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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that broadband policy in the U.S. is defined by “the politics of good enough,” which encourages the fast deployment of outdated technologies and benefits the largest telecommunications and satellite companies.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

Proposed Rules to Improve National Alert System Unnecessary, Say Critics

Proposed rules to improve EAS security and operational readiness are unnecessary, say commenters.

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WASHINGTON, January 18, 2023 – Participants to the national public warning system claim that the Federal Communications Commission’s October rulemaking to improve its security and operational readiness will unduly increase resource and monetary burdens on participants. 

The national warning system is composed of the Emergency Alert System, which transmits important emergency information to affected areas over television and radio, and the Wireless Emergency Alert System, which delivers that information to the public on their wireless devices. Participation in the system is voluntary for wireless providers, but radio and television broadcasters are required to deliver Presidential alerts via the EAS. 

In the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC sought comment on ways to strengthen the operational readiness of the warning system by requiring EAS participants to report compromises of equipment and WEA participants to annually certify to having a cybersecurity risk management plan in place. It further asked that commercial mobile service providers “take steps to ensure that only valid alerts are displayed on consumer devices,” citing several instances where false alerts were given following a system hack. 

Measures are unnecessary 

Participants argued that such measures are unnecessary in reply comments to the Commission.  

The proposals in the Notice are “unnecessary and will not meaningfully enhance operational readiness or security of EAS,” stated the National Association of Broadcasters in its comments, claiming that the Notice “presents only scant evidence of EAS equipment failures and new security threats, and thus does not justify the myriad measures proposed.” 

Furthermore, NAB claimed, the notice fails to present a clear rationale for how the Commission’s heightened situational awareness would improve EAS readiness. 

ACA Connects, a trade association representing small and mid-sized telecom and TV operators, added that the Notice identifies only two EAS security breaches in the past ten years, which, as the company said, is “hardly an epidemic.” 

Participating mobile service providers have cyber risk management plans in place already, making any separate cyber certification requirement for WEA unnecessary and likely to cause fragmentation of service-specific plans, claimed wireless trade association, CTIA. 

Increased participant burden 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for national-level activation and tests of the systems, stated in its comments that it is concerned about the potential increased burden placed upon participants. 

EAS participants voluntarily and at no cost provide state and local alerts and mobile service providers voluntarily participate in WEA without compensation. FEMA argued that some stakeholders may “have difficulty justifying additional resources necessary to comply with increasing regulation.” 

The proposed reporting, certification, and cyber management obligations are far too complex for many EAS participants to implement, stated NAB, claiming that the Commission’s estimation of costs are “wildly unrealistic,” not considering additional hires such a plan would require. 

Mobile provider AT&T added that requirements for updating cybersecurity plans would divert valuable resources from the ongoing, broad cybersecurity efforts that participants engage in daily. The proposed authentication would inhibit the timely release of critical emergency alerts without completely eliminating false WEA messages, it continued.  

The Center for internet Security, however, supported the FCC’s proposed actions, claiming that it moves forward with “critically important” measures to protect the nation’s alert systems from cyber threats. 

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Funding

CES 2023: NTIA to Address Broadband, Spectrum, and Privacy, Says Alan Davidson

Alan Davidson asserted that marginalized communities are harmed disproportionately by privacy violations.

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Photo of NTIA Adminstrator Alan Davidson

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2023 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s 2023 priorities will include the funding and facilitation of states’ broadband deployment programs, the development of a national spectrum policy, and actions to protect the privacy of marginalized groups, said Administrator Alan Davidson at the Consumer Electronics Show on Saturday.

The NTIA’s most high-profile task is to oversee the operations of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, a $42.45 billion slush fund for broadband-infrastructure deployments which will be divided among the governments of states and U.S. territories. Those governments will administer final distribution of the BEAD funds in accordance with the NTIA’s guidelines.

“This is our generation’s big infrastructure moment,” Davidson said. “This is our chance to connect everybody in the country with what they need to thrive in the modern digital economy, and we are going to do it.”

Davidson reiterated his agency’s stated intention to develop a comprehensive national spectrum strategy to facilitate the various spectrum interests of government and private industry. To allocate spectrum in a manner that fulfills federal needs and stimulates the growth of innovators, largely in the sector of 5G, the NTIA – the administrator of federally used spectrum – must coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission – the administrator of other spectrum.

Calling for a national privacy law, Davidson asserted that marginalized communities are harmed disproportionately by privacy violations. He stated that the NTIA will, possibly within weeks, request public comment on “civil rights and privacy.”

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5G

CES 2023: Commissioner Starks Highlights Environmental Benefits of 5G Connectivity

Starks also said federal housing support should be linked to the Affordable Connectivity Program.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks (left) and CTA’s J. David Grossman

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2023 – Commissioner Geoffrey Starks of the Federal Communications Commission spoke at the Consumer Electronics Show Saturday, touting connectivity assistance for individuals who benefit from housing assistance as well as the potential environmental benefits of 5G.

The FCC-administered Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes monthly internet bills and one-time devices purchases for low-income Americans. Although many groups are eligible – e.g., Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollees – Starks said his attention is primarily on those who rely on housing support.

“If you are having trouble putting food on your table, you should not have to worry about connectivity as well,” Starks said. “If we are helping you to get housed, we should be able to connect that house,” he added.

Environmental benefits of 5G

In addition to economic benefits, 5G-enabled technologies will offer many environmental benefits, Starks argued. He said the FCC should consider how to “ensure folks do more while using less,” particularly in the spheres of spectral and energy efficiency.

“This is going to take a whole-of-nation (approach),” Starks said. “When you talk to your local folks – mayors – state and other federal partners, making sure that they know smart cities (and) smart grid technology…making sure that we’re all unified on thinking about this is exactly where we need to go to in order to drive down the carbon emissions.”

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