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Coronavirus Stimulus Omnibus Also Includes Consumer Protection Provisions, Elevating the Definition of ‘Broadband’

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Photo of Rep. Jan Schakowsky from June 2017 by Mobilus in Mobili used with permission

The House of Representatives passed an end of the year omnibus bill on Monday, which included six provisions from the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee. The legislation aims to help protect consumers from harmful products and COVID-19 scams.

One of the provisions, the COVID-19 Consumer Protection Act, grants authority to the Federal Trade Commission to seek civil penalties for unfair and deceptive practices associated with the treatment, cure, prevention, mitigation, or diagnosis of COVID–19. This legislation is critical, as the pandemic era has created a world of new opportunities for scammers to exploit unprecedented fear, stress, and financial strain.

Also included is the American Competitiveness Of a More Productive Emerging Tech Economy Act, introduced by Consumer Protection and Commerce Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington and Representative Bobby Rush, D-Illinois.

The act directs the Department of Commerce and the FTC to conduct studies and submit reports on emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, unmanned delivery services, and more. The studies include requirements to survey each industry and report recommendations to help safely implement new technology.

“We were happy the House passed an overall omnibus today that included important bills out of our Committee,” wrote Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, and Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, in a joint statement.  “We look forward to all of these important safety and consumer protection provisions becoming law.”

Fiber Broadband Association and NTCA petition FCC to raise broadband definition

In a joint letter to all five Federal Communications Commissioners, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association and the Fiber Broadband Association proposed that the agency change its dated benchmark for “broadband” of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how essential high-performance and high-quality broadband is to participate in today’s society,” wrote Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, and Gary Bolton, CEO of FBA. Yet the FCC “persists in positing that a fixed broadband benchmark of 25/3 Mbps – the same benchmark it has used for the last five years – is good enough.

“By any measure, this benchmark does not reflect what American consumers need today, let alone tomorrow,” they said.

The said that their members urged that the FCC adopt a gigabit symmetrical benchmark “as the national objective for broadband deployment and availability” and at the very least, “should at least raise the minimum broadband performance benchmark for the [next] broadband deployment report to 100/100 Mbps.”

“Today, broadband is fundamental to virtual learning, working from home, practicing telehealth, and so much more. The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the typical household connects multiple users, using multiple devices at the same time, all requiring higher-performance connections. Most virtual activities require reliable broadband connections with robust downstream and upstream bandwidth and low latency for normal use.”

The letter highlights that Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide do not have access to these connections, which keeps them from engaging in these activities today. A recent study shows that consumers in the lowest 20 percent broadband performance tier are required to do in-home rationing of their broadband service 48.7 percent of the time, losing 11 hours per week of productivity, due to online time waiting.

Contributing Reporter 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 and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Broadband Roundup

Meta Restores Trump’s Accounts, Alaska Uses AI for Mapping, Public Interest Model for Spectrum Policy

Former President Trump will face heightened penalties for future, repeated violations of Facebook’s and Meta’s policies.

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Photo of Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg by Moritz Hager, used with permission

January 26, 2023 — Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will soon be reinstated, just over two years after the platforms suspended him for inciting violence, parent company Meta announced on Wednesday.

The “serious risk to public safety” present during the Capitol riot in January 2021 has “sufficiently receded,” said Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

However, the company said it would put “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses,” including heightened penalties for repeated violations, and would potentially limit the distribution of content that “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon” — even if such content did not explicitly violate Meta’s community standards.

Clegg’s statement also made a nod to the broader content moderation debate playing out across multiple state laws and upcoming Supreme Court cases involving online platforms and speech.

“Many people believe that companies like Meta should remove much more content than we currently do,” he said. “Others argue that our current policies already make us overbearing censors… We believe it is both necessary and possible to draw a line between content that is harmful and should be removed, and content that, however distasteful or inaccurate, is part of the rough and tumble of life in a free society.”

Alaska partners with AI company to create state broadband map

Artificial intelligence-based mapping company Ecopia AI on Tuesday announced a partnership with the State of Alaska and other companies to create a comprehensive, high-definition map of buildings and broadband serviceable locations — data that is essential for securing federal broadband funding.

“Without the data from Ecopia, the State of Alaska was at an immediate disadvantage for receiving funding to expand broadband services,” said Hillary Palmer, geospatial and technology manager at Dewberry Alaska, an engineering company involved in the mapping process. “Now we have a source of truth with which we can identify broadband serviceable locations and secure federal funding for network expansion throughout Alaska.

Prior to the partnership, less than five percent of Alaska’s buildings were mapped, according to Ecopia. The company’s artificial intelligence mapping systems leveraged satellite imagery to extract buildings in areas where reliable GIS data did not exist.

“We believe in using AI for good, and are thrilled to enable the expansion of more equitable broadband access across Alaska,” said Sean Lowery, senior director of product and business development at Ecopia.

Public Knowledge proposes public interest model for spectrum policy

A white paper published by Public Knowledge on Thursday proposes the adoption of a public interest backcasting model to guide future spectrum policy, arguing that its value-based framework will provide policymakers with a path towards universally accessible, affordable and reliable telecommunications services.

“In short, we have a chance to make the wireless future a good one, but it comes down to what we’re willing to work together to achieve – either a digitally divided society where only a privileged few benefit from new technologies, or a world where everyone does,” said Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge and author of the paper, in a statement.

The paper reflects on the Spectrum Policy Task Force created 20 years ago by Michael Powell, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, identifying the problems that may have hindered its success and reframing its suggestions for future spectrum efficiency and access models.

In order for future spectrum policy to succeed, it must overcome the zero-sum game fallacy currently present in the spectrum stakeholder dynamic, Burke wrote. In addition, Burke argued that spectrum policymakers should focus on preventing inequalities from happening rather than attempting to remedy them after the fact — particularly in policies addressing Tribal reservations, which remain among the most underserved areas in the U.S.

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Broadband Roundup

FCC Orders Robocall Traffic Cutoff, Internet Lacking for Civil Society, Comcast Promotion

Some states’ attorneys general are suing a realtor for alleged robocall scheme.

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Ray Roundtree, Comcast's new senior vice president of Comcast's keystone region, via Comcast

January 25, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday ordered telecommunications companies to cut off traffic to a dialing platform that facilitated an illegal robocall scheme targeting homeowners.

MV Realty is accused of using voice service provider Twilio Networks and the PhoneBurner dialing platform to “flood homeowners with robocalls with misleading claims about mortgages,” a press release said.

Attorneys general from Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have filed lawsuits against the real estate firm that allegedly scammed residents into mortgaging their homes in exchange for cash payments, the release said.

“Mortgage scams are some of the most pernicious types of robocalls we see,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the release. “Sending these junk calls to financially-stressed homeowners just to offer them deceptive products and services is unconscionable. That’s why we are shutting down these calls right now.”

The commission has been taking increasingly aggressive action against illegal robocalls and their facilitators. Last month, the commission proposed a “record-breaking” $300 million fine for one robocall scheme.

And late last year, the commission expanded it’s the robocall framework by ruling that straight-to-voicemail robocalls are subject to its regulatory authority.

Survey finds civil society organizations struggle with internet access, speed and reliability

Civil society organizations are being hampered by a lack of internet access, tools, or skills among staff, according to a report Wednesday from advocacy organization Connect Humanity.

The report is based on a survey of over 7,500 of these organizations, representing and serving over 190 million people, and draws on case studies, resources and quotes directly from these organizations.

The report found that the top five concerns for these organizations are a lack of digital skills, followed by speed of the internet, reliability of the internet, affordability of devices and the internet and lack of devices.

The top five concerns for the people these organizations serve are lack of digital skills, affordable internet, availability of the internet, affordability of devices and lack of devices, the report said.

Other concerns include the availability of the internet, fear of being surveilled online or hacked, lack of relevant content, and lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.

The report notes that, over the next five years, 49 percent expect an increase in digital skills funding, 37 percent expect an increase in funding for access to hardware or software, 37 percent expect an increase in digital rights or internet policy, and 33 percent expect an increase in access to the internet.

In addition, 35 percent of these organizations surveyed said they have access to fast internet, while only 9 percent of the people they serve said so. Meanwhile, 42 percent of the organizations said they have reliable internet while only 9 percent of the people they serve said they can claim the same.

Other findings of the report include a majority of said organizations and the people they serve use a mobile provider for internet access and mobile phones are the most common devices used by people to access the internet.

Comcast announced new exec for keystone region

Ray Roundtree has been announced today as the new senior vice president of Comcast’s keystone region, based in Pittsburgh.

Roundtree will oversee the company’s operational, strategic and financial performance across areas in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, easter Ohio, northern West Virginia, and the Maryland panhandle, a press release said.

“With his industry expertise and broad experience running major markets, Ray will be a great leader for the Keystone Region,” Amy Lynch, president of Comcast’s northeast division, which includes 14 northeastern states from Maine through Virginia and the District of Columbia, said in the release. “I know Ray will be successful in continuing to deliver our innovative products and services to area homes and businesses–keeping them connected to what matters most.”

Roundtree has been with Comcast since 2000, as director of business operations for Chester and Lancaster counties and has taken on financial management leadership positions during his tenure at the company.

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Broadband Roundup

Justice Department Sues Google, Big Tech’s White House Ties, TCPA Compliance Deadline

The lawsuit accuses the company of abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

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Photo of Jeff Zients courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

January 24, 2023 — The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

Google operates much of the technology used to sell, purchase and serve online advertisements, and the lawsuit claims the company attempted to control all sides of the market in order to “set the rules of the game to exclude rivals,” CNBC reported.

However, Google’s share of digital ad revenues has dropped over the last few years, and the company has pointed to major industry players like Amazon and Meta to demonstrate its claims that the market is crowded and competitive.

A separate lawsuit based on Google’s alleged monopoly in the internet search market, brought by the government in 2020, is set to go to trial in September. Several state attorneys general have brought additional lawsuits against the tech giant, focusing on Google’s app marketplace challenges as well as advertising and search.

Expected White House pick has ties to Big Tech

President Joe Biden is expected to name former Facebook board member Jeff Zients as his next chief of staff, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

The decision has been criticized by progressive groups, who have raised concerns over Zients’ potential impact on ongoing efforts to curb the power of major tech companies and pass antitrust legislation.

David Segal, founder of internet advocacy organization Demand Progress, told the Post that he had “serious concerns” about Zients’s positions on tech issues, citing “a history of worrisome financial interests, membership on Facebook’s board and policy decisions.”

Advocacy groups have previously expressed concerns about a discrepancy between the administration’s stated agenda against Big Tech and the backgrounds of its staff —  including Louisa Terrell, Biden’s director of legislative affairs, who served for two years as Facebook’s public policy director.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that Zients’ expected promotion comes just weeks after former White House advisor Tim Wu, known as an aggressive critic of Big Tech, stepped down from his role in the administration.

FCC announces July 20 compliance deadline for TCPA updates

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday announced a compliance deadline of July 20 for amendments to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act related to prerecorded calls.

The new rules, which were initially announced in December 2020, add opt-out requirements and call limits for calls that previously relied on TCPA exemptions. These include non-commercial calls, commercial calls that do not constitute telemarketing, calls from nonprofit entities and calls related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The updates come alongside a variety of efforts from the FCC aimed at stopping robocall traffic, as well as spam text messages and automatic voicemails.

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