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Bruce Mehlman: It’s Fitting that Congress is Focused on Accelerating Our 5G Future

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At the beginning of a new Congress, there’s generally an exciting, hopeful spirit, even after the bitter partisanship of the past election.  The issues that new committee chairs choose to focus on upfront are a good indication of their priorities and where they believe progress can be made.

In telecommunications, therefore, it’s promising that Senator Roger Wicker, the new Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, opted to begin his tenure by focusing on the need to support and accelerate deployments of 5G technology – the exciting next generation of mobile technology that promises exponentially faster speeds (up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G) and will enable innovations such as truly connected cars and smart cities. Some companies have already begun deployments of 5G, and more are coming this year to dozens of cities across the country…but the real wave will start hitting only in future years.

Make no mistake: these deployments will come from the private sector, not government.  With trillion-dollar deficits and trillions more needed for roads, bridges, air traffic control and other infrastructure improvements, government doesn’t have the hundreds of billions of dollars to make these deployments. But even if policymakers were willing to continue ignoring deficits, the private sector would still be better able to target these resources to national needs, as they have with previous generations of telecommunications infrastructure.

Which is not to say policy makers have no role. To the contrary, government is essential for encouraging and accelerating the massive investments in and deployments of 5G, and they have many methods at their disposal.  First, and most important, policy makers need to identify spectrum that can be used for 5G and then make that spectrum available to innovative companies.  Some of this spectrum will be new; other spectrum will come through repurposing spectrum currently used for other purposes.

Congress took a big step in this regard last year by requiring the FCC to identify 30 megahertz of low-band spectrum suitable for 5G.  Now, the focus must shift to mid-band spectrum, where the properties of 5G can truly shine and where most 5G communications will actually occur – if we get the spectrum.

Other nations, including major economic competitors such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the UK, are already allocating mid-band spectrum for their users.  China – our principal competitor in the global race to 5G – has committed to 460 MHz of this valuable spectrum for its three operators.

The U.S. needs to catch up, quickly.  The FCC is looking at repurposing up to 500 megahertz of spectrum for 5G in the “C-Band,” a mid-band spectrum range. This can move forward in a bipartisan manner.  Because 5G is so much more powerful than the previous generations of mobile technology, the needs for spectrum to take advantage of 5G’s potential are likewise more complex.

Congress can help by passing the AIRWAVES Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the last Congress which would establish a schedule for future spectrum auctions over the next five years to help ensure U.S. preeminence in 5G.

It matters who wins the race to 5G.  The country that gets there first will be able to set standards for this vital technology with implications for all American industries, from automotive to healthcare, in addition to our national defense.  China is already staking out a claim for global leadership in 5G – the first time that our preeminence in mobile technology has been seriously challenged.

That’s why it’s so important to act now, to have a predictable schedule of spectrum so private sector operators will invest the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary.

Accenture estimates that U.S. operators will invest $275 billion to deploy 5G, with an economic benefit of $500 billion.  But these investments and benefits only happen if markets know the spectrum will be there.  Because of the unique nature of 5G, those investments will benefit every corner of our country.

The switch to 5G technology can transform our lives.  The ability for connected cars to send and receive information, for instance, can help avoid school bus accidents and give safer driving experiences.  Getting all this right will be extremely important for the future of our economy and our global leadership.

During a recent hearing, Senator Wicker said that “we need to be the leader in 5G globally.”  He’s right. The time to act is now.  It’s a good first step this year and a good signal to hold this hearing so early in the Congressional session.  I hope the AIRWAVES Act will be reintroduced in this Congress and enacted quickly.  Let’s get this done, in a quick win for the new Congress and a big win for the American people who will benefit from a faster transformation to 5G.

Bruce Mehlman is a founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and previously served as assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Breakfast Media LLC.

Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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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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