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Four Failures of the FCC’s Broadband Policy, According to University of Virginia Professor

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Screenshot from the presentation

November 12, 2020 — The failure to connect the rural-urban digital divide in the United States is not one of technology, but of markets, politics, and policy, argued Christopher Ali, associate professor in the Media Studies Department at the University of Virginia, during a virtual presentation which aired Tuesday as part of a global media policy seminar series.

“There is an ongoing political and policy conversation claiming it wants to amend the digital divide, but none of the ground work is being done,” Ali said, “How can we explain these discrepancies?”

Ali wrestled with multiple explanations for the persistence of the digital gap, ultimately finding that broadband policy in the U.S. is defined by “the politics of good enough,” which encourages the fast deployment of outdated technologies and benefits the largest telecommunications and satellite companies.

The FCC has failed to exert authority and to communicate with sister agencies

Ali recognized four main failures in broadband policy, the first being a failure of management.

“The Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to really confront the challenges posed by digital divide,” said Ali.

He highlighted that the U.S.’s polycentric broadband regulatory environment further increases the complexity of oversight, as the FCC is not the only federal agency which plays a role in regulating broadband policy. Other supervisory bodies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Telecommunication and Information Administration.

“If you’ve been to Washington, D.C. you know that the FCC and the USDA are physically located roughly one or two blocks apart from each other,” said Ali, “but in terms of policy coordination they couldn’t be farther apart.”

Ali believes “the U.S. ends up with legitimacy issues,” as a result of the government’s failure to coordinate.

In order to remedy these management issues, Ali recommended that the incoming presidential administration reinstate net neutrality regulations and mandate coordination between the USDA, the FCC, and the NTIA.

“Without net neutrality the FCC has very little power to tell corporations what to do,” said Ali, saying restoring net neutrality would allow the FCC to become “the watchdog and champion of broadband deployment that we want it to be.”

“I’m hoping this will be a major priority of our new administration,” he said.

An outdated definition of broadband

The second failure of broadband policy Ali finds to persist, is a failure in ‘meaning’.

Ali pointed to problems with the FCC’s technologically-neutral funding policies and outdated broadband definition, set in 2015, of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload.

“The definition is set to privilege the cable industry,” said Ali, explaining “that’s what coaxial cables can do,” offer blazing fast download speeds, but ineffectual, congested upload speeds.

Ali argued that the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband does not reflect Americans’ current broadband needs or usage, and further, when coupled with the agency’s policies of technological neutrality “favors inadequate technologies provided by incumbent telecommunications and satellite companies.”

“The 25/3 definition and the FCC’s stances of technological neutrality, allowed ViaSat, a satellite provider, to be one of the greatest winners in the FCC’s 2019 reverse auction,” said Ali.

He recommended the Biden FCC raise the definition of broadband to 100/100 Mbps, to drive technological innovation, and encourage the deployment of fiber resources.

Broadband mapping continues to be a serious problem

The third broadband policy failure Ali highlighted is a failure in mapping.

The Virginia professor blamed the standards of Form 477, a broadband mapping form that has become infamous in tech circles for breeding vastly overstated data, as the root cause of the mapping fiasco.

Under Form 477, “so long as one building in a census block has broadband, everyone within the census block is reported to have it,” said Ali. Further, the form allows “ISPs to report advertised speeds, and not actual speeds.”

Another reason for the inflation of Form 477 data, is that satellite coverage, which offers notoriously unreliable connections even on the clearest of days, is included in the FCC’s broadband map data.

“FCC numbers are grossly inflated,” said Ali. “A U.S. Telecom Study found 38 percent more broadband deserts than the FCC reports.” Ali detailed the real-life consequences of the inflated data, by reporting the results of a case study he conducted on Louisa County, Virginia. The central Virginia county is ineligible to apply for any federal broadband loans or grants, due to the inflated speeds satellite and cable providers report to the FCC.

A failure of federal funding

The fourth and final broadband policy failure Ali brought attention to is money.

According to Ali, money from the two major sources of federal broadband funding, the FCC’s Universal Service Fund and the USDA’s Rural Utility Service, tends to favor incumbent providers as recipients.

“Federal money from the FCC’s Connect America Fund was granted to the nine largest telecommunications companies,” said Ali, including AT&T, Frontier and CenturyLink.

The companies had minimal buildout requirements, and as they were given a broadband threshold of only 10/1 Mbps to meet, most of the incumbents choose to deploy DSL, rather than fiber.

According to Ali, two of the funding recipients, CenturyLink and Frontier, did not live up to build out potential, yet “neither company was punished for it, and they are still eligible for more money.”

Ali called for the next FCC to punish companies for failing to deliver and end the tradition of incumbent favoritism.

An upcoming book on rural broadband

If you’re left wondering, “where exactly does the 6 billion dollars the federal government spends annually on broadband go?” you’re not alone. In his upcoming book Farm Fresh Broadband, which will be published by MIT Press in 2021, Ali makes an effort find out.

In order to write the book, Ali analyzed over 10,000 pages of policy documents from 2009 to 2020 and conducted a 3600-mile road trip across the United States, during which he spoke with anyone and everyone who would talk to him about broadband, from elected officials, farmers, and librarians, to people in grocery stores.

Farm Fresh Broadband not only attempts to humanize, and put a face to, policy, by understanding how broadband policy is lived and experienced in rural America, the book further unpacks the politics of broadband policy, asking why millions of rural Americans lack broadband access and why the federal government, and large providers, are not doing more to connect the unconnected.

FCC

FCC Seeks Comment on Higher Broadband Speeds and Increased Security Measures for Certain Carriers

FCC will consider raising the speed standard for certain carriers that receive fixed monthly funding from the agency.

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Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Sparks

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted at its open meeting Thursday to seek comment on enhancing the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program, which would raise speed deployment obligations and align security goals with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

The ACAM program, established in 2016, provides fixed monthly funding to certain carriers serving high-cost and hard-to-reach areas in return for commitments to provide broadband service to all eligible locations.

The ACAM broadband coalition requested that broadband deployment obligations be raised from the current federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload to 100/20 Mbps, the standard now set by the IIJA that will then be required of ACAM carriers to deliver.

Baseline cybersecurity proposal

The FCC is also requesting comment on whether it should “require A-CAM carriers and carriers receiving high-cost support to have a baseline cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Sparks indicated that the FCC will focus its efforts on harmonizing ACAM’s modification proposal with cyber security standards indicated in the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment program, which is managed by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and that will be disbursing billions in broadband infrastructure funding.

“Networks that are subsidized or built with federal funds must be secure,” Sparks said. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks on American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who said the FCC is looking to align its goals with the IIJA, concluded that “this is not the only effort we’re making to ensure that new broadband programs are working hand-in-glove with long-standing FCC efforts.”

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Funding

State Broadband Offices Need to Increase Their Capacity, Improve Data, and Communicate Well

NTIA’s Evan Feinman spoke about what states need to keep in mind as they prepare for BEAD funds.

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Photo of Evan Feinman from AEI

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration webinar event on Tuesday focused on the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Notice of Funding Opportunity. The webinar highlighted three important items to keep in mind as states begin to receive money for broadband planning.

The first, according to Evan Feinman, deputy associate administrator for BEAD, was for states to consider your office’s capacity. Each state will receive a minimum of $100 million. Very few states have the human resources required to adequately run a program of this magnitude, he said.

The second is to build up research and data collections of broadband coverage at a state level. The Federal Communications Commission will soon release a new mapping system. It will be necessary, said Feinman, to “engage meaningfully” with these maps using state’s own research and data. Furthermore, states should have the necessary data to engage with internet service providers and the NTIA as they determine who is served and unserved.

Third, states should develop a clear-cut plan for outreach and communication support with stakeholders. Stakeholders include telecom providers, tribal governments, local governments, and community organizations.

The planning step is a great point for stakeholders to become involved in the process, said Feinman. “There is an expectation that lives throughout this program that folks are going to engage really thoroughly and in an outgoing way with their stakeholders.”

See other articles on the NTIA webinars issues in the wake of the Notices of Funding Opportunity on the Broadband.Money community:

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FCC

Treasury Department Joins FCC, USDA and NTIA in Collaborating on Broadband Funding

Agency leaders sign pact to formalize information-sharing on broadband deployment projects.

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Photo of Janet Yellen from January 2018 by the European Central Bank

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2022—Just in advance of the deadline for the release of the funding requirements under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act, the four principal federal agencies responsible for broadband funding released an interagency agreement to share information about and collaborate regarding the collection and reporting of certain data and metrics relating to broadband deployment.

The agencies are the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Memorandum of Understanding is the latest development in federal efforts to coordinate high-speed internet spending, and the Treasury Department is the new addition to agreement.

The other three agencies signed a prior memorandum in June 2021 to coordinate the distribution of federal high-speed internet funds. That June 2021 Memorandum of Understanding remains in effect.

The respective Cabinet and Agency leaders announced that their agencies will consult with one another and share information on data collected from programs administered by the FCC, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, programs administered or coordinated by NTIA, and Treasury’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund and State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

“No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to high-speed internet to have a fair shot at 21st century success. The FCC, NTIA, USDA and Treasury are working together like never before to meet this shared goal,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Our new interagency agreement will allow us to collaborate more efficiently and deepen our current data sharing relationships[and] get everyone, everywhere connected to the high-speed internet they need.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “When we invest in rural infrastructure, we invest in the livelihoods and health of people in rural America. High-speed internet is the new electricity.  It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, to have access to health care and to stay connected.”

“USDA remains committed to being a strong partner with rural communities and our state, Tribal and federal partners in building ‘future-proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage across the country.”

“Our whole-of-government effort to expand broadband adoption must be coordinated and efficient if we are going to achieve our mission,” said Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and head of the NTIA, the agency responsible for administering the vast bulk of the broadband funding.

“This MOU will allow us to build the tools we need for even better data-sharing and transparency in the future,” he said.

“Treasury is proud to work with our federal agency partners to achieve President Biden’s goal of closing the nation’s digital divide,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.  “Access to affordable, high-speed internet is critical to the continued strength of our economy and a necessity for every American household, school, and business.”

As part of the signed agreement, each federal agency partner will share information about projects that have received or will receive funding from the previously mentioned federal funding sources.  More information on what the interagency Memorandum of Understanding entails can be found on the FCC’s website.  The agreement is effective at the date of its signing, May 11, 2022.

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