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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

Digital Inclusion Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents

Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.

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Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”

Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”

This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.

Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.

“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.

These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.

Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide

Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.

Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.

But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.

The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.

Amy Huffman, Munirih Jester, Paolo Balboa, Miles Miller

In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.

Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.

Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.

This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.

In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.

As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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