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Broadband's Impact

One Day After FCC’s Net Neutrality Repeal, Focus Turns to Reactions and Responses

Andrew Feinberg

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WASHINGTON, December 15, 2017 – The Federal Communications Commission’s Thursday vote to repeal the “open internet” rules classifying broadband services as common carriers represents the most significant regulatory shift in the internet in more than a decade. Critics in Congress, at the agency, and even on late-night TV wasted no time in blasting it.

These repealed network neutrality regulations prohibited broadband internet providers from speeding up or slowing down certain websites’ internet traffic based on financial or business relationships. Now, internet providers will be free to throttle, block and prioritize traffic, so long as they provide notice to consumers that they are doing so.

The most recent iteration of those regulations were put in place by the FCC under President Obama in February 2015. It was based on Title II of the Communication Act, which regulates common carriers like telephone companies.

Such common carriage rules require telephone providers to treat all traffic the same in the same way. For example, Ma Bell was prohibited from prioritizing voice calls over fax calls, or prioritizing the calls of customers who buy telephone handsets from the phone company over those who didn’t.

Broadband reverts to being an information service ‘regulated’ under Title I

Under the rules that the FCC will implement after Thursday’s vote, broadband internet access service will revert to being “regulated” under Title I. That section of the law governs “ancillary services,” and for decades the FCC has classified “information services” under this lesser regulatory standard.

These information services are not subject to the same kinds of requirements as are common carriers.

Thursday’s result was only the latest chapter in a public policy battle that has raged since the waning years of the George W. Bush Administration.

At the time, the FCC under then-Chairman Kevin Martin ruled that Comcast had discriminated against peer-to-peer file-sharing applications by blocking traffic using the BitTorrent application.

The agency had held that Comcast’s actions departed from standard industry practice and did not fall under the category of “reasonable network management.” That was, then, part of the standard under which the FCC would allow a broadband provider to manage traffic.

Chairman Julius Genachowski, the first chairman selected by Obama, said that the FCC would be a “smart cop on the beat.” Genachowski proposed network neutrality rules that would enforceable under Title I – the less-regulatory standard – of the law. But those rules were also struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court.

In part, that led Genachowski’s successor Tom Wheeler to take the stricter step of reclassifying broadband under Title II.

Taking enforcement authority for internet violations out of the hands of the FCC

Not only does the FCC’s action Thursday undo that reclassification, it goes further by declaring that the FCC will not attempt to regulate broadband providers at all. Additionally, enforcement of what little that remains of the “net neutrality” rules are passed to the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC can only take enforcement actions after a violation of consumer protection rules has occurred. Further, under a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the FTC may not even have the authority to regulate broadband providers at all.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division could also initiate litigation. But that can take years to achieve a result.

While Pai characterized Thursday’s vote as a return to the “light-touch” regulation that existed before 2015, it goes further. It abdicates the authority and responsibility that Martin – a Republican considered an ardent foe of network neutrality – acknowledged that the FCC possessed.

Sharply critical reactions from Democrats in Congress

In addition to strong comments by Congressional Democrats like Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, progressives and other advocates of net neutrality rules through their lot behind arguments that the FCC cannot simply abandon it authority to enforce consumer-focused standards for an internet.

During a conference call with media last week, former FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet predicted that the courts would not allow the FCC to pick and choose which parts of the law to enforce.

“The draft order seems to say that the FCC is no longer interested in exercising its responsibilities as an expert agency,” said Sallet. “I do not believe a court of appeals will uphold this order.”

On Thursday, Markey and Eshoo added that in addition to leading efforts to draft an amicus brief for litigation in support of the rules, Markey said he will introduce a resolution under the Congressional Review Act that would overturn the FCC’s decision.

Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont – who conducted a Judiciary Committee field hearing in Vermont on the subject of network neutrality — also condemned Thursday’s vote in a statement.

“Today the FCC took a wrecking ball to the pillars of freedom and openness upon which the Internet was built.  Without the protection of net neutrality rules, powerful telecommunication companies can decide which content gets preferential treatment and which gets throttled or even blocked,” he said.

Leahy added that the decision will hurt consumers, small businesses, and startups by stifling innovation and competition, and pledged to keep fighting until the protections are restored.

Late-night comedians weigh in with their studied analyses

Even late-night television hosts whose employers have interests in the debate got in on attacking the FCC’s decision, with Stephen Colbert of CBS (which runs its’ own video streaming service), Seth Meyers of NBC (which is owned by Comcast), and Jimmy Kimmel of ABC (which is owned by Disney, which is starting its own video streaming services which could be blocked under the new rules) condemning the vote, which Kimmel called “absolutely despicable.”

“So now, we have to hope Congress agrees to vote on and reverse it,” Kimmel said. “So, thank you, President Trump – thanks to you and this (explitive deleted) [Pai] you appointed to run the FCC — big corporations are about to take control of the internet.”

Critics also raise concerns about the FCC’s public comment process

Kimmel noted that many of the public comments filed with the FCC that were in favor the repeal turned out to have been filed under the names of dead people.

Wheeler and others had previously noted that problems with the public comment process, which attracted more comments than any other rulemaking in the FCC’s history.

That could factor into litigation seeking to overturn the new rules by allowing network neutrality advocates to claim that the FCC did not properly follow the Administrative Procedure Act.

Internet service providers pleased with the decision

While consumer groups and most technology companies were vehemently against repealing the 2015 rules, perhaps the only groups excited about the FCC’s vote were those associated with large broadband providers.

Michael Powell, President and CEO of NCTA – The Internet Association, praised the FCC’s decision in a statement released to reporters.

“Today’s FCC action rightly restores the light-touch approach to government regulation of the internet that has fostered the development of a vibrant, open and innovative platform,” Powell said. “For decades, America’s internet service providers have delivered an open internet – allowing consumers to enjoy the lawful internet content and applications of their choosing.”

Powell said that Internet providers have repeatedly pledged to continue to adhere to the now-repealed rules, but did not explain why his association’s members lobbied so aggressively for the rules’ repeal if they still want to follow them.

The two Democratic FCC commissioners minced no words

Democrats on the FCC railed against Pai and the Republican majority in angry statements delivered before the vote.

“I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat said.

“I dissent. I dissent from this fiercely spun, legally lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” said Rosenworcel’s senior Democratic colleague.

(Photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy, among the critics of the FCC’s Thursday decision on net neutrality.)

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Broadband's Impact

Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

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Broadband's Impact

FCC to Vote On Emergency Connectivity Fund Policies By Mid-May: Rosenworcel

The agency is expected to vote on policies for the new connectivity fund by mid-May, chairwoman says.

Derek Shumway

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April 14, 2021 – Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, said Tuesday the agency will be voting by mid-May on policies to deliver the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has received over 9,000 interested institutions through its portal.

The Emergency Connectivity Fund is part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law in March 2021.

It’s “the nation’s largest ever broadband affordability program,” Rosenworcel said Tuesday on a virtual panel hosted by Allvanza, an advocacy group for Latinxs and underserved communities within the technology, telecommunications and innovation industries; the Multicultural Media Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC); and the Asian Pacific American Advocate group (OCA).

It’s “designed to make sure we get every household in this country connected to high-speed Internet service because this pandemic has proven like nothing before,” she added.

The FCC made a sign-up portal on its website to determine interest in the program, and over 9,000 institutions have signed up to date, Rosenworcel said, adding she hopes the policies for the EBB can address the homework gap by extending internet subsidies normally reserved for schools and libraries to households.

Evelyn Remaley, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Administrator, said minority-aimed broadband initiatives have done great work in bringing together providers and companies with minority-serving institutions.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the FCC will vote by mid-May on policies related to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. In actuality, the agency is voting on policies for the new Emergency Connectivity Fund from Biden’s new American Rescue Plan. 

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Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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