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Coronavirus Roundup: Aji Pai on Pandemic, T-Mobile Approval, Navajo Nation Temporary Spectrum

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Photo of Ajit Pai in June 2017 by Lance Cheung of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

In an online speech Friday by Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai before the Interamerican Development Bank and The International Institute Of Communications Online Workshop, Pai encapsulated his thoughts on ”Regulation in Times of Pandemics: Lessons for the Future.”

Below is an edited version of his remarks.

In many ways, we’re still building the plane while flying it. Recognizing that it’s hard to say anything definitive only a few weeks into a fluid situation, I’d like to walk you through the FCC’s guiding principles as we’ve approached this challenge.

Number one, set clear priorities.

Looking at the landscape in early March, a few things became clear. First, social distancing was going to force huge segments of our economy and daily lives to move online, making it more important than ever that Americans have Internet access.

And, second, social distancing would create massive temporary job losses and furloughs, putting millions of Americans at risk of missing bill payments and having their Internet and telephone service cut off.

So, we decided that our top priority was to make sure that as many Americans as possible have Internet access and that that no American would have their Internet and voice service cut off because of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guiding principle number two: use markets before mandates.

In times of crisis, I understand how some might be tempted to look for any lever they can find to compel private companies to carry out the government’s goals. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the FCC chose a different path. Specifically, we called on broadband and telephone service providers to take what we call our Keep Americans Connected pledge.

The third principle is to use every tool in the toolkit. None of the FCC’s programs was developed with a pandemic in mind, but all of them sure can help.

Fourth principle: During an emergency, act like it’s an emergency. The FCC has put a premium on making decisions as quickly as possible. We’re talking days, not months or years.

Fifth principle: put your people first. The health and safety of FCC employees is paramount to me

California Public Utility Commission approves T-Mobile/Sprint merger

The California Public Utilities Commission approved the merger of Sprint Communications Company and T-Mobile on Thursday, with extensive conditions to mitigate the potential adverse impacts on competition.

The conditions also ensure that T-Mobile provides faster speeds, broader coverage, job creation, and offerings for low-income customers.

Thursday’s decision found that the merger would provide robust 5G wireless communication service network that could compete with the two larger existing wireless carriers, AT&T and Verizon.

The commission found the following benefits:

  • Provide 5G wireless service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps to 99 percent of California’s population by the end of 2026, and 300 Mbps to 93 percent by the end of 2024.
  • Provide 5G wireless service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps to 85 percent of California’s rural population, and speeds of at least 50 Mbps available to 94 percent of California’s rural population, by the end of 2026.
  • Have fixed home Internet access available to at least 2.3 million California households, of which at least 123,000 are rural households, within six years.
  • Maintain or improve current 4G LTE service quality and coverage for existing customers during the transition to 5G.
  • Offer the low-income California LifeLine program for as long as it operates in California, and enroll at least 300,000 new LifeLine customers.
  • Increase jobs in California by at least 1,000 compared to the total number of current Sprint and T-Mobile employees.
  • Other important commitments relating to diversity, reporting, and rural infrastructure deployment.

CPUC Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen noted, “A critical part of this deal is the benefits it provides for our neediest consumers, by ensuring that T-Mobile continues LifeLine service and enrolls at least 300,000 new LifeLine customers.”

FCC grants Navajo Nation temporary spectrum during pandemic

The FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau granted an emergency Special Temporary Authority request on Friday filed by the Navajo Nation, according to a press release.

The request will allow the Navajo Nation to use unassigned spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band to provide wireless broadband service over its reservation as part of its emergency COVID-19 pandemic response.  The tribal entity is located within parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  The temporary grant of authority is effective for 60 days.

“As with any community—rural or urban—tribal members are having to work from home and to rely increasingly on telemedicine and remote learning as they practice social distancing to minimize the spread of the virus on their reservations,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“This additional spectrum should help the leaders of the Navajo Nation meet the needs of its people during this challenging time.  I wish all the Navajo people health and wellness, and I remain committed to helping them bridge the digital divide.”

The FCC also noted that it continues to accept applications from eligible tribal entities for licensed access to unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum over their rural Lands in the Rural Tribal Priority Window, which closes August 3, 2020.

The grant of emergency temporary access to 2.5 GHz spectrum will not affect the availability of such spectrum to eligible Tribal applicants for purposes of the Rural Tribal Priority Window.

Broadband Roundup

Apple and Google Called ‘Gatekeepers,’ Huawei Trade Restrictions, Meta’s Antitrust Win

The NTIA claims that Apple and Google take advantage of their app stores to put unfair limitations on their competitors.

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Photo of NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson in 2017 by New America, used with permission

February 1, 2023 — Apple and Google are “gatekeepers” of the mobile app market, placing unfair limitations on competitors and ultimately harming consumers, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The app market is almost entirely confined to the app stores run by Apple and Google, and the report alleges that these companies create unnecessary hurdles for developers — such as restricting app functionality and imposing “slow and opaque review processes.”

The NTIA’s recommendations, issued at the direction of President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order on competition, include prohibiting self-preferential treatment from app store operators. The report also recommends that consumers be allowed to set their own default apps, delete pre-installed apps and have access to alternative mobile app stores.

Many of the recommendations echo the Open App Markets Act, a bill that gained significant bipartisan support in the last Congress but was not ultimately included in the year-end spending bill.

Alan Davidson, head of the NTIA, said that the agency’s recommendations would “make the app ecosystem more fair and innovative for everyone.”

“This report identifies important ways we can promote competition and innovation in the app market, which will benefit consumers, startups, and small businesses,” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council.

Apple and Google have previously argued that their stores allow users to access millions of apps while being protected from predatory apps and spam.

The report fails to “grapple with the acknowledged risks regarding consumer privacy, security and content moderation,” said Krisztian Katona, vice president of global competition and regulatory policy for the Computer  and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Apple as members.

Further trade restrictions for Huawei

The Biden administration has blocked export license renewals for certain U.S. companies that provide essential components to Chinese tech giant Huawei, and some officials are reportedly advocating for a complete ban on sales to the company.

The move is “contrary to the principles of market economy” and constitutes “blatant technological hegemony,” said Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over alleged threats posed by Chinese technology to national security. At a Wednesday hearing about technological competition, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., called China “the greatest threat to our country right now.”

However, some industry experts argue that China is being unfairly targeted for broad digital privacy risks that are not actually country-specific.

Amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March, where he will respond to committee members’ accusations that the app “knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data.”

Meta reportedly beats FTC antitrust challenge

A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request from the Federal Trade Commission to temporarily halt Meta’s acquisition of a virtual reality startup, according to Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources.

The FTC originally sued Meta in July, claiming the purchase would allow the company to dominate the emerging virtual reality industry. The case was unusual in that it focused on future competition, rather than the existing marketplace.

The decision marks a major loss for FTC Chair Lina Khan’s crusade against Big Tech monopolies. Under the direction of Khan, the agency has taken aggressive antitrust action against several tech companies, including a high-profile suit against Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

The agency now has a week to decide whether to appeal the ruling before the deal closes on Feb. 7.

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Broadband Roundup

Robocallers Disconnected, Connecting Minority Communities Grants, No Licenses for Huawei

The FCC said that MV Realty used the PhoneBurner dialing platform, and ordered Twilio to disconnect the companies.

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Photo of Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves

January 31, 2023 – Responding to a Federal Communications Commission order on January 24 to disconnect robocallers, internet voice service provider Twilio on Monday told Broadband Breakfast that it had blocked the accounts of MV Realty and PhoneBurner.

State attorneys general have filed suit against real estate firm MV Realty for alleged real estate scams via robocall. The FCC said that MV Realty used the PhoneBurner dialing platform, and ordered Twilio to disconnect the companies from its voice-over-internet-protocol network.

“We are continuing to cooperate with the FCC about our efforts to further mitigate illegal robocalls and to ensure the safety, reliability, and trust in our platform with regards to wanted communications by our customers and end users,” said Twilio Corporate Communications Director Cris Paden.

The FCC has been increasingly aggressive against alleged robocallers. On December 21, the agency proposed a near $300 million fine against an apparently fraudulent robocall and spoofing operation called “Cox/Jones Enterprise,” placing the largest fine of its type, according to the agency. The robocallers placed more than five billion calls in early 2021 to more than a half a million phones and using more than a million unique caller ID numbers, according to the FCC.

The agency in November took action to crack down on straight-to-voicemail robocalls and in October launched an inquiry into combatting calls on non-internet-protocol networks.

12 minority-serving colleges received more than $33.5 million

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration Monday awarded grants to 12 colleges as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. The program is directing $268 million to Historical Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities and focusing on training potential information personnel.

Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves said that the program creates “opportunities for good jobs supported by equitable hiring, fair compensation, safe workplaces, and the tools and training needed for long-term success.”

The grants, totaling $33.5 million, will be used to upgrade campus technology settings, equipment, and increase digital literacy skills in 10 states.

Awardees include: H. Councill Trenholm State Community College in Alabama, University of Arizona, Loma Linda University in California, Broward College in Florida, St. Augustine College in Illinois, Dominican University in Illinois, Simmons College of Kentucky, Coppin State University in Maryland, Elizabeth City State University and Saint Augustine’s University in North Carolina, Central State University in Ohio and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Biden administration stopping export licenses to Huawei

The Biden Administration is refusing to give licenses that would permit U.S. companies to sell semiconductors to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, according to a report  published by Reuters on Tuesday. Citing anonymous sources, the story said the Biden administration has stopped approving licenses for U.S companies to continue to export most items to Huawei.

The Commerce Department and other branches of the government have been increasingly restricting the access of Huawei to American-created technologies, at the same time they have also added 38 affiliates to the so-called “entity list”. A Commerce Department statement from August 2020, regarding the list imposed license requirement for items subject to Export Administration regulations and modified several Huawei entity list entries.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Secure Networks Act, requiring the FCC to prohibit the use of moneys it administers for the acquisition of designated communications equipment. The act promoted the removal of existing compromised equipment through a reimbursement program – called Rip and Replace – and further directed the commission to create and maintain the covered list.

In September 2022, the The Federal Communications Commission’s added Pacific Network Corp. and China Unicom Operations Ltd. to a growing list of communications equipment banned from the country on national security grounds.           

In December, the agency took additional action to prevent Chinese tech companies deemed to be national security threats – such as Huawei and ZTE – from gathering data on and surveilling American citizens.

And on January 10, 2023, House Republicans created a select committee on the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party designed to conduct investigations, hold public hearings, and submit policy recommendations on China’s “economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.”

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Broadband Roundup

TikTok to Testify Before House Committee, Tech Association Warns on Antitrust, US Telecom Board Adds

It will be the first time TikTok’s CEO will appear for a congressional hearing.

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Photo of Chew Shou Zi, CEO of TikTok by Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary used with permission

January 30, 2023 – The CEO of video sharing app TikTok will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, the chair confirmed Monday.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, said Shou Zi Chew will testify on the Chinese firm’s consumer privacy and data security practices, its impact on kids, and its relationship with the Chinese government.

It is the first time Chew will appear before a congressional hearing, according to a committee press release.

“Big Tech has increasingly become a destructive force in American society,” the committee said in a release. “The Energy and Commerce Committee has been at the forefront of asking Big Tech CEOs – from Facebook to Twitter to Google – to answer for their companies’ actions. These efforts will continue with TikTok.

“ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data,” the statement added. “Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security, as well as what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms. We’ve made our concerns clear with TikTok. It is now time to continue the committee’s efforts to hold Big Tech accountable by bringing TikTok before the committee to provide complete and honest answers for people.”

Industry association warns of patchwork of state antitrust laws

The Computer and Communications Industry Association released a report Thursday warning about the negative impact on businesses of states implementing various antitrust laws.

The association, which counts big tech companies including Google, Amazon and Apple as its members, flagged antitrust laws before state legislatures, including abuse of dominance, price discrimination, mergers and acquisitions reporting requirements, monopoly and monopsony, and regulating app stores.

It warns that problems addressing these issues on a state level could deter pro-competitive business activity. The CCIA said without a clear definition of discrimination, monopoly and monopsony, these laws could harm legitimate business practices and rob consumers of discounts – in the case of price discrimination, where a business provides different prices for similar products.

Excess reporting requirements on M&A could increase compliance costs for businesses because they already report the information to the federal government, it noted. And laws that prohibit app stores from banning alternative payment systems used for third-party apps could present privacy and security risks because payments systems chosen by those stores aim to provide the greatest safety for consumers and compliance on data protection legislation, the CCIA added.

Similar app store legislation and other antitrust legislation have been introduced in Congress.

“For each of these competition areas, if states adopt an increasing patchwork of laws, businesses will face difficulties navigating conflicting disparate requirements, which could ultimately result in barriers to innovation and investment.”

State legislatures with antitrust legislation include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

Last week, the Justice Department sued Google for allegedly abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

USTelecom adds three board members

Industry association USTelecom announced Friday the addition of three new board members.

Joining are Texas’s Totelcom Communications CEO Jennifer Prather, Brightspeed vice president of public policy and government affairs Tom Dailey in Charlotte, North Carolina, and altafiber’s vice president and general counsel Chris Wilson in Cincinnati.

The association also added two members to its leadership committee, including general counsel for Oklahoma-based MBO family of telecom companies Jake Baldwin, and Ryan Johnson, interim CEO of telecom Chariton Valley in Missouri.

“These inspiring leaders represent the full spectrum of USTelecom’s diverse and dedicated members, who are squarely focused on connecting communities and businesses to the power of broadband-enabled innovation,” the association said in a press release.

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