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Price Caps on Prison Calls, Facial Recognition Act Gains Momentum, Free State Foundation Calls for TCPA Updates

Jericho Casper

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Photo of Sen. Ed Markey by the Knight Foundation used with permission

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is urging state governments to impose price caps on prison phone calls, Ars Technica reported.

Pai sent a letter to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners on Wednesday, saying that it was up to state governments to cap intrastate calling prices because the FCC lacks the authority to do so.

Critics argued that Pai could do more, especially given that three years prior, he helped kill Obama-era FCC rules that limited the price of intrastate calls.

Shortly after President Donald Trump appointed Pai in early 2017, Pai instructed agency lawyers to drop the commission’s court defense of a cap on intrastate calling rates.

That action led to a June 2017 court victory for Global Tel*Link, a prison phone company, in its lawsuit against the intrastate cap.

Pai’s letter to NARUC noted that in the absence of FCC regulation, intrastate prices have far exceeded interstate ones, maintaining that the FCC was powerless to address the issue.

Momentum builds to prohibit government use of facial recognition technologies

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, introduced by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is increasingly receiving support.

“As the country grapples with its past and decides what type of nation we want to be in the future, a growing group of individuals and organizations are saying loud and clear that it’s time to stop the proliferation of technologies that invade our privacy and put vulnerable populations in harm’s way,” Markey said.

The act would prohibit the use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies by federal entities, as well as barring the use of federal funding to build biometric surveillance systems.

It would also ban the use of information collected by these surveillance systems in any judicial proceedings.

Support for the act has been growing, with new sponsors and endorsers speaking out daily against federal use of biometric technologies in policing and surveillance.

“Facial recognition technology is fundamentally flawed, systemically biased and has no place in our society,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.

Free State Foundation urges Congress to update Telephone Consumer Protection Act

The FCC reports that unwanted calls generate 60 percent of all consumer complaints received by the agency each year.

Robocalls have become so pervasive that they are drawing the Supreme Court’s attention, wrote Daniel Lyon, professor at Boston College Law School and member of the board of academic advisors at the Free State Foundation.

Three recent Supreme Court cases dealt with confusion surrounding different provisions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a federal stature intended to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls, enacted in 1991.

Lyons argued that the text of the TCPA is awkward and has grown increasingly problematic, as highlighted by the trilogy of Supreme Court cases.

Lyons urged Congress to update the TCPA to reflect the realities of the modern telecommunications marketplace, recommending lawmakers consider focusing on technological solutions, rather than litigation, to protect American consumers.

Broadband Roundup

Biden’s Infrastructure Participants, Low-Price Broadband Access, U.S. Versus EU On Broadband

Associations want inclusion in infrastructure plan, BroadbandNow report on state of broadband, and report says U.S. leads EU on broadband.

Tim White

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Photo of Claude Aiken courtesy of the Aspen Institute

April 22, 2021 – The Rural Broadband Association (NTCA) and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) want to ensure all community-based providers have a seat at Biden’s infrastructure funding table.

In an Thursday op-ed for the Morning Consult, WISPA CEO Claude Aiken and NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said they don’t want Biden’s new infrastructure proposal—the American Jobs Plan—to exclude some members of their organizations simply because they don’t fit the criteria of “broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives.”

“Corporate structure does not dictate the strength of commitment to closing the digital divide,” Aiken and Bloomfield wrote. “We also count among our memberships family-owned companies, sole proprietorships, Tribal internet service providers and other community-based commercial businesses who are today delivering essential services across rural and small-town America.”

Many of the providers in WISPA and NTCA who would be excluded from the infrastructure funding are committed to their communities on delivering broadband service, they wrote. “They have helped to keep us connected, productive and safe during these difficult times. It is hard to fathom what the crisis might have become without them,” they wrote.

“We believe any community-based provider with a proven track record of performance should be eligible for funding regardless of corporate form,” they wrote. “Corporate structure should not matter if your heart and soul has been devoted to bringing essential connectivity to the hardest to reach and serve in America.”

Low-priced broadband access higher, BroadbandNow report says

Access to low-priced broadband has seen a significant increase over the last year, according to BroadbandNow’s first quarter 2021 report on the “State of Broadband in America,” released Wednesday.

“For the first time, more than 3 of 4 of Americans (77 percent) have access to low-priced wired broadband plans compared to 50 percent in our 2020 Q1 report,” the report said.

“The expansion of cost-effective broadband internet to more than three-quarters of the U.S. population is a milestone, yet one we must continue to push further,” said Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow. “Momentum toward closing the digital divide is at an all-time high, and it is clearer than ever that both access and affordability must be addressed.”

Low-priced internet is a plan that costs $60 per month or less, excluding promotional pricing, with a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. That speed threshold matches the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of high-speed broadband.

Other key findings in the report include data that only 31 percent of Americans have access to a low-priced plan that has 100 Mbps download/25 Mbps upload speed, a significant speed increase over the 25/3 Mbps threshold. It also details that 41 percent of Americans have access to symmetrical service of 100 Mbps speed from a wired or fixed wireless provider.

Data for the report comes from “(a) pricing and package data from all 2,000+ U.S. ISPs, (b) publicly available FCC “Form 477” data, (of which the latest public release was December 2020) and (c) updated coverage data voluntarily submitted to us directly from providers,” according to the report.

US Telecom says U.S. leads EU on broadband

In another report released Wednesday, US Telecom says the United States significantly leads the European Union in broadband deployment and adoption.

“The study: US vs. EU Broadband Trends (2012-2019) debunks a persistent myth that the EU’s more intensive framework for broadband regulation has yielded a superior online experience for consumers and ought to be replicated in the United States,” read the US Telecom statement.

According to the report, the U.S. leads the EU by 12 percentage points on deployment for speeds at 30 Mbps, and leads by 25 percent points at speeds higher than 100 Mbps. For adoption, the U.S. leads by 9 percentage points at 30 Mbps and by 21 percentage points at speeds higher than 100 Mbps, the report said. In rural areas the U.S. leads by 20 percentage points at 30 Mbps.

The report also details investment costs by broadband providers, saying that the U.S. invests three times more than the EU per household, or approximately $700 per home per year. And American consumers “enjoy twice the facilities-based competition as their EU counterparts.”

“It’s no contest. If the U.S. had followed the EU’s more regulatory broadband path, our digital divide would be substantially bigger and our shared networks considerably less prepared for the traffic demands of the pandemic and our increasingly connected economy,” US Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter said in a statement.

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Broadband Roundup

Verizon Expands 5G, U.S. And E.U. Diverge On Facial Recognition, New Drone Regulations

Verizon is expanding 5G in California and Texas, the U.S. and E.U. see differently on facial tech, FAA drone rules.

Benjamin Kahn

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April 21, 2021—Verizon plans to expand its 5G Ultra Wideband to additional cities in California and Texas on Thursday.

California cities of Fresno, New Orleans, and Riverside, as well as San Antonio, Texas will get the service, which will cap Verizon’s coverage at 33 cities, dubbed “5G Home Internet cities.”

Beginning on April 29, new customers may qualify for up to $500 to cover cancelation fees when switching to Verizon’s 5G Home Internet, as well as a Samsung Chromebook 4. Verizon is also offering to bundle in a free Stream TV device with Discovery+ for 12 months at no cost.

Those switching to Verizon internet who already have a mobile plan will have plans start at $50, while those without will start at $70.

This level of expansion was made possible following Verizon’s positive performance in the FCC’s C-Band Auction, where it picked up more than 3,500 licenses at $45.5 billion dollars.

The E.U. and U.S. diverging on facial recognition technology

On Tuesday, federal investigators arrested Stephen Chase Randolph for allegedly playing a role in the storming of the Capitol on January 6.

Photographs and videos of many people of interest were disseminated by law enforcement with the hopes that people would come forward with information. Though this has been the cast for some, Randolph was not turned in by a fellow human — according to the FBI, Randolph was identified on his girlfriend’s Instagram account by an “open-source facial comparison tool.”

This eventually led the FBI to Randolph’s social media accounts, his location, and culminated in his arrest. Randolph’s arrest is not unique, however. He is just one of many persons of interest who have been identified by artificial intelligence for a potential role in the unrest in DC.

Ethical questions regarding AI and facial recognition are not new, but while the federal government appears to be comfortable leaning on the technology when it suits its efforts, the European Union appears to approach the technology with greater caution.

Back in January of 2021, the European Parliament released a report that mulled the use of facial recognition and other biometric technology by the military, healthcare, and justice sectors. This came ahead of the recent news reported by Ars Technica that E.U. regulators are reportedly in the process of drafting legislation that would significantly curtail the use of facial recognition by European authorities.

As facial recognition technology improves, privacy and security advocates have struggled to strike a balance between their prerogatives. Though many advocates concede that facial recognition should perhaps be allowed in extenuating circumstances like missing children or terrorist attacks, it may be difficult to determine whether it should be used for instances like those that occurred in DC on January 6.

Drones to see additional regulations

The regulatory landscape for drones is set to shift as the Federal Aviation Administration plans to implement a new section to its rules for both operators and designers.

Part 89 is a new component to the FAA’s rules that will seek to integrate unmanned aircraft into US airspace, and more fully recognize the significance of the roles that drones play in the American economy.

Among other things, it will require drone operators and designers to utilize remote ID technology that allows a drone to broadcast its relative position, unique ID signature, and other important in-flight information—much like commercial aircraft are required to do.

Designers will also be required to give their drones serial numbers, a means of compliance, a declaration of compliance, and sufficient labeling that indicates that the equipment in question is compliant with Part 89.

Though flying drones may have once seemed reserved to hobbyists and the military, the market for commercial drones has exploded in recent years, going from a mere $637.8 million in 2015 to becoming an industry valued at more than $10 billion today, as its use extends to multiple industries including agriculture, and delivery and emergency services.

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Broadband Roundup

Emergency Broadband Benefit Test Launch, FCC Robocall Database, West Virginia Broadband Legislation

FCC launches both the Emergency Broadband Benefit program and a database for robocalls, while West Virginia moves on broadband legislation.

Tim White

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Photo of Daniel Linville, from WV legislature

April 20, 2021 – On Monday, the FCC announced that the agency is opening the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to participating broadband providers for testing.

The $3.2-billion program was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed in December 2020. It is a temporary funding mechanism intended to provide relief to eligible consumers for broadband subscriptions through their providers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The program will expire when all funds are depleted or six months after the Health and Human Services secretary declares that Covid-19 is no longer a health emergency.

This important milestone will allow these providers to familiarize themselves with the program systems in anticipation of the impending consumer launch of the program, the press release said.

“As the agency continues to work to rapidly deliver much-needed relief to families across the country, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in record time,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “I am thrilled that we have more than 600 providers now committed to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Many have expressed interest in helping make sure consumer enrollments go as smoothly as possible as we near the program’s launch. For millions of families making the hard choice between paying a utility or internet bill or at risk of digital disconnection, help is on the way.”

FCC launches robocall database

The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday the launch of a database through which voice service providers are required to inform the agency of their robocall mitigation efforts.

Called the Robocall Mitigation Database, it includes a portal through which voice providers must file certifications regarding their efforts to stem the origination of illegal robocalls on their networks.

As of September 28, 2021, phone companies must refuse to accept traffic from voice service providers not listed in the new database.

“Protecting consumers from scammers that use robocall and spoofing tools is a top priority,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel.  “To succeed, we not only need an all-hands-on-deck response from government, but we need industry commitment and focus.  Our message to providers is clear: certify under penalty of perjury the steps you are taking to stop illegal robocalls, or we will block your calls.”

Last week, the agency announced that carriers must ensure free tools are available to consumers to mitigate such calls.

Call authentication, based on STIR/SHAKEN technological standards, enables voice service providers to verify that the caller ID information transmitted with a call matches the caller’s phone number.  Use of these standards will help combat scammers’ use of caller ID spoofing to mask their true identity and trick consumers by appearing to call from local or other trusted numbers.  It will also allow law enforcement, the FCC, and industry to more quickly and effectively trace back scam calls to their source.

The FCC previously required providers with IP-based phone networks to implement the STIR/SHAKEN framework by June 30, 2021. The agency also required voice service providers with non-IP network technology either to upgrade their non-IP networks to IP and implement these standards, or work to develop a non-IP caller ID authentication solution. Providers that received an extension of time to come into compliance with these STIR/SHAKEN obligations must adopt robocall mitigation programs.

West Virginia broadband legislation

The West Virginia legislature has passed a new broadband bill, House Bill 2002, aimed at speeding up broadband deployment and offering additional protections for consumers, reported the Gazette-Mail on earlier this month.

The legislative process was impacted by industry lobbyists trying to usurp parts of the bill, reported the Gazette. Daniel Linville, a state representative, said that “broadband lobbyists tried to take control of the bill when they decided they didn’t like some of the Legislature’s proposals,” according to the article.

“I hope that fixing the damn internet will be the priority we all say it is, and I don’t mean in a partisan fashion. Put in the work,” Linville said.

The state senate sent the bill to the state house chamber just a few hours before the close of the legislative session, forcing the house to take quick action on it.

The bill was originally introduced in a previous year but had changes that didn’t make it through that time, the Gazette reported.

In the current version, the legislation would “expedite the permit process and have broadband companies share in the cost of a project with utility companies and other entities that do work requiring digging in right-of-way areas maintained by the West Virginia Division of Highways,” the article said.

It would also “specify protections for broadband customers that would allow them to file complaints with the Consumer Protection Division in the state Attorney General’s Office.”

The bill is waiting for consideration by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice.

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