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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.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. 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.

Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Broadband's Impact

USC, CETF Collaborate on Research for Broadband Affordability

Advisory panel includes leaders in broadband and a chief economist at the FCC.

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Hernan Galperin of USC's Annenberg School

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2021 – Researchers from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the California Emerging Technology Fund is partnering to recommend strategies for bringing affordable broadband to all Americans.

In a press release on Tuesday, the university’s school of communications and journalism and the CETF will be guided by an expert advisory panel, “whose members include highly respected leaders in government, academia, foundations and non-profit and consumer-focused organizations.”

Members of the advisory panel include a chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, digital inclusion experts, broadband advisors to governors, professors and deans, and other public interest organizations.

“With the federal government and states committing billions to broadband in the near term, there is a unique window of opportunity to connect millions of low-income Americans to the infrastructure they need to thrive in the 21st century,” Hernan Galperin, a professor at the school, said in the release.

“However, we need to make sure public funds are used effectively, and that subsidies are distributed in an equitable and sustainable manner,” he added. “This research program will contribute to achieve these goals by providing evidence-based recommendations about the most cost-effective ways to make these historic investments in broadband work for all.”

The CETF and USC have collaborated before on surveys about broadband adoption. In a series of said surveys recently, the organizations found disparities along income levels, as lower-income families reported lower levels of technology adoption, despite improvement over the course of the pandemic.

The surveys also showed that access to connected devices was growing, but racial minorities are still disproportionately impacted by the digital divide.

The collaboration comes before the House is expected to vote on a massive infrastructure package that includes $65 billion for broadband. Observers and experts have noted the package’s vision for flexibility, but some are concerned about the details of how that money will be spent going forward.

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Broadband's Impact

Technology Policy Institute Introduces Data Index to Help Identify Connectivity-Deprived Areas

The Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple datasets to try to get a better understanding of well- and under-connected areas in the U.S.

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Scott Wallsten is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute

WASHINGTON, September 16, 2021 – The Technology Policy Institute introduced Thursday a broadband data index that it said could help policymakers study areas across the country with inadequate connectivity.

The TPI said the Broadband Connectivity Index uses multiple broadband datasets to compare overall connectivity “objectively and consistently across any geographic areas.” It said it will be adding it soon into its TPI Broadband Map.

The BCI uses a “machine learning principal components analysis” to take into account the share of households that can access fixed speeds the federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload and 100/25 – which is calculated based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data with the American Community Survey – while also using download speed data from Ookla, Microsoft data for share of households with 25/3, and the share of households with a broadband subscription, which comes from the American Community Survey.

The BCI has a range of zero to 10, where zero is the worst connected and 10 is the best. It found that Falls Church, Virginia was the county with the highest score with the following characteristic: 99 percent of households have access to at least 100/25, 100 percent of households connect to Microsoft services at 25/3, the average fixed download speed is 243 Mbps in Ookla in the second quarter of this year, and 94 percent of households have a fixed internet connection.

Meanwhile, the worst-connected county is Echols County in Georgia. None of the population has access to a fixed connection of 25/3, which doesn’t include satellite connectivity, three percent connect to Microsoft’s servers at 25/3, the average download speed is 7 Mbps, and only 47 percent of households have an internet connection. It notes that service providers won $3.6 million out of the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to provide service in this county.

“Policymakers could use this index to identify areas that require a closer look. Perhaps any county below, say, the fifth percentile, for example, would be places to spend effort trying to understand,” the TPI said.

“We don’t claim that this index is the perfect indicator of connectivity, or even the best one we can create,” TPI added. “In some cases, it might magnify errors, particularly if multiple datasets include errors in the same area.

“We’re still fine-tuning it to reduce error to the extent possible and ensure the index truly captures useful information. Still, this preliminary exercise shows that it is possible to obtain new information on connectivity with existing datasets rather than relying only on future, extremely expensive data.”

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