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Senate Commerce Committee Advances Two Tech Bills, FCC Opens E-Rate Window, Starry Unveils New Tools

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Screenshot of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee at the markup

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday advanced the E-SIGN Modernization Act of 2020 and the Government Spectrum Valuation Act of 2019 during an executive markup session.

Both bills were moved on by thin margins, receiving much disapproval from Democratic committee members.

The E-SIGN Modernization Act was advanced by a vote of 14-12. The bill’s sponsors, U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, Todd Young, R-Indiana, and John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the legislation to streamline how consumers consent to receiving electronic documents like bank statements, account information and contracts.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, ranking member of the committee, said she opposed the bill and withdrew an amendment during the markup that would require the U.S. Commerce Department to conduct another study about consumers’ access to electronic records. She maintained that it is crucial to take into account how consumers lacking internet access, digital tools, or digital know-how would be affected.

The Committee also moved along the Government Spectrum Valuation Act of 2019, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The bill would require government agencies to place a value on government-held spectrum, in order to gauge how much it would go for in potential public auctions. The bill is meant to encourage federal agencies to make unused spectrum available to the private sector.

The Spectrum Act was met with objection from many committee Democrats, who said the measure could produce extreme results.  Cantwell cautioned that it might push agencies to reach hasty conclusions about how to maximize their holdings.

“The Government Spectrum Valuation Act has one goal,” she said, “to put pressure on federal agencies, such as DOT, NOAA, NASA and DOD, to give up spectrum.”

“It is designed to create a wildly inaccurate valuation of spectrum use. I hope that we don’t ignore how essential federal spectrum is, but work together to resolve these issues between agencies.”

FCC opens second E-rate application window for funding year 2020

The Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau announced on Wednesday that the agency is opening a second filing window for the 2020 funding year, to allow schools to request additional E-Rate funding.

As schools across the United States continue to face unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have reported an urgent need for additional bandwidth on-campus.

During the second filing window, schools will be able to purchase additional bandwidth for this academic year to address needs resulting from the shift to streaming classroom instruction, which has significantly increased on-campus bandwidth requirements.

Earlier this year, the FCC announced extensions of E-Rate services and filing deadlines to provide relief to regions affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The move to open a second application window comes after countless individuals criticized the agency for not doing enough to initially expand the E-Rate program, to meet public needs during the pandemic.

Starry unveils powerful second-generation technology to expand network coverage

On Wednesday, Starry, Inc., a fiber wireless internet service provider, unveiled its second-generation suite of technology, at the 29th Annual Communacopia Conference hosted by Goldman Sachs.

The new technology, currently being deployed across markets, includes enhanced versions of Starry’s existing base station and building receiver, increasing capacity, range, and network performance.

Additionally, this second generation of technology continues to drive cost efficiencies, lowering overall network household passing costs.

Starry, a self-titled “wideband hybrid fiber wireless internet service” provider, utilizes fixed wireless technology to reduce the cost of passing homes.

The company claims that its unique point-to-multipoint design enables them to provide gigabit-capable coverage to communities at a cost of less than $10 per home passed.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Broadband Roundup

Verizon, Amazon Partner on Broadband, Farmers Need Broadband, Social Work Important to Close Digital Divide

Verizon will use Project Kuiper, agriculture needs broadband for progress, social work advocacy key to close digital divide.

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

October 27, 2021–– Verizon and Amazon announced Tuesday they are partnering to expand rural broadband access across the United States.

The partnership will involve Verizon using Amazon’s satellite internet system, called Project Kuiper, to extend its terrestrial service.

Project Kuiper has a network of 3,236 satellites from which it plans to provide high-speed broadband around the world.

Amazon has not launched its satellites, but has said it plans to invest more than $10 billion in the project. The Federal Communications Commission authorized the project last year, finding that the Kuiper system would benefit the public by “increasing the availability of broadband service to consumers, government, and businesses”

Amazon plans to launch the thousands of satellites into low earth orbit, which is expected to provide faster connections and better communication times compared to satellites higher up in the sky. Amazon said it will deploy the satellites in five phases, with broadband service beginning after 578 satellites are in orbit.

Broadband an existential matter for U.S. agricultural sector  

A new analysis by the Benton Institute found that the digital divide slows progress for American farmers.

The article, authored by Jordan Arnold, found that broadband access and market competition prevents greater adoption numbers and limits options for farmers. The study found that 78 percent of farmers do not have another viable option to change service providers. Among farmers that Arnold interviewed, a consensus was established that farmers need robust upload speeds, accurate network deployment data, and scalable technologies.

“Only 82 percent of farms have internet service in any form,” Arnold found. “On average, 70 percent of Hispanic-operated farms, 66 percent of American Indian–or Alaska Native-owned farms, and 62 percent of Black-owned farms have internet access.”

Broadband access is critical to agricultural sustainability because connected technologies allow farmers to measure their inputs and outputs, allowing for more efficient resource management Arnold argues that deploying broadband ubiquitously across the farming sector unlocks powerful benefits to minimizing farming’s environmental impact.

Social work advocacy should help address digital divide

A University of Kansas professor co-authored an article Tuesday arguing that the social work field should be included in the fight to close the digital divide.

Scanlon argues as such because social work serves and advocates for marginalized and underrepresented communities.

“The digital divide is not just a policy or infrastructure issue. It is a social justice matter in that lack of access disproportionately affects people of color, low-income individuals and families, and those who live in rural areas” wrote Edward Scanlon, associate professor of social welfare at University of Kansas.

Similar to the way the field advocates for underserved communities “in terms of child-care, health care access, mental health,” Scanlon said policy leaders should focus on the divide as a high priority social justice issue. “Social workers need to advocate like they do for mental health, issues of race, fighting poverty and those traditional causes.”

Scanlon said that the problem would be addressed with a consistent national strategy similar to the New Deal era push to introduce electricity adoption ubiquitously across the U.S.

“This really is a problem that’s national in nature and needs to be seen as part of infrastructure, just like bridges and roads” Scanlon said.

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Rosenworcel and Sohn Expected On FCC, Electric Coops Praise USDA Program, Internet Speeds Up 40%

Report says Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel will be permanent and Gigi Sohn will break the party tie on the FCC.

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Gigi Sohn, right, is expected to be selected as commissioner of FCC, Politico reports.

October 26, 2021 – President Joe Biden is expected to select Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel as the permanent head of the Federal Communications Commission and will install former agency official Gigi Sohn as the tie-breaking commissioner, according to Politico, citing sources.

Biden has been under pressure from senators representing 17 states and has been urged by institutions and former FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly to make interim head Rosenworcel permanent.

Observers have speculated that the lack of action on the selections have put the Democratic agenda for broadband policy at risk. It has even stirred speculation that Rosenworcel was on her way out.

But one consistent has been speculation that Sohn, a net neutrality advocate, could have gotten the nod as chair of the commission.

If selected, Democrat Sohn will break the party deadlock that has pitted two Democratic and two Republican commissioners.

Electric co-ops pleased with changes in USDA ReConnect broadband program

Electric cooperatives are praising changes made to the third round of applications for the $1.15 billion ReConnect loan and grant program for rural broadband, which include increasing the download speed for served areas.

That means for the latest round of applications, served areas will be defined by access to speeds of 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload, compared to 10/1. In addition, networks built with the funds will need to deliver symmetrical speeds of 100/100 Mbps; applications to areas that lack 25/3, the federal standard, will be prioritized; and areas lacking 100/20 Mbps service that have previously received federal money will be eligible.

“We greatly appreciate USDA’s work to help spur rural broadband deployment, and their appropriate recognition of the need to make sure the program continues to serve those communities most in need of broadband,” the National Rural Electric Cooperation Association, which represents nearly 900 local electric cooperatives, said in a press release Friday.

“Significant changes to this new round of the ReConnect program will allow electric cooperatives and other broadband providers to offer service to many more unserved and underserved rural communities.”

Report finds internet speeds increased 40% over pre-pandemic speeds

According to a report from comparison website WhistleOut this month, average internet speeds have increased 40 percent nationwide over pre-pandemic speeds, which the organization said could be due to customers upgrading their internet packages or providers increasing overall speeds.

The speeds bump on average moved from 84.5 to 118.4 Mbps, with Alaska seeing the largest bump at a 170 percent increase. Idaho followed with a 77 percent increase, then it was Kentucky at 70 percent, Iowa at 64 percent, Wyoming at 62.6 percent, Kansas at 60.3 percent, Maine at 59.7 percent, Montana at 57.7 percent, Oklahoma at 57.4 percent, and South Carolina rounding out the top 10 with 56.1 percent.

The only state that saw a decrease was West Virginia, which saw a decline of 17 percent over the period.

Whistleout measured nearly one million speed test results from December 1, 2019 to March 15, 2020 (pre-Covid) and from May 1, 2021 to August 17, 2021 (during Covid).

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Broadband Roundup

Space Cybersecurity Concerns, USTelecom’s New Board, Agriculture’s $1.15 Rural Broadband Grant

Cybersecurity experts are concerned about space hacking, USTelecom elects new board, USDA makes $1B for rural broadband.

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Jaisha Wray of the NTIA.

October 25, 2021 — Cybersecurity experts raised concern Friday about the vulnerabilities of satellite technology to hacking at the FCBA’s cybersecurity lunch event.

“There’s a wide range of malicious activity that is disruptive to space activity,” said Jaisha Wray, associate administrator for international affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Wray is raising alarm about the potential losses from bad actors in space missions. Space agencies risk the loss of mission data or even completely losing control of their space systems, Wray said. Space systems are defined as a combination of a ground control network, a space vehicle, and a user or mission network that provides a space-based service.

The problem, she said, is space systems are difficult to physically access while in orbit. The solution, panelists said, is to design cybersecurity features into space systems prior to launching into orbit. Cybersecurity should be integrated into “the full life cycle” of the space system to ensure systems are protected from bad actors, the panelists agreed.

Wray said that the U.S. must identify risks and coordinate with stakeholders to manage cybersecurity risks to space systems. “Information sharing [between government and suppliers] is key” to protecting U.S. data in space, she said.

Wray said that Space Policy Directive 5, signed in September 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, emphasized the need to improve cyber protections when developing space systems. Wray worked on the development of Space Policy Directive 5 as director of international cyber policy on Trump’s National Security Council.

USTelecom elects new mostly women-led board, officers, and leadership

Telecom trade association US Telecom announced Friday a number of telecommunications executives to the board of directors and leadership, making US Telecom’s board mostly women-led for the first time in the association’s 124-year history.

The elected positions represent “the full spectrum of US Telecom’s diverse and innovative membership” said CEO Jonathan Spalter.

Kathy Grillo, senior vice president of the public policy and government affairs group at Verizon, was elected as the new chair of the USTelecom board of directors. Calling this moment “a pivotal time” for broadband expansion, Grillo emphasized broadband’s impact on our economy and her call to action.

“Broadband during the pandemic, broadband helped sustain our economy,” Grillo said. “But we can do better. We must close the digital divide and ensure all Americans have access to broadband and the benefits it brings. Expanding broadband’s reach will fuel our nation’s future growth,” Grillo said.

The board also elected Julie Kearney, vice president of communications regulatory affairs and policy at Twilio. Other elected members include Jason Williams, CEO of Montana-based Blackfoot Communications, and Takami Abe, general manager at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

USDA to make $1.15 billion available for broadband, distance learning grants  

Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that the agency would make up to $1.15 billion available to fund broadband expansion nationwide.

Beginning November 24, the USDA will begin accepting applications to distribute the funds in loans and grants to expand the availability of broadband in rural areas through the ReConnect program.

“For too long, the digital divide” has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources all Americans need,” Vilsack said. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace.”

To be eligible for funding through the ReConnect program, an applicant must service an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload). An applicant must also commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area.

Vilsack also announced a $50 million investment in 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. The awards will be funded by USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program.

The announcement follows President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda by mobilizing federal agencies to invest in the nation’s infrastructure.

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