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Coronavirus Roundup: Speedy FCC Web Meeting, NCTA Broadband Dashboard, GEO’s New Mapping Tool

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FCC file photo of the agency's current commissioners

The commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission announced at the start of the Commission’s monthly meeting – perhaps the first fully-remote monthly meeting at the agency – that they had already voted in favor on all nine proposals listed on the meeting agenda.

Commissioners cited the “extraordinary times” wrought by the coronavirus and congratulated its staff for acting quickly in the face of those difficulties to institute change.

The meeting lasted a total of 14 minutes, whereas most open meetings stretch well beyond two hours, included ratifying a piece that requires some Voice-over-Internet-Protocol providers to trace the authenticity of all calls passing through their system.

Some commissioners also used the evanescent soapbox of the webinar to issue various rallying cries.

Jessica Rosenworcel brought attention those “who desperately need to go online for school right now” and said that the coronavirus is exacerbating the fault lines in the homework gap.

Similarly, Geoffrey Starks cited the need for more funding for the E-Rate program, declaring that the digital divide has “morphed into a monstrous new Covid-19 divide.”

NCTA releases new data on network performance

The cable association NCTA debuted an internet dashboard showing new metrics on how cable internet is handling the coronavirus broadband stress, according to a blog post by association CEO Michael Powell.

The group’s key takeaway is that usage during peak hours has increased, but that networks have thus far been able to handle the increased usage well.

In addition, upstream usage, which typically sees its peak in the evening, has shifted up to the afternoon. Downstream usage has remained steady in the evening time.

The NCTA still cautioned its broadband customers to be “good stewards” of how they use their home networks, highlighting the clogging capabilities of security cameras and “non-time-sensitive” software updates.

“While no consumer is immune from issues arising from temporary congestion in the home or across the internet,” Powell said, “cable ISPs will continue in their efforts to plan for future demand and move swiftly to address issues when they arise, even in the midst of this pandemic.”

Newly-renamed GEO (nee NEO) releases product to help contest Form 477 data

Geospatial Engineering and  Optimization, or GEO, which was until recently was known as NEO Partners, released a product it calls its “Instant Education Network” to help “remote education to student populations within weeks.”

The tool claims to be “the only broadband map that provides statistically valid content” to be used to contest the FCC’s roundly-criticized Form 477 data.

The Form 477 Data has long been criticized for overreporting the number of census blocks with access to broadband. However, the recent passage of the Broadband DATA Act allows jurisdictions to challenge FCC data with its own data, which in some cases would allow those jurisdictions to be eligible for FCC funds.

GEO is charging $1,000 for towns and $5,000 for communities for what it claims to be more accurate data. GEO also guarantees that it can “have your community collecting data within 24 hours,” according to company CEO Paul Deming and Chief Technology Officer Glenn Fishbine.

Broadband Roundup

Satellites Expected to Increase, $30 Million From Emergency Connectivity Fund, NTIA 5G Challenge

The U.S. must remain a market leader in the satellite sector, said Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone

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Photo of Lago Argentino Department, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina

February 3, 2023 – The number of satellites in the communications marketplace will continue to increase, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr, D- N.J., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during opening remarks at a Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

“Wireless carriers and phone manufacturers continue to build this capability into their networks and phones,” Pallone said.

“Quite simply, failing to ensure that the United States remains a market leader in this sector risks our nation falling behind our counterparts across the globe, including China, in producing cutting-edge consumer innovations and fortifying our public safety and national security capabilities,” Pallone said.

FCC disbursing another $30 million from Emergency Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday that it will commit more than $30 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which helps students stay connected to the internet when not in school.

The newly announced award is expected to fund applications from all three previous application windows, and will support more than 200 schools, 15 libraries, and 1 consortium.

Thus far, the program has provided support to approximately 10,000 schools, 10,000 libraries, and 100 consortia, plus more than =$12 million in connected devices. Around $6.5 billion in funding commitments have been approved to date, approximately $4.1 billion is supporting applications from the first funding window, $833 million from the second window and $1.6 billion from the third window.

$7 million competition by NTIA to promote development of 5G

National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced the launch of the 2023 5G Challenge with the Defense Department l. It’s purpose is to accelerate the adoption and development of an open and interoperable multi-vendor environment for the 5G wireless standard. “ Such an ecosystem will spur a more competitive and diverse telecommunications supply chain, drive down costs for consumers and network operators, and bolster U.S. leadership in the wireless sector.”

“A competitive wireless ecosystem is vital for our domestic and economic security. The research conducted from this competition will benefit everything from our cellphones to the secure radio networks needed for our national defense,” said Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and head of the NTIA.

Participants are required to create 5G equipment prototypes and then test to see if their subsystems can connect to other contestant’s equipment. For specific application and registration information, see the NTIA website .

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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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