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Tribes Have Many Government Programs Available for Supporting Broadband Amid the Coronavirus, Say Officials

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Photo of Acoma Pueblo by Ethan Kan used with permission

May 12, 2020 — Education officials catalogued the many government broadband programs devoted to bridging the digital divide affecting tribal communities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, during the Tuesday teleconference of the Universal Service Administrative Company, speakers from the Department of Education and the Institution of Museum and Library Services also discussed their educational responses to the coronavirus and the availability and uses of funds for distance learning through high-speed internet services.

Further, the recently-passed CARES Act provides American workers, families, and small businesses with direct assistance.

And the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program assists with affordable broadband for rural and underserved communities.

“There are a lot of uses for funds [including] mental health services or curriculum developments for educators abroad,” said Jake Steele, Deputy Director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology.

Cynthia Landrum, Deputy Director for Library Services at IMLS, said that a provision in the CARES Act designates funds for tribal libraries and educational systems, such as increasing library and museum bandwidth.

The FCC and other organizations have provided numerous grants to communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. Last week, the USDA announced $23 million in grant investments for rural and low-income communities like Pueblo of Acoma, a tribal community of the kind that the E-rate program seeks to assist.

First Lt. Governor Pierson Siow said that the grant would enable the tribe to “provide high-speed broadband to 95 percent of the community and establish a tribally-owned service provider … helping the Pueblo bridge the digital divide.”

USAC is the FCC’s arm for implementing the E-Rate program that is supported by universal service fund charges on telecommunications services.

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FCC

FCC Commissioner Supports Rural Telco Efforts to Implement ‘Rip and Replace’

In remarks at the Rural Wireless Association event on Wednesday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks reaffirmed the FCC’s goals.

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Photo of Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, leading a discussion at the summit on Wednesday by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 30, 2022 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks acknowledged the agency’s goal of obtaining secure broadband networks at an event of the Rural Wireless Association on Wednesday.

“We must ensure that our broadband networks are secure,” Starks said in keynote address at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here, delivered via Zoom. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks of American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

Starks continued, “insecure networks, by definition, can’t provide the stable, reliable, always on communications we need. Especially during emergencies… Broadband must be secure for the full benefits of broadband to be achieved.”

The issue of ridding American telecommunications networks of equipment manufactured in China was a constant theme during the conference.

In addition to Starks’ presentation, several sessions addressed the dilemma faced by telecommunications carriers, particular rural ones, that had in the past invested heavily in lower-cost equipment from Huawei, a leading Chinese manufacturer.

As the political winds have changed on the topic over the past three years, Congress has allocated funds for a “rip and replace” program. The FCC is expected to announce the providers that will receive nearly $2 billion as part of the program by July 15.

But some fear that number could be more than $4 billion short of needed funds.

“The funds available will cover only a very small portion” of the costs to replace Huawei with non-Chinese manufacturers, said Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association.

Potential new requirements imposed on telecom providers

The commission recently sought comment on whether it should require carriers that receive high-cost support to have include baseline cyber security and supply chain risk management plans.

If these plans are included in requirements, Starks said that American communication networks would be protected from bad actors. Moreover, they are consistent with requirements already included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Starks thanked the RWA for its activity and advocacy in the “rip and replace” proceedings, officially dubbed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program.

“The threat is real,” called Starks. “Companies that are deemed by the federal government to be a threat to the United States and its people can not have free reign in data centers featuring some of the most sensitive data of Americans.”

This comes only days after Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove Beijing-based popular video-sharing application, TikTok, from their app stores in response to the apps’ obligation to comply with the Peoples Republic of China’s surveillance demands.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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FCC

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Calls for Environmental Sustainability at Summit

Environmental sustainability in telecom has been a key talking point for Starks.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

June 27, 2022 – Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Geoffrey Starks raised on Monday the importance of sustainability in telecommunications as a speaker at the 2022 Broadband for All Summit in Stockholm, Sweden.

An important responsibility for agencies in the industry is building infrastructure that is environmentally sustainable, Starks said, suggesting four avenues to improve sustainability.

First, “we must continue to find ways to do more while using less, and that begins with the way we use spectrum,” he said. We need to “squeeze” the most out of the finite spectrum while simultaneously building networks that draw less power.

Second, “we need to realize our full potential to help other sectors consume less, too.”

We are entering an era where we can “collect, communicate, and analyze massive quantities of data to improve decision-making in real-time. Everything from traffic flow to energy transmission to orders of operation on the factory floor can benefit from data-driven efficiencies that were previously impossible,” he said.

Third, “industry-led initiatives must continue to play a significant role, from progressing towards reducing or eliminating the carbon emissions associated with their operations, to increasing renewable energy and minimizing electronic waste.”

Some manufacturers, according to Starks, have gone beyond carbon neutrality and are aiming for net-zero operations.

Fourth, “we must collectively do our part to mitigate climate change’s harmful effects at the network level”. With harsher weather patterns than previous generation, we should invest in networks that will keep communities connected during storms, floods, wildfires, and other disasters.

Starks, who has pitched environmental sustainability in telecommunications on a multiple occasions, advocated for players in the industry to be “as aggressive as possible with our climate commitments, and we should be as comprehensive as possible in our effort to comply with them.” This should include eliminating waste during the production phase, he said.

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Infrastructure

NTIA’s Effort to Dispense Broadband Funds to Municipalities Is Not Without Obstacles

The NTIA’s notice of funding opportunity stops short of explicitly endorsing municipal broadband as the preferred model.

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Photo of Alan Davidson (left) and Drew Clark from Mountain Connect

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2022 – Though the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration says he looks to “pressure” states with restrictive laws on municipal broadband builds to use infrastructure money for that end, some aren’t convinced that the federal government can get that deep into state affairs.

The “NTIA lacks the authority to require states that have adopted laws restricting municipal broadband systems to waive or otherwise disregard these state restrictions,” Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, told Broadband Breakfast.

“Perhaps NTIA can encourage (strongly or otherwise) states to do so, but it can’t condition their receipt of BEAD grants on states’ refusal to do so,” May added.

The comments come after NTIA administrator Alan Davidson said during Broadband Breakfast event in April that his office is looking to pressure some states to work around their laws to allow the money to go toward municipal broadband builds.

NTIA is  entrusted with handing out to the states $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson added during a fireside chat with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark at the Mountain Connect conference in May that the success of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program will depend on getting “every state and territory on board.”

“I do think there will be a lot of deep directions to states,” he said about how the NTIA will administer the BEAD program.

BEAD NOFO bars states from rejecting municipalities

On municipal broadband, Davidson said that the BEAD’s notice of funding opportunity is explicit in that it does not allow eligible entities to not consider public provider types out of hand.

“Eligible Entities may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments (‘potential providers’) from eligibility for grant funds,” the NOFO reads.

“We are doing all we can to lean into the idea that we believe there is going to be a variety of approaches that communities play a huge role here,” Davidson said in the exchange with Clark. “You know states have their laws, we are going to try and do all we can under the law to pressure states, and to make sure that states are transparent where they are not able to meet them.”

The BEAD NOFO explicitly points to municipal broadband as broadband providers that should be utilized – asserting that eligible entities need to demonstrate the steps they have taken to “ensure the participation of non-traditional broadband providers,” and listing municipalities as one such entity.

The view on municipal broadband

Depending upon the party in the White House, municipal broadband is often considered a best practice by the Federal Communications Commission. Yet it has been outlawed or circumscribed in more than a dozen states.

Although the NOFO stops short of explicitly endorsing municipal broadband as a preferred model – it merely says that eligible entities cannot reject municipal builds without consideration – earlier versions of White House statements on broadband infrastructure explicitly favored granting funds to municipal entities.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted “to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” In doing so, the act mandated that “No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.”

The FCC understood this clause to include state subdivisions within the operational definition of the word, “entity.”

In Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, however, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 2004 against a municipal broadband service that argued that Missouri’s attempts to stifle its work violated the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The court held that a state’s own subdivisions did not constitute the “entities” protected in the Telecommunications Act. This decision disregarded the FCC’s framework and opened the door to challenges to municipal broadband efforts. Missouri was not the last state to restrict municipal broadband.

Great variety of municipal broadband restrictions

Not all states’ legislation designed to curb municipal networks looks the same, however. States with such legislation exist on a sliding scale.

Some states, such as Nebraska, ban public entities outright from providing broadband services on a retail or wholesale level. South Carolina presents so many obstacles to municipal broadband that such efforts are usually far too expensive or unwieldy to pursue.

The legislators that push these bans often argue that private internet providers are better equipped to provide these services to consumers, and that municipal efforts are a waste of taxpayer money. Advocates for this type of legislation also argue that municipal networks are inherently anticompetitive – as municipalities would compete with the private industry in addition to regulating it – in effect serving as both referee and player in the space.

A limited rollback of restrictions

Though some states have rolled back some restrictions in recent years – namely Arkansas and Washington – municipal efforts are still outright banned or heavily discouraged in 17 states.

In Arkansas, the shift appeared to come as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Senate Bill 74 was sponsored by Republican Arkansas State Sen. Ricky Hill and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in February of 2021.

The bill recognized broadband as “necessities” and that citizens who lack broadband “also lack access to healthcare services, education services, and other essential services.” The bill amended the Telecommunication Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 to allow municipal entities to provide broadband services to consumers.

Data gathered prior to the pandemic and published in the International Journal of Digital Economy, Data Sciences, and New Media argues that restrictions on state and municipal broadband decreases broadband penetration by 1-2 percentage points and 3 percentage points, respectively.

“These results make a strong argument that state broadband policies are having a measurable impact on broadband diffusion across the U.S., including in rural areas,” the study’s authors concluded.

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