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Coronavirus Roundup: Senators Urge Distance Learning, Zoom Privacy, NTIA Broadband and RUS Grants

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Photo of then-Rep. Ed Markey by Michael Geissinger from November 1993 in the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, on Thursday joined 31 of their colleagues in a letter to House and Senate leadership requesting funding for all K-12 students to have adequate home internet connectivity if their schools close due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The senators expressed their disappointment with the lack of such funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that recently passed Congress, despite their repeated call for resources dedicated to distance learning.

The lawmakers urged leadership in both chambers of Congress to support $2 billion in E-Rate funding in the next coronavirus relief package for students to learn at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” write the lawmakers in their letter to Senate and House leadership. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Sen. Markey was one of the authors of the original E-Rate program created as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Report: Zoom privacy remains questionable

In a massive unforeseeable shift to online schooling, worship, meetings, and working, Zoom is the go-to platform during coronavirus, but its privacy is questionable, reports Kate Cox for Ars Technica.

After recent negative attention for its privacy policy, Zoom changed aspects of the agreement. The policy boldly highlights, “Zoom does not sell customer content to anyone or use it for any advertising purposes.”

However, this isn’t the only problem. Zoom also shared data with Facebook, a feature that the company has since removed. A Vice Motherboard report also “found that users who sign up from the same email domain are automatically being added to each others’ contact lists,” writes Cox.

New York Attorney General Letitia James expressed trepidation in a letter to Zoom. “Zoom’s existing security practices might not be sufficient to adapt to the recent and sudden surge in both the volume and sensitivity of data being passed through its network,” wrote James.

NTIA updates American Broadband Initiative

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration updated the American Broadband Initiative under the Trump Administration, said NTIA Associate Administrator Doug Kinkoph.

While eight states are currently included in the National Broadband Availability Map, five additional states – Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Missouri, and Virginia – have come on board.

“We have seen increased participation in our State Broadband Leader’s Network, and our BroadbandUSA website now has the most comprehensive information on state resources available,” said Kinkoph.

Also, “NTIA supported Verizon’s application to the FCC for a Special Temporary Authority to access radio frequency spectrum due to increased commercial use,” announced Kinkoph.

The NTIA continues to coordinate and work across sectors to expand connectivity.

On April 15, 2020, at 2 p.m. ET, NTIA will hold a BroadbandUSA “Practical Broadband Conversations” webinar series.

Second window for Agriculture Department’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program

The Rural Utilities Service of the United States Department of Agriculture is opening a second window for funding is Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the RUS was notified that several applicants missed the first window deadline of February 10, 2020. Rather than extend the deadline and prolong the allocation of funds, RUS will open a second application.

Under the first window, RUS used $71.7 million.

Broadband Roundup

‘Urgent’ Social Media Advisory, Tribal Broadband Awards, Permitting Reform Progress, BroadbandNow Podcast

The Surgeon General called on Congress to take action against the harms social media poses to youth.

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Photo of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in 2022 by Phil Whitehouse used with permission

May 25, 2023 — United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday issued an advisory warning that social media carries a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” naming it an “urgent public health issue.”

The advisory called on Congress to develop age-appropriate safety standards for technology platforms, require a higher standard of data privacy for children and pursue policies that limit children’s access to social media.

Lawmakers are currently considering several pieces of legislation focused on children’s digital safety, with some opponents arguing that the harms of social media have not yet been proven. The advisory responded to these concerns by comparing the regulation of social media platforms to the rigorous third-party testing and “safety-first approach” taken with toy manufacturers, as well as in several other sectors with widespread adoption among children.

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment,” Murthy said. “And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address.”

In connection with the advisory, the White House on Tuesday announced the formation of an interagency task force focused on children’s online safety, warning that the current “unprecedented youth mental health crisis” could be exacerbated by advances in artificial intelligence.

NTIA authorizes more tribal broadband funding

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Wednesday announced nine new Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants of $500,000 each, bringing the program’s total to $1.77 billion in support of 166 Tribal entities across the country.

The grants are meant to “help lower barriers to Internet access today and plan for the future high-speed Internet infrastructure projects of tomorrow,” said NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson.

One of the grants was awarded to the Native Village of Chenega, which is located on a remote Alaskan island and currently has no internet service that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s standard of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The newly funded project aims to bring broadband to Chenega by utilizing existing infrastructure and providing fiber to anchor institutions, as well as encouraging adoption by subsidizing service and equipment costs.

Another grant was awarded to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon for the purpose of constructing a fixed wireless network to connect 200 currently unserved households to speeds of 100 Mbps download and 20Mbps upload.

“Quality rural broadband is essential to quality of life, and that infrastructure priority must include Tribal communities,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in a press release celebrating the award.

Other projects range from providing publicly accessible internet at community anchor institutions to supporting the initial planning phases of a major broadband infrastructure initiative.

The NTIA will launch an additional round of TBCP funding “in the next few months,” according to the agency.

Learn more about Tribal broadband deployment at Broadband Breakfast’s upcoming live online event on May 31.

House lawmakers move forward with broadband permitting reform

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday advanced several bills aimed at streamlining broadband permitting and expediting deployment.

Under current regulations, “providers need to go through burdensome permitting processes at the federal, state and local level — and the time to receive approval on a permit can range from several months to several years,” said Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. “Our legislation would cut the red tape and ensure that this money can reach rural, unserved Americans quickly.”

The committee — which also advanced a bill reauthorizing the FCC’s spectrum auction jurisdiction for three years — unanimously passed legislation that would standardize permitting fees and expedite reviews. However, the committee’s Democratic minority objected to the American Broadband Deployment Act, which includes directives that would relax environmental and historical preservation reviews.

“Unfortunately, Republicans insisted on a package of giveaways that trample on state and local rights and consumer and environmental protections,” said Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., one of the bill’s sponsors, argued that it would be “an important step in unleashing innovation and turbocharging public and private investment.”

BroadbandNow Podcast discusses BEAD and middle mile programs

The success of the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Act will rely on thorough data collection and adherence to high technological standards, said Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark on an episode of the BroadbandNow Podcast released Thursday.

In addition, state broadband offices will play a “crucial role” in filling in any gaps that may be left by the FCC map, Clark said.

While Clark expressed cautious optimism about the BEAD program, he raised concerns about the costs that will cut into the awards, including those incurred as a result of domestic procurement and letter of credit requirements.

The episode also discussed Broadband Breakfast’s recent report on the Middle Mile Program, which will allocate $1 billion to the construction of critical middle mile infrastructure — “much less than is needed,” Clark said.

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Broadband Roundup

Spectrum Auction Bill Clears Committee, ECF Pushes $12M, OpenSignal Speed Leaders

The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a three-year extension of the FCC’s auction authority.

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May 24, 2023 – The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday pushed forward a bill that would restore the Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auction authority for another three years and increases funding for a FCC program intended to replace Chinese networking equipment deemed a national security threat.

The FCC’s spectrum auction authority expired on March 9. The FCC and the industry that relies on the airwaves to deploy wireless networks urged Congress to move forward on the reauthorization.

The Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act, which was introduced earlier this week, also adds just over $3 billion to the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program, also known as the rip and replace program. That additional amount is equal to what the FCC has asked Congress to add to the fund to match what providers were asking for.

The bill also funds the next generation 911 network – which allows first responders to receive more information from distressed callers over the internet – and “firmly establishes” the National Telecommunications and Information Administration as manager of federal government spectrum holdings.

The bill was part of a markup process of 19 bills and will now go to the full House to be voted on.

Wireless industry association CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said, “We commend Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Ranking Member Frank Pallone, and the House Energy & Commerce Committee for taking decisive action to restore the FCC’s spectrum auction authority. More licensed spectrum is needed to meet accelerating wireless data demand, fuel the next wave of 5G innovation, and secure the future of American industry and our economy.”

FCC announces $12 million from Emergency Connectivity Fund

The FCC announced Wednesday it is committing over $12 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program to help students remain connected to the internet outside of school.

The latest funding round will support one organization, five libraries, and 45 schools that applied through the third application window, “benefiting approximately 35,000 students across the country, including students in Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, South Carolina, Texas and Washington,” the FCC said.

“While the school year is winding down, the need to get all our students connected remains a priority so kids can access online assignments and engage with teachers,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a press release. “This program has made important progress in helping to close the Homework Gap.”

In 2021, the ECF was organized and provided three “application windows” in which libraries and schools could apply for support. So far the ECF has provided more than eight million broadband connections, about 13 million digital devices, and has given support to approximately  120 organizations, 1,000 libraries, and 11,000 schools.

Verizon, Google on top for broadband speeds

OpenSignal released a report Tuesday showing Verizon’s fiber product in first place for broadband download speed and Google Fiber as first for upload speed nationally.

Verizon’s Fios service leading the country in the broadband download category with an average speed of 157.6 Mbps, beating Google Fiber and AT&T FTTH, who are tied for second place with scores ranging from an average of 139.6 to 140.2 Mbps.

As far as national broadband upload speeds, Google Fiber lead with an average speed of 106.9 Mbps. AT&T FTTH follows in second place at 96.3 Mbps and Verizon FTTH in third at 94.3Mpbs.

 

 

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Broadband Roundup

Former Commissioners Push for Auction Authority, U.S. Reacts to China Micron Ban, Inmarsat Buy Approved

Former FCC commissioners pushed Congress to extend the spectrum auction of the agency.

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Photo of Technology Factory in Zhuhai China in October 2015, via Wikimedia

May 23, 2023 – Former commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission urged Congress to reinstate the agency’s spectrum auction authority in a letter Tuesday.

“As former leaders of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we have worked together, on a bipartisan basis, to lay the foundation for America’s global wireless leadership,” read the letter. “Although our policy priorities at times differed, we share an understanding that central to Americans’ wireless success is the FCC’s spectrum auction authority.”

The commission’s authority to auction spectrum licenses expired in March, for the first time in the agency’s history.

Since 1994, the FCC has been holding auctions for licenses and permissions to utilize the radiowaves for wireless connectivity. This authority, according to the letter, has been “connecting Americans from anywhere and on the go, and advancing U.S. enterprise, while driving the creation of more than 4 million jobs.”

The letter went on to stress “troubling consequences” in terms of national security and global economic leadership if Congress did not renew the authorization.

“Delay in renewing auction authority risks ceding a global competitive advantage to other countries, particularly China, which has been aggressively making spectrum available for 5G and investing in next-generation wireless technologies to capture global markets,” read the letter.

This is the most recent in a succession of appeals from the wireless industry and the FCC itself regarding the delay in reinstating the auction authority. Nine trade associations, including the Competitive Carriers Association, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, 5G Americas, and the Wireless Infrastructure Association, sent a letter to Congress regarding the issue last month.

Current FCC commissioners also sent their own letter last month urging Congress to reinstate the authority.

“Importantly, the United States cannot afford to wait,” read the FCC’s letter. “The global community will soon convene for another World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) to determine the future of spectrum policy, and we must send a strong signal in advance of that meeting of our continued commitment to lead in coming generations of wireless technologies.”

Last week, a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce committee pushed forward a bill that would extend the authority to June 30.

China’s Micron ban draws U.S. ire

China announced a ban on US leading memory chip manufacturer, Micron, in a statement released Sunday, marking another step in the tech competition between the two countries.

China’s cyberspace administration claimed in the statement that Micron presented “serious network security risks” and cautioned key Chinese information infrastructure operators against utilizing Micron processors in their projects, per the BBC. China initiated a security evaluation of Micron at the end of March, but the statement did not specify any particular risk factors.

In response to the Chinese regulator’s ban, the Commerce Department spokesperson expressed its firm opposition to “restrictions that have no basis in fact.”

“This action, along with recent raids and targeting of other American firms, is inconsistent with the PRC’s assertion that it is opening its markets and committed to a transparent regulatory framework,” continued the spokesperson.

At a conference last Monday, Micron Chief Financial Officer Mark Murphy said the company finds it “unclear as to what security concerns exist,” according to the Financial Times.

“We look forward to continuing to engage in a discussion with Chinese authorities,” he added.

More than 10 percent of Micron’s revenue came from mainland China, according to research firm Gavekal Dragonomics. Micron stocks fell approximately three percent on Monday following the Chinese ban announcement.

China’s action against Micron was the latest development in the context of increasing competition between China and the United States, particularly in the semiconductor industry. While the Biden administration advocates for restrictions on US investment in Chinese technology, the Chinese government is shifting its focus from US-based semiconductor firms to domestic chip manufacturers.

“The ultimate goal of retaliating against Micron is to urge certain American companies to restrain themselves, so we could further promote technology and trade cooperation, and avoid pursuing an isolated and self-reliant approach,” Teng Tai, an economist and the director of the Wanbo New Economic Research Institute in Beijing, posted on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, per the New York Times.

The U.S. has itself banned Chinese firms from the country, including Huawei and ZTE.

FCC approves Viasat’s $7.3B acquisition of Inmarsat

The Federal Communications Commission approved Friday Viasat’s acquisition of Inmarsat, an estimated $7.3 billion transaction.

“After carefully reviewing the record in this proceeding, we find that the proposed transaction will not violate the Act or the Commission’s rules,” the FCC said in its decision.

“We further find that it is unlikely to have adverse competitive effects in the market segments in which the Applicants compete,” the decision added. “At the same time, we find that the proposed transaction will generate several public interest benefits, including giving the merged entity greater spectrum density and diversity and additional satellite capacity as well as enabling the merged entity to offer innovative services and improved service quality. Accordingly, we find that approval of this transaction will serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

The FCC’s decision came soon after the Competition and Markets Authority of the United Kingdom granted unconditional approval of the merger.

“The combination will create a leading global communications innovator with enhanced scale and scope to affordably, securely and reliably connect the world,” read an Inmarsat statement from November 2021, when the deal was proposed.

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