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On Educational Broadband, Critics Say FCC’s ‘Unfathomable’ Proposal Will Widen Digital Divide

Emily McPhie

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WASHINGTON, June 24, 2019 — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposed order to permit auction of portions of the 2.5 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum band has drawn criticism from many outside the agency, including several members of Congress and even the U.S. Department of Education in the Trump administration.

The draft order would eliminate the educational use requirements for Educational Broadband Services spectrum. It does not reserve a window for educational institutions to acquire licenses.

“The Department strongly encourages the Commission to maintain and modernize the current educational priority of the EBS spectrum by keeping the current eligibility requirements for EBS licenses, modernizing the educational use requirement, and issuing new EBS licenses using local priority filing windows,” said Jim Blew, assistant secretary from the U.S. Department of Education. “These measures will ensure that this valuable public resource can be leveraged by local communities to implement solutions to the ‘homework gap,’ close the digital divide in rural areas, and provide access to affordable broadband.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, urged the FCC to “prioritize accredited educational institutions,” calling EBS licensing “one of the few tools the Commission has to close the homework gap.” He expressed concern that the order would “effectively remove educational entities” from the 2.5 GHz band “at a time when broadband for education is more important than ever.”

Advocates were also deeply critical of FCC move

“Eliminating the educational priority for EBS would be disastrous for online learning, 5G deployment, and rural consumers,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition. “The best way to encourage 5G in rural markets is to award licenses to educational institutions that live and work in their communities and whose mission is to serve the needs of students.”

Windhausen pointed out successful examples of EBS broadband deployment from northern Michigan to rural Virginia to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, arguing that the FCC’s order essentially overturns “over 50 years of educational precedent based on exaggerated claims by the commercial carriers.”

Commercial carriers would likely only deploy 5G services in 30 percent of unserved markets whereas educational institutions would serve almost all of them, according to a recent study commissioned by SHLB.

The study concluded that licensing EBS spectrum to schools and tribal nations would reduce the rural homework gap by nearly 30 percent. By contrast, auctioning off the spectrum is expected to reduce the gap by just over 1 percent.

“The draft order contends that auctioning EBS spectrum licensing will encourage private providers to deliver 5G service to unconnected, underserved students living in the most sparsely populated communities. This makes no economic sense,” said Consortium for School Networking CEO Keith Kruger. “If U.S. market forces were sufficient, the connectivity problem would not be so prevalent throughout rural and other remote areas nationwide.”

Kruger said that he was “deeply disappointed” by Pai’s plan, warning that it would be “detrimental” to rural and low-income students.

Tribal window continues, but no allowance for educational institutions

Although the order reserves a priority licensing window for tribal entities, no such allowance has been made for educational institutions. Critics of the order have raised concerns about the impact on rural education and the digital divide.

Conducting an auction instead of issuing licenses via priority windows will not actually expedite 5G deployment because the licensing process will still take years, said Mark Colwell, director of telecommunications strategy at Voqal.

Colwell called the order “unfathomable” and a “radical policy shift that denies schools an opportunity to access spectrum necessary to deploy broadband.”

“The Chairman’s proposal cites dated uses of EBS licenses and the FCC’s two-decade failure to grant new licenses as the basis for handing the spectrum to private providers that have repeatedly failed to address rural America’s homework gap,” said Candice Dodson, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

The 625 megahertz of spectrum already held by national providers includes 76.5 megahertz of the 2.5 GHz band. Many critics argue that this proves commercial carriers are not actually utilizing this spectrum to close the digital divide.

“There is no sound reason to deprive state education agencies and school districts at least one opportunity to use new EBS licenses to promote broadband innovation, including through public-private partnerships,” Dodson concluded.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association put out a statement partially supporting Pai’s agenda, saying that the changes to EBS will “make more efficient and effective use” of the valuable 2.5 GHz band.

Pai’s plan will allow EBS licensees to transfer their licenses to commercial entities and eliminate educational use requirements for the 2.5 GHz spectrum band.

“The flexibility afforded to EBS licensees represents an important breakthrough for this largely fallow band, though we wish the FCC had proposed an auction design better suited to the needs of small providers,” said WISPA President Claude Aiken.

The 2.5 GHz band will be auctioned in a large block of 100 MHz and a small block of 16.5 MHz without bidding credits. WISPA fears that this will not give small providers a legitimate opportunity to acquire spectrum.

(Photo of Ajit Pai by Gage Skidmore, used with permission.)

Emily McPhie was Assistant Editor with Broadband Breakfast. She studies communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is a news editor for campus publication Student Life. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer skills to underprivileged children in six cities across Southern California.

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Panelists and Telecommunications Policy Research Conference Urge Focus on Equitable 5G Rollout

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Donna Bethea Murphy from September 2018 by the International Telecommunications Union

March 13, 2021 – Regulatory policies to accommodate 5G and other network infrastructure must be equitable to accommodate different service levels and providers, Donna Bethea Murphy, senior vice president of Inmarsat, said in February at the TPRC.

When trying to set goals on building and deploying broadband and satellite networks, one shouldn’t be prescriptive about what solutions are best, Murphy said at the conference exploring issues of communication, information and internet policy.

Considering the cost infrastructure builders must bear to build such systems, it is critical  they are not faced with large spectrum auction fees. If smaller players have to pay high spectrum costs, they will not be able to make back their investment and may turn down developing innovative technologies, Murphy said.

The government should therefore ensure getting spectrum to newer market entrants is financially viable to boost competition and lower prices for Americans.

Everyone agrees broadband should be available at an affordable rate, but securing such rates is a challenge yet to be resolved.

Screenshot from the TPRC event

The panelists agreed that 5G should be rolled out to communities in fair and equitable ways and that no community should be excluded from it, especially disadvantaged communities.

The concern is that 5G technology is moving at a pace that is outstripping the deployment of older technologies. Jon Peha, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, alluded to that when he wondered whether the next-generation technology will find the path of least resistance and gravitate toward areas that enjoy 4G LTE and leave the areas without the current generation network for someone else, or the government, to solve.

TPRC panel description:

This panel will be made up of domestic and international experts from communications operators, government regulators and academics to discuss how to best connect the unconnected in a 5G and beyond world. This panel will focus on technology, economic and adoption to address this very real problem. It will also explore if and how regulation and funding efforts can assist in achieving goals of connectivity. An important part of this will be the adoption piece as this will allow us to determine how do we enable connectivity to be considered valuable by the citizens of the world and how we overcome the very real economic issues associated with solving the digital divide.

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Experts Say U.S. Needs Tighter Security on 5G Components

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot from the webinar

February 8, 2021 – U.S. officials seeking to reduce the likelihood of security problems with the next-generation 5G network should look into network components that may include compromised technology from non-Chinese companies, an expert said at a conference late last month.

Alexi Maltas, senior vice president and general counsel at the Competitive Carriers Association, said at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration conference that there is a concern that non-Chinese built equipment contains Chinese components.

The issue is part of a larger concern about the 5G ecosystem that may require stringent standards to flush out the possible security problems.

Some experts have been calling for strict import standards for internet-of-things devices, which pose a number of hacking hazards because they often feature poor out-of-the-box security standards.

The NTIA conference, which addressed the advent of 5G and how to keep it secure, included reflections on global leaders in the next-generation network build and which countries are ahead on ensuring that their equipment is safe.

Gary Bolton, CEO of Fiber Broadband, said the United States government should invest in more research and development and enhance workforce education and training. Policy needs to address competitor countries that engage in unfair trade practices, he said. China’s fast adoption of 5G and similar technologies has caused U.S. carriers to have to deal with Chinese-built equipment issues and have voiced need for dialogue with the U.S. government over security threats.

The U.S. has already moved to hamper Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei and ZTE from participating in the country’s 5G future. But weeding out Chinese influence will go beyond the visible branding of those alleged spy threats and into what’s underneath the hood that makes it way along the supply chain.

If it’s suspected that carrier equipment is tainted, then the industry and government need to take steps to identify security threats from China, said Tamber Ray, regulatory counsel for the Rural Broadband Association.

Information sharing needs to go two ways, she said: From government to industry and industry to government. If equipment appears “off,” or suspicious, the issue can be resolved sooner than later.

5G architecture requires standards

Another threat to 5G is the architecture, said Edna Conway, vice president of global security, risk and compliance, for Azure at Microsoft. Threats to architecture come in the form of counterfeit components in the supply chain, she said.

To address these security concerns,  government agencies can push out standard guidance or preferably, standard software configuration security networks, she added.

Eric Wenger, senior director in global government affairs at Cisco, said that some threats stem from the openness of 5G. To resolve this concern, he proposed more research on the subject would improve our understanding on how open interfaces impact risk and what steps would be useful to mitigate them.

The U.S. has a strong semiconductor ecosystem with strong operators, but it needs to add more 5G providers because 5G is no longer a telecommunications technology—it has a big overlay with the mobile edge and computing technologies, said John Roese, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Dell.

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FCC Should Prioritize Affordability and Digital Literacy with Emergency Broadband Funds

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

January 29, 2021—FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced Thursday that she will convene a virtual roundtable discussion on February 12, 2021 to gather public input on how to structure the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

The $3.2 billion initiative, funded through Congressional appropriations in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, will enable eligible, low-income households to receive a discount on the cost of broadband service and certain connected devices, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

A panel of policy experts convened for a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday agreed subsidies from the federal government need to be spent wisely in order to get the most effective possible outcome from the federal program.

“The FCC should better define its objectives and collect data to ensure it is getting the most bang for its buck,” said Sarah Oh, research fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, adding that the agency has the resources to create better plans for data collection and analysis in preparation for the program’s disbandment.

In an initiative spearheaded by Oh, the Technology Policy Institute recently filed comments to the FCC on ways the agency could maximize the effectiveness of the program, and further, how the agency can learn from the program to continue addressing the digital divide beyond the pandemic.

TPI finds that the FCC’s objectives should be a combination of getting people connected and keeping people connected. Oh said the agency should both target households at risk of disconnection and encourage households without broadband connections to subscribe, with the federal aid.

Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Angela Siefer, urged the agency to prioritize affordability and digital literacy measures. “We can’t focus all our attention federally on the rural availability and miss out on the fact that there are 26 million households in the U.S. that don’t adopt broadband in urban areas,” she said.

The digital divide is “less about availability and more about affordability and digital literacy,” said Siefer.

See Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Wednesday, January 27, 2021 — The Adoption and Use of 5G Broadband

While Trina Coleman, board member at the U.S. Distance Learning Association, said the agency should use the funds to increase adoption initiatives, she recognized that adoption can be a tricky subject.

Coleman highlighted the fact that some may be weary to participate in the program, due to an overall distrust of the government. She added that older populations may be satisfied with functionalities offered by mobile phones, and may not want to adopt broadband.

The panelists agreed that broadband data remains largely unavailable and called for the agency to gather better data on where broadband exists and where it does not. Coleman highlighted that only 22 states contribute data on where broadband exists to the National Broadband Availability Map, leaving more than half of the United States with no data on it.

This event is part of a six-part event series, “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G,” on Broadband Breakfast Live Online.

A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G’ sponsored by:

Events in A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G” include:

  • Wednesday, October 14, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: The Hype and the Reality of 5G
    • This opening panel will set the stage for Broadband Breakfast Live Online’s consideration of the policy, technology and practical questions around the 5G wireless standard. What is 5G, and why is there so much buzz about it? How much of an improvement is it over prior generations of wireless? In other words: What is real, and what is hype? How the issues of trusted partners, rights-of-way deployment, and spectrum policy interact? Where is 5G seeing early successes, and what are the stumbling blocks?”
  • Wednesday, October 28, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: National Security and Trusted Partners
    • This panel will consider the global landscape for the 5G equipment ecosystem. It will consider issues in core networks, radio access networks and in handset equipment. How has the global landscape changed? Will 5G benefit from – or suffer because of – a new Cold War with China? How are American companies reacting to federal government initiatives for trusted partners? Where can the U.S. turn for solutions and alternatives to Chinese manufacturers?
  • Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: A Case Study of Transformative Apps in the Enterprise
    • 5G is seeing its first real successes in the enterprise marketplace. To glimpse the future more accurately, Broadband Breakfast Live Online will consider case studies of applications in enterprise environments. What technologies and processes bring 5G success to the business marketplace? What needs to happen to bring 5G successes to the consumer marketplace?
  • Wednesday, December 9, 2020, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: Wireless Infrastructure, Municipal Rights-of-Way and the 5G Rural Fund
    • To realize the promise of 5G, far more base stations — wireless infrastructure facilities — will be necessary. 5G facilities and towers may not be as big as in previous generations of wireless technology. Still, the need for far more facilities has already created tensions with municipalities over rights-of-way. How can these conflicts be minimized? What are smart cities already doing to expedite wireless infrastructure deployment? Can the process be improved?
  • Wednesday, January 27, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: The Adoption and Use of 5G Broadband
    • What are some of the likely drivers of 5G equipment and services? How have existing consumer use cases been received? Are there 5G use cases that could help close the digital divide by elevating broadband utilization among communities of color and low-income populations? What can we expect from 5G technology in 2021?
  • Wednesday, February 10, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G: Spectrum Policies to Advance Better Broadband
    • More than simply the next generation of wireless technology, 5G deployments make use of radio frequencies from an extremely wide range. For example, some 5G deployment are using mid-band spectrum between 3.4 GigaHertz (GHz) and 6 GHz. But 5G networks also promise tap into spectrum between 24 GHz and 100 GHz. It deploys these millimeter bands using network slicing and other advanced wireless tools. What new spectrum policies are necessary for 5G to flourish?

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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