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Digital Inclusion

Big Bucks for Broadband in the Balance: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of now-Sen. Brian Schatz, one of the sponsors of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, from December 2010 by Kyle Nishioka used with permission

If you have been following our series on the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, you already know the proposed legislation calls for a $100 billion investment in expanding broadband access and affordability in unserved and underserved parts of the country.

In this fourth installment of the series, we explore the part of the bill that contains the bulk of the funding. Of the $100 billion proposed in the bill, $85 billion of it can be found in the Title III – Broadband Access section.

Amending the Communications Act of 1934, Section 3101 of the bill appropriates $80 billion for “competitive bidding systems” to subsidize broadband infrastructure. That is to say, it requires the Federal Communications Commission, and states, to use “competitive bidding systems” for Internet Service Providers to bid on broadband deployment projects in “areas with service below 25/25 Megabits per second (Mbps), and areas with low-tier service, defined as areas with service between 25/25 and 100/100 Mbps.”

The term “competitive bidding” seems to suggest a reverse auction process, though it hardly makes sense for each state to set up such a system given the logistical challenges. A legislative staffer responded to our email earlier this year saying he believed that language would allow for state programs that solicited applications from ISPs and scored them for evaluation, much like Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband program operates. However, he noted that the FCC would interpret that language ultimately. More on this below.

Prioritizing Higher Upload Speeds

It’s worth noting that this part of the bill implicitly acknowledges the insufficiency of the current FCC definition of a minimum broadband speed of 25/3 Mbps. As it stands now, the FCC defines “unserved areas” as parts of the country where there is either no Internet access or broadband speeds under 25/3.

This legislation raises the bar and broadens the definition of “unserved areas.” It’s a step in the right direction, as there’s widespread support among broadband advocates for increasing the FCC definition of minimum broadband speeds to at least 100/100 Mbps.

By prioritizing higher upload speeds, as this bill does, it makes all the old, outdated copper wire technology irrelevant. In other words, to get the job done as called for in this legislation would require fixed wireless, fiber optics, or recent cable DOCSIS standards.

The $80 billion appropriated in this section creates two separate major sources of funding. It stipulates that 75% of the funds, or $60 billion, be dedicated for a national competitive bidding system for broadband deployment in unserved areas and low-tier service areas.

The other 25%, or $20 billion, would be used for states to set up competitive bidding systems for broadband deployment in, not only unserved and low-tier service areas (service between 25/25 and 100/100 Mbps), but also for underserved anchor institutions (schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, museums, public safety offices, or public housing agencies) with speeds less than 1 gigabit per 1,000 users.

The bill also allows for a state that does not have “unserved areas” or areas with “low-tier service,” for funding to be used for broadband deployment in areas with mid-tier service defined as more than 100/100 Mbps but less than 1 gigabit per second symmetrical.

In both the national and state competitive bidding systems, the legislation further requires that 20% of the funds ($12 billion for the national system and $4 billion for the state system) be used to deploy broadband that delivers 1 Gigabit per second symmetrical speeds. This strikes us as smart because as bandwidth demand continues to rise, it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars to fund broadband networks that rapidly become obsolete. Historically, WISPs may have objected to this, but since the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) rural auction, they seem confident in being able to deliver that capacity widely.

Funding Priority Preferences  

Additionally, the bill goes on to specify funding priority preferences, the most important being projects that expand access to broadband service in areas where at least 90 percent of the population does not have access to 25/3 broadband service.

Other funding priority preferences include projects that would expand broadband access in “persistent poverty counties” and on Tribal lands. We believe it is crucial to set specific funds aside to deal with the historical refusal to invest in telecommunications infrastructure in Indian Country.

Another preference is for projects that would deploy open-access networks, which is a single high-quality network (fiber or wireless) that multiple ISPs can use to compete for customers. It’s a way of introducing competition in a market dominated by monopoly interests – a throwback to the days of dial-up when everyone used the same telephone wires to connect to the Internet and multiple ISPs competed for customers.

Not So Fast

While federal investment in broadband infrastructure is unquestionably needed (considering the failure of private ISPs to provide adequate, affordable and reliable Internet access to all) here’s where things get dicey as it relates to this major funding section of the AAIA, a part of the legislation that looked much better on paper before we saw what happened with the FCC’s recent RDOF auction that left many expert observers puzzled.

RDOF auctioned large swaths of rural areas of the U.S. that have no broadband access. Up to $16 billion was at stake though the auction will actually disperse some $9+ billion dollars because many areas were bid well below what was expected and to the point where some were bid down so far that it is almost certainly not economical to build.

In a nutshell, much of RDOF funding went to ISPs for projects where many familiar with the industry question whether they have the capacity to deliver. As our own Christopher Mitchell, who has been closely analyzing RDOF, notes: “RDOF should not give any faith that a national competitive auction is a good way to subsidize. I would not want to see an auction with so much more money after RDOF until we know the FCC can properly vet bidders. It’s probably the right amount of money (in AAIA) but it should be distributed over multiple years with local input.”

It’s not that the competitive bidding system envisioned in the legislation is inherently flawed, but in light of RDOF, it highlights the importance of ensuring the auction rules are fine-tuned, part of which should provide for local government to have a say in which ISPs do the work in their respective communities. In fact, it would make sense to revise the language in this bill to give preference for projects that are endorsed by the local governments in the project area.

Another item missing from the funding priority preferences section is one that preferences cooperatives and municipal governments looking to build locally-accountable networks. A preference for cooperatives and local governments makes sense primarily because they are directly responsible to local citizens in ways private companies often are not.

Infrastructure Bank

None of this should give the impression that local governments or public entities are completely overlooked in this bill. In fact, Section 3201 of the bill, would establish a $5 billion Broadband Infrastructure Financing Innovation (BIFIA) program. We’re talking about an infrastructure bank that would be administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to provide state and local governments, public authorities, and public-private partnerships financial assistance in the form of secured loans, lines of credit, and loan guarantees.

To be eligible, the legislation requires the NTIA to determine that BIFIA funding for the project do three things: (a) foster partnerships to attract private and public investment for the project; (b) enable the project to proceed at an earlier date than the project would otherwise be able to proceed; and (c) reduce the Federal contribution for the project. Preference will be given for open access projects.

Section 3210 requires the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information to report to Congress one year after the bill is enacted and every two years thereafter “summarizing the financial performance of the projects that are receiving, or have received, assistance under the BIFIA program, including a recommendation as to whether the objectives of the BIFIA program are best served by [either] continuing the program under the authority of the Assistant Secretary; or establishing a Federal corporation or federally sponsored enterprise to administer the program.”

The final part of the “Title III – Broadband Access” portion of the bill, Section 3301, is unrelated to building broadband networks but would extend the E-rate program to include providing Wi-Fi access on school buses. No dedicated funds are appropriated for this as the legislation anticipates the funding would come from E-rate, which another section of the bill seeks to appropriate an additional $5 billion to expand broadband access for students off-campus as the existing E-rate program only provides for on-campus connectivity.

Our next installment in this series will look at the last three “Titles” of the bill: Title IV – Community Broadband; Title V – Broadband Infrastructure Deployment; and Title VI – Repeal of Rule and Prohibition on Use of NPRM.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy, Outreach as Important as Physical Infrastructure, Panel Hears

Digital literacy gap and lack of outreach are part of the digital divide.

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Screenshot of National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer at TLC event in 2019

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 – Broadband advocates argued Thursday that outreach and digital literacy are as important as infrastructure and are necessary to close the digital divide.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer explained during a Protocol event Thursday that the government’s considerations need to extend beyond the deployment of physical broadband infrastructure and should be equally focused on addressing digital literacy and adoption efforts in underserved and unserved communities.

Siefer listed several pitfalls that are often overlooked and only broaden the digital divide. Among them, she listed fees tied to digital literacy, such as securing devices to access the internet and the tech support necessary to make them usable.

Additionally, she addressed the lack of trust that exists between historically underserved or unserved communities.

“We have to understand the reasons that folks would not take free internet,” Siefer said about previous adoption programs. “I think we learned that lesson again and again at the height of the pandemic when lots of folks were trying to solve the affordability issues [by] paying for community members’ internet, and community members were saying ‘no,’ and they just walk away because free internet sounds like a scam.”

She said that those running programs designed to help these communities have to consider the unique issues facing each community and then evaluate who the communities trust and how best to get information to them.

“There may be device issues, there may be privacy and security concerns, or maybe other digital skills/needs that a person has,” Siefer said. “So, we have to address all of their needs. Because if we think we’re only going to fix it by addressing one we’re not going to get to the results that we want to get to.”

NTIA head explains broadband infrastructure process

In separate remarks at the event, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson outlined a roadmap for states to follow to receive federal funding allocated as part of the Commerce agency’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, which will distribute $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson explained that in order for states to receive the funding they have been allotted, they must provide plans that lay out how they will handle their grant making procedures, and that plan must be approved by the NTIA. “[The NTIA] has been given the authority to approve the initial plans that states put together,” Davidson said. “Only [on the initial plan] has been approved does the first tranche of money go out.”

This first portion of funding will only amount to 20 percent of the total sum the state can get. Following this dispersion of the initial 20 percent, states would have to submit a final plan and have it approved by the NTIA before the following 80 percent will be dispersed.

“We will have a lot of oversight to make sure that states are following through on the requirements of the statute and are meeting the requirements,” Davidson added. “There will also be a lot of grant program oversight to make sure that the money is being spent wisely – to make sure that the sub-grantees who get the money are actually following through on their commitments.”

“We know that we are going to have to partner with [states] and also offer them help,” Davidson said. “Different states are in really different situations. “We know that we are going to have to partner with them and support them – that is going to be a key part of what we do here in the federal government.”

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Digital Inclusion

Digital Divide Impacting Access to Justice, Conference Hears

Some lawyers say their clients are having a difficult time getting access to the legal system without connectivity.

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Screenshot of Olivia Sideman at the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference on Tuesday

WASHINGTON, March 31, 2022 – A public defender from California said Tuesday that clients of lawyers are being disadvantaged by the lack of connectivity.

At the 2022 Bipartisan Tech Conference hosted by Next Century Cities, Olivia Sideman said her clients were at a disadvantage if they did not have an adequate connection or if they lacked digital literacy, meaning they did not know how to use technology to communicate, learn, find information, etc.

Sideman stated that the digital divide can mean that some clients cannot contact their lawyer, make mandatory virtual court appearances, or participate in court-issued online classes that will lessen their sentence. In other cases, while clients can complete courses, they often struggle to print out the certificate.

Tuesday’s panel event included discussion about a recently published report with a panel of various guests that played a part in the creation of the report. The report, titled “Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement,” concluded that remote hearings should be optional, that the digital divide exacerbates criminal justice inequalities the system is trying to eliminate, and that mobile internet service and devices are inadequate.

The report then offered its own recommendations, aided by experts like Sideman, such as partnering with community organizations, supporting local solutions, and investing in adoption as well as access.

In the report, Sideman said the digital divide is “another way in which our clients’ rights are overlooked by the court, another way in which this entire system tramples on our clients rights…These sorts of experiences undermine faith in the justice system and civic institutions.”

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