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Coronavirus Roundup: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Takes Steps on Spectrum, Lifeline and Broadcasting During Pandemic

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Photo of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in March 2017

The Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on Tuesday granted U.S. Cellular, a wireless telecommunications network, to use additional spectrum to help meet increased customer demand for mobile broadband during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order will allow the company to operate for 60 days in spectrum licensed to Advantage Spectrum in the AWS-3 Band in order to provide additional capacity to U.S. Cellular customers in parts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. This order follows a similar order that expanded T-Mobile’s spectrum access.

“During this crisis, the FCC is committed to pulling out all the stops so that broadband service providers are able to meet the changing needs of the American public,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“I would like to thank Advantage Spectrum for agreeing to make its spectrum available for this important effort.  I would also like to thank U.S. Cellular for taking the initiative and looking for ways to better serve customers who are making significant adjustments to their daily lives to minimize in-person interactions and slow the spread of the coronavirus.  We will continue to do everything we can to Keep Americans Connected.”

FCC waives Lifeline rules to help low-income consumers during coronavirus crisis

The FCC on Tuesday announced changes to the Lifeline program to aid community efforts to slow its spread.

The FCC notes that the Lifeline program plays an important role in ensuring that low-income Americans have access to affordable communications services by providing monthly discounts on broadband and voice services to qualifying consumers, and the agency said that its changes will ease burdens on Lifeline subscribers during the coronavirus pandemic and allow Lifeline carriers to focus their efforts on assisting customers.

“As Americans across the country turn to online services to enable social distancing measures, the importance of access to affordable communications, especially for low-income households, has only increased,” Pai said in a press release.  “During times of crisis, maintaining connections to family and friends, medical professionals and educators, and your coworkers is imperative, and I don’t want any American consumers experiencing hardships because of the pandemic to lose connectivity

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai commends broadcasters, calls for further action

In a Monday conference call with television and radio broadcasters and broadcaster trade associations, Pai thanked them for their efforts to educate the American people about the coronavirus pandemic.

He also suggested additional ways that broadcasters can help Americans stay safe and informed during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Going forward, I urged them to air public service announcements featuring prominent entertainment and sports personalities, and local news anchors asking Americans to practice the social distancing that is needed to combat this pandemic,” Pai said.  “We need this vital message to be delivered by Americans who are familiar to different segments of our society, and broadcasters are ideally situated to the task.”

During the call, Chairman Pai specifically thanked the National Association of Broadcasters for making available a Coronavirus Response Toolkit to radio and television stations and sharing coronavirus-related public service announcements with them, and Spanish-language broadcasters for conveying important information in Spanish.

Pai also asked broadcasters to work with cable and satellite operators to avoid service disruptions during the next 60 days, such as by agreeing, if necessary, to short-term extensions to expiring retransmission consent agreements.

Broadband Roundup

DOJ Investigates TikTok, Google’s Generative AI Tool, Charter Counsel Retiring

An internal TikTok investigation found employees had allegedly spied on journalists, the Times reported.

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Photo of Sundar Pichai from 2021 by World Economic Forum used with permission

March 21 – Federal authorities are investigating Chinese-owned video sharing app TikTok over allegations its spying over journalists, reported The New York Times on Friday.

Three people familiar with the case told the Times that the Department of Justice has been investigating the company ByteDance after internal emails showed the company had conducted an internal investigation and “found employees gained access to data from two journalists and people associated with them,” the Times said.

According to the Times, a spokesperson said the company “strongly” condemns the actions of the four employees who obtained the data on the journalists and are no longer working for the company.

The investigation comes during a time Washington and state governments are on heightened alert of the app they say is a national security risk. A new memorandum by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget published in February outlines how agencies are to identify and ban problematic software, like TikTok, from government devices and networks.

Senators have also introduced the RESTRICT Act to further strength national cybersecurity by empowering the Department of Commerce to examine critical infrastructure products and ensure “comprehensive actions to address risks of untrusted foreign information communications and technology products.”

Google releases new Bard generative AI tool for trialing  

Google has released an artificial intelligence tool intended to assist users in daily tasks, the search engine giant’s attempt to enter the generative AI space shared by the popular ChatGPT application.

Called Bard, the tool allows users to use the generative AI software as a personal assistant to ask the machine to come up with ways to accomplish tasks. The tool presents a chat box that the user inputs questions into, with the “large language model” generating tips automatically.

Google said the machine is in “experiment” mode and is asking users to contribute to its refinement.

Bard comes a week after OpenAI, the company behind generative AI tool ChatGPT, announced the latest version of the tool that has been able to craft novels using basic prompts. In the latest version, the tool has been able to create websites and versions of 2D video games.

Its power has concerned lawmakers and has sparked calls by experts for its regulation.

Aleksander Mądry, professor of Cadence Design Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a recent subcommittee hearing that generative AI is a very fast moving technology, meaning the government needs to step in to confirm the objectives of the companies and whether the algorithms match the societal benefits and values.

In January, ChatGPT eclipsed 100 million monthly users.

Charter’s executive vice president is retiring

Richard Dykhouse, executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Charter Communications, is set to retire from his position, but will remain until the company picks a successor, the cable company announced Monday.

“Rick has played a significant role in Charter’s transformation and growth story – including its reorganization in 2009, the acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, and the largest-ever integration of cable companies,” Chris Winfrey, Charter’s president and chief executive officer, in a press release. “I am grateful for Rick’s leadership, advice and sound judgment over the years and pleased that he will continue to assist us throughout the transition to his successor.”

Once the company finds the right person, Dykhouse will remain as executive counsel to support the transition, the release said.

Dykhouse joined Charter in 2006.

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Sohn Speaks After Withdrawal, MasterCard Back Indigenous Connectivity, Liberty-CityFibre in Buy Talks

The former FCC nominee spoke for the first time regarding future plans after withdraw.

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Photo of Gigi Sohn from 2012 by Joel Sage used with permission

March 20, 2023 – Former Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn told The Washington Post in an interview published last week that she feels she “got a book to write” about her 16-month-long battle to get the Senate to vote her onto the commission.

Earlier this month, the two-time nominee of President Joe Biden withdrew her candidacy after what she called “dark money political groups” tainting her career. Sohn has been accused by Republicans of being impartial and donating to members of the Commerce committee that had previously pushed her nomination forward but which did not get to Senate votes.

“There’s been a bunch of stuff that’s happened over the past 16 months … that is going to make people’s eyes bug out,” Sohn told the Post.

During Sohn’s confirming process, she said she has been repeatedly subject to “unrelenting, dishonest and cruel attacks” from extremist groups and media.

“That was the first time I felt like ‘Oh my god, this could really rile up some crazies to come to my house … and threaten me and my family,’” the Post said she said. “I owed a duty to me and my family to move on, and this was very, very difficult on me emotionally.”

Sohn said she was “very proud” of the support she received from allies throughout the process, the Post said.

Sohn told the Post she had “several opportunities” lined up, which might be the intent to advocate internet access at the state level. But she also said she could do “something bigger and more,” according to the Post.

Mastercard Foundation partners with indigenous institute for internet access

The Mastercard Foundation announced Monday it is investing $3.7 million CAD, or $2.7 million USD, to help the Indigenous Connectivity Institute expand its current digital equity program.

The funding will “enable the ICI to expand current programs and develop new initiatives to reach 10,000 Indigenous young people over the next three years,” according to the release.

“This support from the Mastercard Foundation has the potential to advance Indigenous digital equity beyond our imaginations and make real the projects and collaboration we’ve been dreaming up for years. I am so excited to see this new partnership in action,” Darrah Blackwater, ICI Advisory Council member, said in a press release.

The indigenous-led organization is focused exclusively on digital equity in Canada and the United States by providing training programs to advance technical and advocacy skills, the release said.

“A fast, reliable internet connection is essential to ensuring that Indigenous young people can access high-quality education and meaningful employment opportunities,” says Jennifer Brennan, Director of Canada Programs at the Mastercard Foundation. “The shared vision for this partnership is a commitment to ensuring Indigenous young people and communities have the capacity, support, knowledge, and financial resources to lead digital equity to advance their aspirations and strengthen their communities.”

State broadband leaders will join Broadband Breakfast’s online event and talk about how their states are approaching the digital equity planning process and what they hope to accomplish with federal funding on Wednesday April 15 at 12 noon ET.

Liberty Global acquisition of Cityfibre and Liberty Global unlikely to be approved

Virgin Media O2 is seeking to acquire fiber competitor CityFibre for £3 billion, according to media reports.

The Telegraph reported Saturday that Virgin is in talks with the competitor, but questions remained about the likelihood of the deal moving past regulators.

Capacity reported Monday that equity analyst Jerry Dellis from Jefferies Equity Research does not believe it will get past the Competition and Markets Authority.

“A VMO2-CityFibre combination would appear to threaten the regulatory objective of network competition providing choice for ISPs, leading to better outcomes for consumers,” a Dellis research note said, according to Capacity.

“With a back-book comprising millions of customers that have been subject to multiple years of retail price increases, we question what incentive VMO2 has to compete down wholesale pricing.”

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TikTok U.S. Must Sell or Get Banned, T-Mobile’s New Buy, 5 More States Receive ECF Money

The threats come ahead of the first congressional committee appearance by TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.

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Photo of T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert from the company

March 16, 2023 – President Joe Biden and his administration said it wants the Bytedance, TikTok’s owner, to sell the U.S. version of the video sharing app or face a ban, according to the New York Times.

The demands were sent to ByteDance in recent weeks, said the Times, citing anonymous sources.

The threats come ahead of the first congressional committee appearance by TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew next Thursday.

TikTok’s efforts to win U.S. government approval come in the face of growing Congressional hostility toward the platform. Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and John Thune, R-S.D., on Tuesday unveiled a bill aimed at giving the Commerce Department the ability to impose a complete ban of the app.

The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act (RESTRICT Act) requires the Commerce Department to examine critical infrastructure products, including those that go toward telecommunications networks, and to ensure “comprehensive actions to address risks of untrusted foreign information communications and technology products by requiring the Secretary to take up consideration of concerning activity identified by other government entities,” a White House release said.

Last month, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget required agencies to identify a banned application, such as TikTok, remove it and disallow installation on devices, and prohibit internet traffic within 30 days, as part of the governments’ efforts to rid security threats on government devices.

T-Mobile to acquire Mint Mobile for $1.35B

T-Mobile just announced Wednesday that it has agreed to acquire Ka’ena Corporation and its subsidiaries and brands including Mint Mobile, Ultra Mobile and wholesaler Plum, according to a press release.

T-Mobile is acquiring the brands’ sales, marketing, digital, and service operations, and plans to use its supplier relationships and distribution scale to help the brands to grow and offer competitive pricing and greater device inventory to more U.S. consumers seeking value offerings, it said in the release.

T-Mobile will pay up to a maximum of $1.35 billion, 39 percent in cash and 61 in stock to acquire Ka’ena, with the actual price based on the performance of Ka’ena during certain time period before and after the closing, the release said.

“Mint has built an incredibly successful digital direct-to-consumer business that continues to deliver for customers on the Un-carrier’s leading 5G network and now we are excited to use our scale and owners’ economics to help supercharge it – and Ultra Mobile – into the future,” said Mike Sievert, CEO of T-Mobile, in the release.

“Over the long-term, we’ll also benefit from applying the marketing formula Mint has become famous for across more parts of T-Mobile. We think customers are really going to win with a more competitive and expansive Mint and Ultra,” Sievert added.

FCC commits $1.7M from Emergency Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday it is committing $1.7 million through the Emergency Connectivity Program to help over 5000 students gain better access to internet.

Wednesday’s announcement will support approximately 15 schools and 2 libraries in California, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, and New York.

“Closing the Homework Gap means we need to connect all our students to digital tools for communicating with teachers and schools,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Today’s funding round is another important step toward reaching that goal.”

Since the launch of the $7.171 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund in 2021, the FCC has allocated a total of $6.6 billion in funding commitments. The program is set to end this year, with the service delivery deadline for the first two rounds approaching on June 30.

Some organizations have called on Congress to allocate additional funding for its extension.

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