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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.)

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. 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

Broadband is Affordable for Middle Class, NCTA Claims

According to analysis, the middle class spends on average $69 per month on internet service.

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Photo of Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at NCTA

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Even as policymakers push initiatives to make broadband less expensive, primarily for low-income Americans, broadband is already generally affordable for the middle class, argued Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at industry group NCTA, the internet and television association. 

Availability of broadband is not enough, many politicians and experts argue, if other barriers – e.g., price – prevent widespread adoption. Much focus has been directed toward boosting adoption among low-income Americans through subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program, but legally, middle-class adoption must also be considered. In its notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration required each state to submit a “middle-class affordability plan.”

During a webinar held earlier this month, Cimerman, who works for an organization that represents cable operators, defined the middle class as those who earn $45,300–$76,200, basing these boundaries on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2020. And based on the text of an Federal Communications Commission action from 2016, he set the threshold of affordability for broadband service at two percent of monthly household income.

According to his analysis, the middle class, thus defined, spends on average $69 per month on internet service. $69 is about 1.8 percent of monthly income for those at the bottom of Cimerman’s middle class and about 1.1 percent of monthly income for those at the top. Both figures fall within the 2-percent standard, and Cimerman stated that lower earners tended to spend slightly less on internet than the $69-per-month average.

Citing US Telecom’s analysis of the FCC’s Urban Rate Survey, Cimerman presented data that show internet prices dropped substantially from 2015 to 2021 – decreasing about 23 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent for “entry-level,” “most popular” and “highest-speed” residential plans, respectively. And despite recent price hikes on products such as gas, food, and vehicles, Cimerman said, broadband prices had shrunk 0.1 percent year-over-year as of September 2022.

Widespread adoption is important from a financial as well as an equity perspective, experts say. Speaking at the AnchorNets 2022 conference, Matt Kalmus, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, argued that providers rely on high subscription rates to generate badly needed network revenues.

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Broadband's Impact

Federal Communications Commission Mandates Broadband ‘Nutrition’ Labels

The FCC also mandated that internet service provider labels be machine-readable.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday afternoon ordered internet providers to display broadband “nutrition” labels at points of sale that include internet plans’ performance metrics, monthly rates, and other information that may inform consumers’ purchasing decisions.

The agency released the requirement less than 24 hours before it released the first draft of its updated broadband map.

The FCC mandated that labels be machine-readable, which is designed to facilitate third-party data-gathering and analysis. The commission also requires that the labels to be made available in customers’ online portals with the provide the and “accessible” to non-English speakers.

In addition to the broadband speeds promised by the providers, the new labels must also display typical latency, time-of-purchase fees, discount information, data limits, and provider-contact information.

“Broadband is an essential service, for everyone, everywhere. Because of this, consumers need to know what they are paying for, and how it compares with other service offerings,”  FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. 

“For over 25 years, consumers have enjoyed the convenience of nutrition labels on food products.  We’re now requiring internet service providers to display broadband labels for both wireless and wired services.  Consumers deserve to get accurate information about price, speed, data allowances, and other terms of service up front.”

Industry players robustly debated the proper parameters for broadband labels in a flurry of filings with the FCC. Free Press, an advocacy group, argued for machine-readable labels and accommodations for non-English speakers, measures which were largely opposed by trade groups. Free Press also advocated a requirement that labels to be included on monthly internet bills, without which the FCC “risks merely replicating the status quo wherein consumers must navigate fine print, poorly designed websites, and byzantine hyperlinks,” group wrote.

“The failure to require the label’s display on a customer’s monthly bill is a disappointing concession to monopolist ISPs like AT&T and Comcast and a big loss for consumers,” Joshua Stager, policy director of Free Press, said Friday.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association clashed with Free Press in its FCC filing and supported the point-of-sale requirement.

“WISPA welcomes today’s release of the FCC’s new broadband label,” said Vice President of Policy Louis Peraertz. “It will help consumers better understand their internet access purchases, enabling them to quickly see ‘under the hood,’ and allow for an effective apples-to-apples comparison tool when shopping for services in the marketplace.”

Image of the FCC’s sample broadband nutrition label

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Broadband's Impact

Midterm Control of Congress Remains Uncertain, But States Got Answers to Broadband Votes

Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Kansas and Pennsylvania had broadband-related measures on the ballot.

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Photo of an Ohio voter on November 8, 2022, by Marshall Gorby of the Dayton Daily News

As voters went to the polls on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, broadband-focused initiatives and candidates could be found up and down the ballot all across the country.

Alabama

Alabama voters cast their ballots to decide on a state Constitutional amendment known as the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Funding Amendment. The measure sought to amend the state’s constitution “to allow local governments to use funding provided for broadband internet infrastructure under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and award such funds to public or private entities.”

That measure passed, garnering a “Yes” vote from nearly 80 percent of Alabama voters. With 73 percent of the vote counted late last night, 922,145 “Yes” votes had been tallied with 251,441 “No” votes.

Also in Alabama, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell won her re-election bid to represent Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Sewell, whose district covers a large swath of the Alabama Black Belt, “spent much of her past two years in office bringing American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural Alabama, dedicated to healthcare, broadband access and infrastructure building,” as noted by The Montgomery Advertiser.

Colorado

The Centennial State is not listed as one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that erect barriers to municipal broadband because nearly every community that had a vote has passed it to nullify it. But more communities had to go through that unnecessary process yesterday due to the law known as SB-152 that bans local governments in the state from establishing municipal broadband service absent a referendum.

As of spring 2022, 118 Colorado municipalities, 40 counties and several school districts have opted out of SB-152.

Now Colorado can add to that list.

In Pueblo County, nearly 48,000 ballots were cast with 34,457 or 72 percent, voting yes to opt out of SB 152 while 13,087 (28 percent) cast a “No” vote.

In the City of Pueblo, the county seat, Mayor Nick Gradisar told The Pueblo Chieftain that his city was not looking to build a municipal broadband network but rather to pursue a public-private partnership to bring ubiquitous high-speed Internet service to the city in a way that does not “just allow (broadband companies) to cherry pick the ones that can pay the most.”

Meanwhile, in the City of Lone Tree, one of about a dozen communities located in Douglas County, voters there overwhelmingly approved opting out of SB-152 with over 83 percent of voters casting a “Yes” ballot.

According to the city’s website, the ballot question was put to voters to enable the county to extend broadband infrastructure into Lone Tree. The website goes on to explain what opting out of SB-152 would mean for city residents and businesses:

  • Along with providing support for the County’s efforts, voter approval opens a range of opportunities to improve broadband access or services. Approval would allow the conversation to begin, while not binding the City to any specific actions or timelines.

New Mexico

Similar to the Constitutional question voters decided in Alabama, a ballot question in New Mexico asked voters to modify the New Mexico Constitution to ensure the easy flow of broadband funding. A 1900s era portion of the state’s constitution restricts “lending, pledging credit, or donating to any person, association, or public or private corporation.”

The proposal, which was approved by the New Mexico state legislature last February, passed with a 65 to 35 percent split in favor of adding an exception to the state’s anti-donation clause that will allow the state legislature to appropriate state funds through a majority vote in each chamber for infrastructure that provides essential services such as water, sewer, electricity, and broadband.

Bipartisan Support for Expanding Broadband Access

Yes, one day after the election and it was still unclear which party will control Congress, even as political analysts pontificate on what happened to the “Red Wave.” But, this much is clear: for successful candidates in both parties, at the federal and state-level, expanding access to broadband has become a bipartisan issue.

In New York, Republican State Sen. Dan Stec won his bid re-election, building on his first victory in 2020 when he campaigned for better broadband and mobile phone service. In North Carolina, Renée Price, a Democratic state representative, was elected by a wide margin. During the campaign, Price said her priorities are funding a range of initiatives and that she was particularly focused on increasing access to broadband.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Rick Allen was re-elected to represent Georgia’s 12th Congressional District. Allen said he would “continue to fight for the priorities of the 12th District like securing funding for Fort Gordon and the Savannah River Site, expanding rural broadband, and supporting our farmers and rural America.”

In Kansas, where Republican Congressman Mark Alford was elected to represent Missouri’s staunchly conservative 4th Congressional District, Alford told The Kansas City Star that as he campaigned “’on just about every back road of the district, all 24 counties,’ he heard that the No. 1 issue in the district is lack of rural broadband access.”

Over in Pennsylvania, where Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro won the race to be that battleground state’s next Governor, Shapiro’s campaign told Spotlight PA “he will prioritize expanding quality and affordable access to broadband in rural regions of the state by supporting the newly created Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, and establishing comprehensive subsidies for low-income households with high [I]nternet prices.”

And finally, in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott fended off a challenge from Beto O’Rourke, in the less sexy race for State Comptroller, Republican incumbent Glenn Hegar won his re-election bid in which he touted his record championing the expansion of broadband in the Lone Star State.

Eye On State Legislatures

States are now beefing up or establishing state broadband offices to award billions of dollars for the deployment of new or expanded broadband infrastructure thanks to an historic infusion of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). With those bills already passed and the midterm elections behind us, most of the action on the broadband front will rest in the hands of state lawmakers.

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that “with roughly 9 out of 10 adults in America using the Internet, many consider it to be a necessity of modern life,” which is why there are numerous pieces of broadband-related legislation that was enacted or is pending in the 2022 legislative session.

  • In the 2022 legislative session, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have pending and enacted legislation addressing broadband in issue areas such as educational institutions and schools, dig once, funding, governance authorities and commissions, infrastructure, municipal-run broadband networks, rural and underserved communities, smart communities and taxes. Twenty-six jurisdictions enacted legislation or adopted resolutions: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Authored by Sean Gonsalves, this article originally appeared on the web site of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Broadband Networks Project on November 9, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

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