Called for in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, this auction is a natural progression from the world in which we once received television broadcasts over the air, and took telephone calls tethered to wires. Now, we largely watch television over cable wires, and make calls through wireless cell phones.

Of course, we do a lot more through wireless services. Wireless data to smart phones are increasingly responsible for the television-viewing habits of the next generation. Often dubbed “millennials,” this group has no concept of traditional “over the air” television. Ironically enough, however, much of their video consumption is over third-generation or fourth-generation wireless networks.

All of this usage of video and data via mobile broadband highlights the increasing need to entice, cajole, and insist that broadband television stations yield up their most precious asset — wireless frequencies– to a cellular and technology company that will actually do something useful with that spectrum.

After significant auctions of wireless frequencies once used by broadcasters over the past half-decade, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan in 2010 called for an even more aggressive approach: an auction in which broadcasts can offer up their spectrum for purchase by wireless companies. The once wildly-controversial has become sanely sensible. At last Thursday’s hearing, it was hard to detect any unsettled opposition to this from the agency’s commissioners. That may change as we progress toward the auction’s details over the next 18 months.

Continuing Toward a Universal Broadband Fund

The steps toward a Connect America Fund, and a Mobility Fund, continue at the FCC. Coupled with the June 2013 announcement of the new ConnectED program, for ensuring high-speed broadband connections for educational institutions, we now have a complete revision of the traditional Universal Service Fund programs. These past two years’ changes to this recurring USF, funded by fees on telephone bills, are still working their way through an interim stage. And, with the announcement earlier this month that nearly 30 percent of the funds allocated for traditional telecommunications carriers are in question, there’s a lot of room for uncertainty that may escalate toward greater conflict in the program.

Is the Internet Protocol Transition About IP Services?

Following the hearing on Capitol Hill, the commissioners returned to their agency’s home in the Southwest part of the city for its monthly meeting. It included items on improving 911 reliability, beginning the process to allow mobile data services on aircraft, and the agency’s proposal to ensure mobile phone unlocking. These issues are in the mature phase of the telecommunications policy life-cycle. One issue discussed at the agency’s meeting that appears to be in the beginning phases of development is the so-called transition to internal protocol services.

Transition to IP services? Hasn’t this been going on for some time? Naturally. Hence, the IP transition issue isn’t about new services — it’s about cutting off the public-switched telephone network, and how soon that can be done without upsetting the communications needs of late-adopters. Look for much more controversy as this issue develops. It even become a signature issue if telecommunications legislation begins to get traction in the new year.

Drew Clark is Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at http://twitter.com/broadbandcensus. Nationally recognized for his knowledge on telecommunications law and policy, Clark brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband: job creation, telemedicine, online learning, public safety, the smart grid, eGovernment, and family connectedness. Clark is also available on Google+ and Twitter.

Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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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Broadband's Impact

Senate Bill Subsidizing U.S. Semiconductor Production Clears House, Going to White House

Bill aims to strengthen American self-reliance in semiconductor chip production and international competition.

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Photo of Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, during Tuesday's press conference

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2022 – A $54 billion bill to subsidize U.S-made semiconductor chips passed the House Thursday on a 243-187, and moves to President Biden for his expected signature.

Dubbed the CHIPS Act for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act for America Fund, the measure is expected to incentivize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and also provide grants for the design and deploying of wireless 5G networks. It also includes a $24 billion fund to create a 25 percent tax credit for new semiconductor manufacturing facilities.

Advocates of the measure say that it will also improve U.S. supply chain, grow U.S. domestic workforce, and enable the U.S. to compete internationally to combat national security emergencies.

The measure passed the Senate Wednesday on a 64-33 vote.

Congressional supporters tout benefits

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., voiced his support on the House floor, calling it “a win for our global competitiveness.”

The CHIPS Act of 2022 provides a five-year investment in public research and development, and establishes new technology hubs across the country.

Of the funds, $14 billion goes to upgrade national labs, and $9 billion goes to the National Institute of Standards and Technology research, of which $2 billion goes to support manufacturing partnerships, and with $200 million going to train the domestic workforce.

In a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett said that America’s semiconductor industry has lost ground to foreign competitors. “Today, only 12% of chips are manufactured in the United States, down from 37% in the 1990s.”

He said relying on cheaper products produced in China and overseas for so long, it has caught up with the United States.

Bennet suggested to move manufacturing labs to Colorado, where it can support it due to the plenty of jobs in aerospace and facility and infrastructure space.

“We don’t want the Chinese setting the standard for telecommunications. America needs to lead that. This bill puts us in the position to be a world leader,” said Bennet. “We are at a huge national security disadvantage if we don’t do this.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, joined his Rocky Mountain state colleague in support: “There is a real sense of urgency here to compete not only to re-establish the U.S. to make their own chips, but to compete internationally.”

He said that semiconductor chips are vital to almost every business and product, including phones, watches, refrigerators, cars, and laptops. “I’m not sure if I can think of a business that isn’t dependent on chips at this point.”\

“This is a space race,” he said. “We cannot afford to fall behind.”

Industry supporters say measure is necessary

The U.S. has lost ground to foreign competitors in scientific R&D and in supply chain industry during a recent semiconductor crisis, said France Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event on July 19. The U.S. only ranks sixth best among other prominent countries in the world for research and development, she said.

“The CHIPS Act of 2022 and FABS Act are critical investments to even the global playing field for U.S. companies, and strategically important for our economic and national national security,” said Ganesh Moorthy, president and CEO of Microchip Technology Inc.

Bide expected to sign measure

With the Biden’s Administration’s focus to tackle the semiconductor shortage and supply chain crisis through the Executive Order made in February, the Biden administration has been bullish on the passage of the CHIPS Act, in a Wednesday statement:

“It will accelerate the manufacturing of semiconductors in America, lowering prices on everything from cars to dishwashers.  It also will create jobs – good-paying jobs right here in the United States.  It will mean more resilient American supply chains, so we are never so reliant on foreign countries for the critical technologies that we need for American consumers and national security,” said Biden.

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Health

Providers Call for More FCC Telehealth Funding as Demand Grows

‘I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, July 26, 2022 – Health care providers in parts of America say they are struggling to deliver telehealth due to a lack of broadband connectivity in underserved communities, and recommended there be more funding from the Federal Communications Commission.

While the FCC has a $200-million COVID-19 Telehealth program, which emerged from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, some providers say more money is needed as demand for telehealth services increases.

“The need for broadband connectivity in underserved communities exceeds current availability,” said Jennifer Stoll from the Oregon Community Health Information Network.

The OCHIN was one of the largest recipients of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot program in 2009. Stoll advocated for the need for more funding with the non-profit SHLB Coalition during the event last week. Panelists didn’t specify how much more funding is needed.

Stoll noted that moving forward, states need sustainable funding in this sector. “I am hoping Congress will be mindful of telehealth,” said Stoll.

“The need for telehealth and other virtual modalities will continue to grow in rural and underserved communities,” she added.

Brian Scarpelli, senior global policy counsel at ACT, the App Association, echoed the call for FCC funding from the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes basic telecommunications services to rural areas and low-income Americans. “I think obtaining funding from the Universal Service Fund would go a long way.”

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