May 31, 2019 – Verizon Wireless’ slowdown of the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s data plan had a “significant impact” on the department’s ability to respond to last year’s wildfires, according to testimony by Fire Chief Anthony Bowden that featured prominently in a Thursday discussion at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
The incident from the summer of 2018, when county firefighters were battling one of a series of deadly California wildfires, was cited as a parable about the effects of the Federal Communications Commission’s December 2017 repeal of the Obama-era FCC’s net neutrality regulations.
In a declaration filed in the Mozilla v. FCC lawsuit over the repeal, Chief Bowden said that “Verizon imposed these limitation despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crises-response and essential emergency services.” He provided email documentation showing that delivery speeds of 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) down / 7 Mbps up had been throttled to 0.2 Mbps down / 0.6 Mbps up, “meaning it has no meaningful functionality.”
Net neutrality advocates at the event – including Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. – said that Verizon’s callous restriction on what the firefighters believed was an unlimited data use plan was a result of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s removal of neutrality regulations.
Verizon’s behavior in limiting the bandwidth of emergency firefighters was widely denounced at the time. The company disavowed its policy when the controversy hit the headlines in August 2018.
Some of Verizon’s defenders have said the company’s legal ability to restrict bandwidth would not have been forbidden under the 2015 rules, citing language in the agency’s since-repealed 2015 Open Internet Order which notes that the no-throttling rule “does not address a practice of slowing down an end user’s connection to the Internet based on a choice made by the end user.”
Net neutrality advocates Gigi Sohn and Ernesto Falcon, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, dispute that interpretation. Falcon wrote that “when the FCC repealed that order, it not just ended a ban on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, it also declared federal laws that would be directly applicable to Verizon’s conduct to no longer apply.”
The Stanford panel emphasized the perspective of net neutrality supporters, including a discussion about their tactical efforts to restore regulations.
Rep. Eshoo views bipartisan support for net neutrality
Eshoo, who represents an area near Stanford and in the heart of Silicon Valley, highlighted the bipartisan support that net neutrality has from the American people. A recent study from Comparitech found that 87 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of Republicans support net neutrality.
By contrast, the issue is fiercely partisan on Capitol Hill. The Democrats’ “Save the Internet Act,” which would restore the FCC’s 2015 rules by overruling the 2017 repeal, passed in the House of Representatives last month. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “dead on arrival in the Senate.”
At the Thursday event, Eshoo also discussed common arguments against net neutrality, such as the fear that it will kill investment. She pointed out that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies to inform shareholders of anything hurting profitability or investment potential, and companies have not reported being hurt by neutrality rules.
“Without net neutrality, companies like YouTube or Netflix would not exist,” said Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. “The protections that net neutrality provide allow companies that were once tiny to grow into very successful businesses.”
Also speaking at the event was FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against the repeal. She highlighted the need for more broadband competition, and said half of American households have no choice in broadband provider, citing the FCC’s own data. That leaves them vulnerable to whatever policies their provider chooses to enforce.
Stanford Law Professor Barbara van Schewick emphasized that more competition would not necessarily solve the problem of net neutrality, citing the European Union’s simplification of internet laws in 2008.
Although there was a great deal of competition, the simplified laws “failed spectacularly,” leading to “widespread discrimination.” In 2015, the EU adopted a new policy modeled after the FCC’s open internet rules.
(Screenshot from Thursday’s event at Stanford Law School.)
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.
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.
Alan Davidson’s NTIA Nomination Clears Commerce Committee, On to Senate Floor
The committee did not raise Gigi Sohn’s nomination during its meeting.
WASHINGTON, December 15, 2021 – The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday voted to approve President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the National Telecommunications and Information Association Alan Davidson.
Davidson’s nomination will now be brought up for a confirmation vote before the entire Senate.
The committee approved Davidson, a former public policy director at Google, by voice vote. Republican Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., were the only senators to express reservations with Davidson.
Telecom trade associations reacted favorably to Wednesday’s committee vote.
The NCTA said Davidson’s role at the NTIA would be “critically important” to broadband funding and implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in unserved and underserved communities.
Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Sheryl Osiene-Riggs lauded Davidson’s “diverse background in public service and the private sector,” and US Telecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter called Wednesday’s developments “super important.”
Consideration of Gigi Sohn’s nomination to the Federal Communications Commission was not on the Commerce Committee’s agenda Wednesday. She faced opposition in the Senate in part due to her ties to the since-shuttered streaming service Locast.
Additionally on Wednesday, the committee voted on a bipartisan basis to advance the Securing Semiconductor Supply Chains Act of 2021 amid ongoing supply chain delays in the shipping of semiconductor chips.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., would direct Commerce Department trade promotion agency SelectUSA to increase collaboration with state economic development organizations to attract foreign direct investment in the semiconductor industry.
- David Redl (NTIA Administrator 2017 – 2019)
- Lawrence E. Strickling (NTIA Administrator 2009 – 2017)
- Meredith Attwell Baker (Acting NTIA Administrator 2007 – 2008)
- John Kneuer (NTIA Administrator 2006 – 2007)
- Michael Gallagher (NTIA Administrator 2003 – 2006)
- Nancy Victory (NTIA Administrator 2001 – 2003)
- Greg Rohde (NTIA Administrator 1999 – 2001)
- Larry Irving (NTIA Administrator 1993 – 1999)
Facebook Lobbying Congress on Blockchain Policy
The registration comes after the company rebranded to Meta, taking it beyond its social media origins.
WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – Facebook has registered this month to lobby Congress on blockchain policy, following a rebranding of the company that is intended to take the company beyond its social media roots.
The lobby registration was filed on November 4 and it comes after the infrastructure bill, signed into law this week, established tax reporting requirements for cryptocurrencies, which require the decentralized transaction ledger known as the blockchain to function.
The registration, which does not provide specifics on what the company hopes to discuss, also comes just days after the company rebranded as Meta, which is intended to broaden the company’s scope into new technologies that allow people to be together in the virtual space.
When the rebranding launched in late October, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote a letter that indicated that this new metaverse would require open standards and interoperability, including supporting crypto projects.
Meta also has a number of jobs that require knowledge of crypto and blockchain.
Facebook has set its sights on initiatives involving the blockchain for years. In 2018, head of Facebook Messenger David Marcus announced on Facebook that he would set up a small group to “best leverage Blockchain across Facebook, starting from scratch.”
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of House representatives introduced a bill – the Keep Innovation in America Act – that would better define who are crypto brokers for tax reporting purposes.
In a separate lobby registration, Facebook also specified that it would like to discuss specific funding for computer science education in legislation.
The company has previously registered to lobby Congress on Section 230, the law that shields tech platforms from legal repercussions for what their users post.
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