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Digital Inclusion

FCC Commissioner Starks Touts High-Speed Internet as the ‘Great Equalizer’ at Broadband Communities Event

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Photo of Commissioner Geoffrey Starks by Masha Abarinova

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia, November 1, 2019 – High-speed broadband has the potential to be the “great equalizer,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks at a regional Broadband Communities event Thursday. However, more work needs to be done in connecting and empowering underserved communities, he said.

In his keynote address, Starks emphasized how robust data and sound public policy are interconnected in the goal to reduce internet inequality.

Fundamental programs, he said, such as the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline Program and the Connect America Fund, should remain intact. Their data, however, should be analyzed to determine which communities still need a basic internet connection.

At the very least, Starks said, every individual who qualifies must enroll onto the programs and obtain access to voice and broadband services. Moreover, lack of connectivity isn’t exclusively a rural problem, as urban areas are also affected.

Despite always lacking the high-capacity broadband that they need, libraries are becoming the “tech-hub” of the 21st century, Starks said. As there are many Americans who cannot afford a computer, library resources help bolster digital literacy and affordability.

Other speakers in the conference’s Thursday afternoon session included Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Senior Fellow Jon Sallet and Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vinton Cerf. They discussed the trajectory of current broadband development with the FCC policy framework.

If the government is going to spend money on capital investment, Sallet said, then it has to be spent on networks that have the potential to expand. This way, the FCC ensures that future connectivity demands are met for at least a decade and that it receives proper social returns.

Sallet also discouraged the government’s use of the term “overbuilding,” arguing that it is not an accurate word to describe broadband competition.

When people describe “overbuilding,” he said, they simply mean that an area has multiple broadband networks available. The more competition there is, the more incentives incumbent providers must improve their services and give consumers more choices.

It’s possible for the broadband industry to have a natural monopoly, said Cerf. Private companies want to compete with other providers, not with the government. That’s why reverse spectrum auctions aren’t necessarily one-sided. The FCC as well as private companies should be going out of their way to make as much spectrum available as possible.

Regarding the trade-off of spectrum, Sallet said that it’s uncertain how providers are planning to distribute it. Building small cell sites, for instance, is different between rural and urban areas, as they must be built closely together to perform effectively.

Moreover, Sallet added, wireless carriers are only required to report areas where they can build networks, rather than where they are actually located.

The FCC’s current definition of high-speed broadband is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download /3 Mbps upload, he said. Yet some aspects of agency policy continue to require “broadband” at 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up, even though that is not technically “broadband.”

Sallet emphasized the need for private providers and municipal governments to allocate responsibility in closing the digital divide.

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Broadband's Impact

Mississippi Nonprofit is Looking to Fill Gaps in Affordable Connectivity

The nonprofit Connect and Literacy Fund is planning to increase ACP adoption in Mississippi.

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Screenshot of the event on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, September 28, 2023 – A Mississippi nonprofit is setting up a fund to support connectivity and digital literacy in the state.

The Mississippi Broadband Association is looking to raise $10 million to start the fund, which MSBA Executive Director Quinn Jordan said is intended to ensure newly built broadband infrastructure stays affordable in the state.

“We can build these networks,” he said, speaking at a Fiber Broadband Association webinar on Wednesday, “But if we don’t get people connected, if they don’t have the literacy or capability to do so, what have we really done?”

The initiative, called the Connect and Literacy Fund, is planning to increase ACP adoption in Mississippi. Over 18 percent of the state lives below the poverty line, making them eligible for the $30 monthly internet discount, but less than half that number participate. The MSBA is planning to make ACP sign-up part of the registration process to participate in the fund’s programming.

That programming will focus on teaching people how to use internet services like telehealth and streaming and provide large discounts for tables and PCs. The ACP provides a $100 device subsidy, but this is rarely enough for low-income households to make a purchase, Jordan said.

Difficulty accessing affordable devices is contributing to the digital divide in Mississippi, according to Jordan. He pointed to the fact that over 40% of Mississippians do not have access to a tablet or computer.

“That is a huge number. And it’s a barrier to entry,” Jordan said. “The Connect and Literacy Fund is hopefully going to address that.”

Jordan said the $2.75 billion Digital Equity program, part of the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, will be beneficial, but MSBA’s Connect and Literacy Fund will have a role to play in ensuring the state builds on the gains it makes with the federal funds.

“That money is going to run out,” he said. “What we’re doing is ongoing.”

The ACP might also be short-lived. The $14 billion allocation from the Infrastructure Act is set to dry up in April of next year.

MSBA has spent the last two months developing its programing and is looking to start coordinating events with local anchor institutions in the coming months, Jordan said. 

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Association Argues Providers Not Engaged in Rollout Discrimination

Trade group says telecoms are not discriminating when they don’t build in financially difficult areas.

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Image of redlining from historic map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation of Richmond, Virginia, from PBS.

WASHINGTON, September 18, 2023 – Broadband association US Telecom sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission last week saying internet service providers don’t build in certain areas because it is financially difficult, not because they are being discriminatory.

The FCC proposed two definitions of digital discrimination in December 2022: The first definition includes practices that, absent technological or economic constraints, produce differential outcomes for individuals based a series of protected characteristics, including income, race, and religion. The second definition is similar but adds discriminatory intent as a necessary factor.

“To make business determinations regarding capital allocation, an ISP must consider a host of commercially important factors, none of which involve discrimination,” said the September 12 letter from USTelecom, which represents providers including AT&T, Verizon, Lumen, Brightspeed, and Altafiber.

“As the Commission has consistently recognized, such deployment is extremely capital-intensive…This deployment process is therefore subject to important constraints related to technical and economic feasibility” added the letter.

US Telecom explained that ISPs’ will choose to invest where they expect to see a return on the time and money they put into building broadband.

The association added that factors like population density, brand reputation, competition and the availability of the providers’ other services all go into deciding where broadband gets deployed.

“The starting point of the Commission’s approach to feasibility should be a realistic acknowledgement that all ISPs must prioritize their resources, even those that invest aggressively in deployment,” added the letter.

The association also highlighted the fact that it hopes to see as little government intervention in broadband deployment activity as possible, a concern that has been echoed by lobbyists before.

“Rather than attempting to use Section 60506 to justify taking extra-statutory intrusive actions that could paradoxically undermine ongoing broadband investment, the Commission must enable ISPs to make decisions based on their own consideration of the kinds of feasibility factors discussed above” read the letter.

Section 60506 of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act says that the FCC may implement new policies to ensure equal access to broadband.

The FCC is also looking to develop guidelines for handling digital discrimination complaints filed against broadband providers.

USTelecom said that ISPs should be allowed to demonstrate financial and logistical concerns as a rebuttal to those claims, in addition to disclosing other reasons for directing investment elsewhere to demonstrate non-discriminatory practice.

Reasons for investment elsewhere would include rough terrain, low-population density, MTE owners not consenting to deployment, zoning restrictions, or historical preservation review.

“To aid in the success of the Infrastructure Act and facilitate equal access, the Commission must continue to foster an environment conducive to ISP investment in the high-speed broadband infrastructure that Congress rightly views as central to our connected future,” concluded the letter.

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Digital Inclusion

FCC and HUD Partner to Promote Internet Subsidies for Housing Assistance Recipients

The effort is aimed at raising awareness about federal internet subsidies among housing assistance recipients.

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Photo of Marcia L. Fudge, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development

WASHINGTON, August 18, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced on Monday a partnership to promote the Affordable Connectivity Program to people receiving federal housing assistance.

The promotion efforts will include promoting the FCC program at public housing properties, joint enrollment events, and increased collaboration on messaging campaigns.

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge touted the agency’s partnership with the FCC at a community event in Seattle, Washington, and encouraged residents to sign up.

The announcement comes a month after the launch of White House’s “Online for All” campaign, an effort to raise nationwide awareness of the ACP.

Part of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the ACP monthly discounts on internet service of between $30 for low-income American and $75 for Tribal residents.

The $14 billion program is serving more than 20 million households as of August 14, roughly a quarter of whom had no internet access at all prior to receiving ACP benefits.

A monitoring tool developed by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a community advocacy group, estimates that $6.3 billion in ACP funds have been used up.

The remaining $7.7 billion is expected to dry up in 2024. Lawmakers have called for funding increases, citing the racial divide in internet access – 71% of Black households and 65% of hispanic households have broadband access, compared to 80% of white households –  that could worsen in the absence of ACP discounts.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, released in July a report calling for Congress to eliminate old broadband subsidies that have been rendered redundant by the $42.5 billion BEAD program and divert the funds to the ACP.

“Public energy and time in this space would be much better served fine-tuning and scaling digital inclusion efforts than being obligated to lobby for a program whose continuation should be a no-brainer,” wrote Joe Kane, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the ITIF and author of the report.

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