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The Internet Wonk’s Guide to the Trump Administration’s New American Broadband Initiative

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February 13, 2019 – The Trump Administration on Wednesday highlighted the importance of enhancing broadband internet service for America, particularly in rural areas, as it promoted a variety of existing federal initiatives under a new brand, the “American Broadband Initiative.”

Through the issuance of a new “Milestones Report” by the Agriculture Department and the Commerce Department, the Trump administration emphasized continuity with a range of broadband initiatives begun under President Obama.

The report also highlighted two executive actions taken by President Trump in January 2018,  as well as the president’s words on January 8, 2018, when he appeared at a meeting of the American Farm Bureau, that “Americans Need Access to reliable, affordable broadband internet service to succeed in today’s information-driven, global economy.”

See also:
Broadband Breakfast: Trump Signs Executive Order Expediting Rural Broadband with Federal Lands, Towers and Fiber (January 2018)

Broadband Breakfast: Trump Administration Turns Focus to Rural Broadband and Dark Fiber at American Farm Bureau Meeting (January 2018)

Although the report put the Trump administration’s spin on the “actions that agencies are taking to increase private-sector investment in broadband,” it didn’t repudiate many of the broadband infrastructure-focused actions of the Obama administration’s second term.

It noted that “previous attempts to expand broadband connectivity have made progress and provided valuable lessons that guide this initiative.”

Under the Trump administration, most of the public-facing actions on broadband policy have been centered around ensuring that Rural America is adequately connected.

Indeed, the White House’s blog post on the American Broadband Initiative emphases the rural component front and center:

  • [W]ithout access to reliable high-speed broadband, too many Americans are being left out of those opportunities. This is particularly true in rural America, where nearly 39 percent of Americans lack sufficient broadband access.

But the report can also be read as the Commerce Department re-asserting its leadership role over broadband initiatives.

For example, referring to that agency’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one of the core points early in the report reads that the American Broadband Initiative “[b]uilds on NTIA’s mission as the agency principally responsible for advising the administration on telecommunications and information policy.”

No new funding for broadband, but ABI coordinates and streamlines many existing programs

The report does not unveil any new funding to be spent on broadband infrastructure or usage, although it does prominently feature details USDA’s ReConnect program. That program was unveiled in December 2018 to implement $600 million in rural broadband grants and loans put in place by the March 2018 omnibus budget bill.

See also:
Broadband Breakfast: ReConnect, a Long-Awaited Agriculture Department Broadband Program, Unveiled by Secretary Sonny Perdue (December 2018)

The PDF report groups together dozens of federal actions within three core categories: (1) streamlining federal permitting processes; (2) leveraging federal assets like land and towers; and (3) maximizing the impact of existing federal funding.

As part of these high-level categories, the program seeks to catalyze private investment in rural broadband, leverage 7,000 towers located on federal lands generally administered by the Interior Department, potentially use other federal assets for such towers, create a one-stop shop at the NTIA for information about getting permits on federal lands for broadband infrastructure, revising the form to make use federal lands for broadband, and more.

This last item highlights Executive Order 13821, “Streamlining and Expediting Requests to Locate Broadband Facilities in Rural America,” the January 2018 Trump action aiming to boost rural broadband.

Additional high-level goals of the ABI including implementing the e-Connectivity “call to action” from the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, and establishing a coordination vehicle for the broadband provisions in the Consolidated Budget Act of 2018.

Broadband infrastructure and access is woefully inadequate in Rural America

The heart of the 62-page report consists of a brief summary of the state of broadband in America — again highlighting the lack of quality broadband in Rural America — and a series of federal “workstreams” under the new name, the American Broadband Initiative.

These workstreams piece together the actions of 25 federal agencies on the broadband front. The language suggests building upon but also “refocus[ing] the work of the Broadband Interagency Working Group.” That group was created in the second Obama administration.

In regards to broadband deployment, the report highlights the fact that only 2 percent of Americans in cities lack access to broadband (as defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Megabits per second upload).

The comparable number for residents of Rural America is that 30 percent lack access to broadband. The report attributes this disparity to the lower population density, increasing costs of broadband construction, and higher service charges.

Additionally, as the report notes, “The 2017 Computer and Internet Survey of over 123,000 Americans commissioned by NTIA and administered by the Census Bureau found that more than 65 percent of rural Americans use the Internet at home compared to almost 73 percent of urban residents, a gap that has remained fairly constant over the past 20 years.”

On mobile deployment, 90.5 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to 4G LTE services, whereas only 70 percent of rural Americans enjoy that option.

A series of workstreams making agencies accountable for broadband actions on deadline

The portion of the report outlining the administration’s broadband workstreams lists multiple-step actions items — with the agencies accountable and their deadlines — on these four policy fronts:

  1. Streamline Federal Permitting
  2. Leverage Federal Assets for Broadband Deployment
  3. Maximize the Impact of Federal Funding
  4. Additional Agency Actions in Support of the Initiative

Section three, on maximizing the impact of federal funding, begins by highlighting the NTIA’s BroadbandUSA website and the importance of broadband availability data.

Such data collection began with the FCC with the agency’s Form 477, moved over to the NTIA (through a partnership with state entities) and the FCC under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, bopped back to the FCC after the end of the State Broadband Initiative, and – per legislation recently passed by Congress – will return to the NTIA in September 2019.

The section of the report on federal funding workstreams continued by discussing USDA’s new funding program, accountability measures for federal funding, engaging private sector and state leaders through NTIA’s State Broadband Leaders Network, plus partnerships promoting broadband access for veterans.

Two new broadband developments highlighted in the report include hosting a summit on broadband connectivity on tribal lands, to take place by the Spring of 2019, and a report by the FCC on broadband coverage in Indian Country, also due this spring.

The document also notes the publication of a National Science Foundation/NTIA report on the National Broadband Research Agenda, published in January 2017, and ongoing research into the subject.

It also mentioned broadband eligibility guidance in application materials for the New Markets Tax Credit Program in June 2018, building on initial guidance issued in 2015.

Press releases on the ABI from the departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Interior

Agency press releases issued with the report highlight particular approaches to broadband policy.

“This work fulfills the President’s call to use all possible policy tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of reliable high-speed broadband connectivity in all parts of America,” read the Commerce Department’s release.

“The American Broadband Initiative will help government and industry target resources in the most efficient manner so all Americans can fully participate in advanced communications technologies,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“A huge team effort across more than 20 agencies has gone into creating this report, and we look forward to delivering on this commitment to improve broadband deployment,” said David Redl, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and head of the NTIA.

Redl also published a separate blog post in which he noted:

  • “We congratulate the Department of Interior on the launch of the new Joint Overview Established Location Map, which pulls data related to federal lands and assets from multiple agencies into a single map. This map will help the broadband industry more easily identify the location of available assets. It is an important first step in one of the Initiative’s core priorities: making it easier for the private sector to leverage federal assets to promote investment.”

The USDA release highlighted the totemic role of an agency report from October 2017, a task force report on agriculture and rural prosperity.

“Last year, I presented the findings of the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to President Trump at the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention,” read Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s statement from his agency’s press release.

“The American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report reflects that work on behalf of taxpayers and displays the federal government’s commitment as a strong business partner to the private sector in deploying broadband infrastructure. The American Broadband Initiative also reaffirms this Administration’s commitment to reducing regulatory barriers and improving the quality of life for those living in rural America,” Perdue’s statement continued.

Although the Interior Department currently lacks a confirmed head, the agency press release on the subject noted:

“As a native of the small town of Rifle, Colorado, I know firsthand how important it is for rural communities to have to access to reliable and fast broadband services,” said Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “Interior manages nearly one fifth of the surface acreage in the United States, much of which encompasses rural areas, and therefore has an important role to play in permitting broadband infrastructure.

(Photo from the American Farm Bureau.)

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.

Broadband's Impact

CES 2022: Public-Private Partnerships Key to Building Smart Cities, Tech leaders Say

Public-private partnerships will increase the community benefit of infrastructure projects, leaders at Qualcomm and Verizon said.

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Panelists on the “Smart Cities and Public-Private Partnerships” CES session on Friday.

LAS VEGAS, January 12, 2022––Telecommunications industry leaders said Friday at the Consumer Electronics Show that public-private partnerships will pave the way to realizing the future of smart cities.

Raymond Bauer, director of the domain specialist group that connects governments to Verizon’s telecommunications services, said the government needs private partners to improve its infrastructure efforts.

Referencing the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Bauer said governments should look forward to partnering with private technology companies to improve upcoming infrastructure projects.

“There’s a once in a lifetime opportunity from IIJA,” Bauer said. “We should find common ways to work in a way we haven’t in the past. There are certain goals and use cases to leverage the infrastructure we have,” he said.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan legislation funds physical and digital infrastructure projects, including $65 billion for the expansion of broadband across the country.

Bauer said communities have a chance to monetize the services Verizon offers to communities if Verizon builds infrastructure for broadband access in underserved areas. “By bridging the digital divide, underserved communities get the services they need,” he added.

Ashok Tipirneni, head of smart cities and connected spaces at Qualcomm, said that cities should be thinking about how technology can improve much-needed infrastructure projects.

“Cities are growing faster than available utility,” he said, citing global issues of housing, water, and equity for vulnerable populations. “How do we ensure access for all citizens? And how can cities be in lock step with new technology, whatever it is?” he asked.

Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program delivers internet of things ecosystem products and services to member cities and local governments.

“New Orleans, Miami, and Los Angeles has local governments asking how they can do better,” he said. “They offer opportunities for partnerships that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago.”

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Broadband's Impact

Year In Review: Key Developments for Broadband’s Impact in the U.S.

This year saw a growing telehealth trend, federal digital inclusion efforts and greater attention to spectrum sharing.

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Photo of FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel (left) in February 2020 from the Prince George's County Library used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 29, 2021–High-speed internet access has never seemed more essential than in the days of another year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that’s why, for the third in a three-part review of 2021, Broadband Breakfast focuses on broadband’s impact in enabling benefits through expanded internet access.

Telehealth takes center stage

Because the pandemic is continually forcing closures and stay-at-home orders, the expansion of telehealth services has become a critical, normalized service this year as remote health care is a safer, more efficient way to deliver high-quality care.

Broadband service is now important to maintaining overall health––experts have defined broadband services as a social determinant of health. Expanding telemedicine across rural and Tribal communities remain barriers to better health outcomes for vulnerable populations.

The pandemic prompted Congress to extend waivers that allowed patients to take advantage of telehealth services. Experts say the waivers encouraged the growth of telehealth systems, and that investment in telehealth is necessary to improving them.

Broadband access and affordability often restrict vulnerable communities’ ability to take advantage of telehealth services. This year saw massive investments focused on funding telehealth subsidies for patients in need.

In December alone, the Federal Communications Commission announced more than $42.7 million in COVID-19 Telehealth Program awards for health care providers spending on telecommunications information services and devices. The awards also reimburse health care organizations for innovative ideas that connect patients to quality care with broadband.

For example, the Westchester County Health Care Corporation in Valhalla, New York, was awarded $1 million for the purchase of remote monitoring software and video equipment, which will allow for the creation of a “tele-ICU” for the provision of remote care for hospitalized patients.

In October, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony that permanent regulatory flexibility allowing free or subsidized telemedicine services for patients would have  a positive impact on patient care. It may have a cost benefit too: FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr estimated that  widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

The FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission served as an accelerator to better connect communities during the pandemic through its Affordable Connectivity Program. As families and students struggled to stay connected to work and school during the pandemic, the FCC has taken historic steps to assist families can’t afford to pay for internet service and devices.

Originally established as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Affordable Connectivity Program is the nation’s largest broadband subsidy program to ever be enacted. The Emergency Broadband Benefit was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program after the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November.

The Affordable Connectivity Program transformed the Emergency Broadband Benefit into a long-term program that provides discounts for families to purchase internet service and devices. Households can also receive discounts to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet for their home.

The Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment period opens on December 31, 2021, allowing families to start the new year with the opportunity to receive new devices for the home. However, a long-standing challenge has been informing the community about these benefits. Policy experts agree that these benefit programs are not reaching the intended audience.

A November report showed that areas with low broadband adoption are less likely to enroll in the program. “If leaders want to connect the unconnected, in addition to low income groups, other programs will be needed. EBB isn’t targeting these low-adoption communities,” said Will Rinehart, senior fellow at the Center for Growth an Opportunity.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel agreed on the need for emphasizing outreach. “There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Rosenworcel said during a September event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

Digital equity and inclusion

The past year was significant for its focus on digital equity and inclusion. The closing of many public institutions because of the pandemic has forced lower-income communities into isolation without sufficient devices or technology to stay connected, digital inclusion experts say.

Organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Association have decried a type of discrimination known as “digital redlining” in which internet service providers discriminate in broadband deployment, maintenance, upgrade, or delivery of service in lower-income neighborhoods. Because communities of color are more likely to have slower and less reliable internet service, policy leaders have been active in finding solutions.

To combat this alleged practice, Rep. Yvette Clark introduced the Anti-Digital Redlining Act on July 30.  The bill finds that lower-income residents pay the same for DSL internet as fiber customers, while wealthier residents receive much better internet service. The text of the bill also acknowledges that disparities in internet access “impose significant costs” on the government to choose between “either offering non-digital means of interaction or excluding residents without access to high speed, reliable broadband access.”

If passed as federal law, the measure would require the FCC to ban digital redlining.

This year also saw the passage of digital inclusion-focused legislation as part of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The law allocated $2.75 billion to the Digital Equity Act, which establishes the federal definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity.

The Digital Equity Act’s two programs and three grant funds will supply money to the states in order to do digital equity work. For example, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Association, said that states are best prepared to promote digital equity for their residents. “The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.” By connecting all residents to quality devices and internet-enabled services, residents are better equipped to fully engage with the community and improve their quality of life.

Satellite broadband takes flight

Apart from the high-profile space launches this year, the broadband industry is both excited and skeptical about satellites playing a greater role.

In late 2020, the FCC voted to adopt rules making it easier for satellite providers to obtain licensing to deploy satellites faster. In February, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 120 Starlink broadband satellites on two February missions, bringing the total number of satellites to over 1,700.

Low Earth Orbit satellites, which can bring broadband to rural communities, could connect harder-to-reach communities faster than laying fiber. By May 2021, SpaceX announced it had over 500,000 orders for the Starlink service.

Other companies are also jumping into the satellite business: the FCC approved Boeing’s  request to launch 132 satellites for its broadband internet network, and Amazon’s satellite imitative Project Kuiper partnered with Verizon in October to launch an internet service for underserved and unserved communities.

However, these massive investments didn’t come without controversy. Apart from concerns about Starlink’s capacity to deliver long-term, high quality service that complies with IIJA, public telecommunications policy leaders say the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) band, the portion of spectrum that Starlink uses for its services,  should be shared with 5G operators to deliver internet to lower-income communities.

Research commissioned by RS Access in August concluded that the mid-band spectrum can be shared between 5G and satellite broadband operators and finding that the 12 GHz spectrum is “highly favorable for 5G,” and “can rapidly accelerate 5G deployment nationwide.”

Next year regulators and policymakers will continue the battle to determine who, if anyone, will have greater control over the 12 GHz band.

Will the ‘homework gap’ persist in a world of online education?

Last year’s initial COVID lockdown left many families unprepared and unconnected to devices or internet access and the “homework gap” persisted.

In fall 2021, many schools embraced a “hybrid” in-person, virtual schooling model. Around this time, Pew research found that lower-income parents were more likely to say their children did homework on a cellphone and could not complete homework because they did not have computer access at home.

Some students have been using public Wi-Fi because they could not connect reliably at home. The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund was authorized to help close bring devices to students who lack them.

Originally launching in June as part of March’s American Rescue Plan Act, the FCC has committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17 billion program to provide funding for schools and libraries to buy equipment students to learn remotely.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said last week in a press release. (See also Year in Review: Key Developments in Digital Infrastructure with Ramifications for Next Year.)

Last week, the FCC committed another $603 million in Emergency Connectivity funds to connect more than 1.4 million students across all 50 states.

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Health

Telehealth Has Potential to Shift Medical Focus to Preventative Care and Wellness

Experts say continued investment in telehealth is necessary to improve care systems.

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John Halamka, David Rice, Angela Moore, Jeffrey Neal and Peter Ku

WASHINGTON, December 24, 2021 – Medical experts say continued investment in telehealth systems expanded during the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to improve medicine’s focus on preventative care and wellness.

However, some concern exists over what will happen to telehealth advances made during the pandemic should Congress fail to renew waivers that allowed telehealth provision in government-aligned health programs such as Medicare.

Experts discussed this current juncture in telehealth at a Federal Communications Bar Association event last week.

They remarked on just how quickly telehealth systems were able to grow in the past two years because of Congress’ waivers and the major impacts revoking these waivers could have for these systems and the access of many individuals to healthcare.

A discussed example of virtual medicine’s growth was observed “exponential” increases in new overall patient engagement at Veterans Affairs medical providers through telehealth during some of the deadliest phases of the pandemic.

During a Senate hearing in October, witnesses such as Deanna Larson, president of Avel eCARE, testified that regulatory flexibility from Congress is necessary to address telehealth access, as well as that broadband affordability issues often prevent access to telehealth.

Witnesses also raised that telehealth’s prevalence would increase emergency room bed availability during the pandemic

At the FCBA event, Miller Nash attorney David Rice emphasized that beyond giving medical access to individuals that face obstacles in traveling to medical facilities for treatment, telehealth is simply more convenient than in-person treatment for almost everyone and allows patients to fit medical appointment attendance more easily in their schedules.

In terms of challenges robust telehealth systems would face going forward, Mayo Clinic Platform President John Halamka cited potential licensure issues for providing care, and some argument existed between Rice and Jeffrey Neal, T-Mobile for Government’s national director of federal sales, over whether data privacy issues are likely to be a serious hindrance to virtual treatment.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission announced $42.7 million in awards from its COVID-19 Telehealth Program which supports continued care for patients by reimbursing them for telecommunications services, information services and connected devices.

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