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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.

Broadband Roundup

FCC Targets Spam Call Offenders, Disaster Assistance Requirements, U.S. 23rd in Fiber Development

For the first time, the FCC is proposing removing voice service providers for breaking spam call rules.

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

October 4, 2022 – For the first time, the FCC proposed Tuesday that seven voice service providers be removed from receiving call traffic, after violating the commission’s new scam call framework.

Voice service providers Akabis, Cloud4, Global UC, Horizon Technology Group, Morse Communications, Sharon Telephone Company, and SW Arkansas Telecommunications and Technology have 14 days to show why the FCC should not remove them from the Robocall Mitigation Database.

The database is a filing portal voice service providers must use to inform the commission that they have implemented the STIR/SHAKEN framework, an FCC mandated caller identification technology that allows carriers to digitally validate the authenticity of a phone number, allowing a customer to be sure that the number seen on a caller ID matches the possible caller.

Removal from the database would require all other providers to cease carrying the offending companies’ traffic, meaning all calls from these providers’ customers would be blocked and no traffic originated by the provider would reach the called party, according to the release.

“These and other recent actions reflect the seriousness with which we take providers’ obligations to take concrete and impactful steps to combat robocalls,” Loyaan Egal, acting chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said in the release. “STIR/SHAKEN is not optional. And if your network isn’t IP-based so you cannot yet use these standards, we need to see the steps taken to mitigate illegal robocalls. These providers have fallen woefully short and have now put at risk their continued participation in the U.S. communications system. While we’ll review their responses, we will not accept superficial gestures given the gravity of what is at stake.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel added in a statement that, “Fines alone aren’t enough. Providers that don’t follow our rules and make it easy to scam consumers will now face swift consequences,” saying this is a “new era.”

FCC adopts emergency carrier assistance rules

The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it has adopted rules requiring wireless service providers to assist other carriers in the event of emergencies.

The commission codified certain terms from a voluntary program known as the Mandatory Disaster Response Initiative, which has been used by the carriers since 2016 to assist each other in emergency scenarios. The new MDRI requires providers arrange mutual aid, improve public awareness of restoration efforts, and mandate roaming agreements so that any carrier with network outage may get voice roaming on a carrier that is still operational during natural disasters. The new MDRI will be effective October 31.

The September order also requires that the carriers submit performance reporting to the commission in order to improve “reliability, resiliency, and continuity of communications networks during emergencies,” it said in the order.

On Tuesday, the FCC said also is seeking comment on whether MDRI reports to the commission “would benefit from standardization, and what it should entail.”

The FCC is seeking comments until October 31, 2022, with reply comments due on November 29.

United States in 23rd place for fiber development

Technology research group Omdia listed the United States in 23rd place on fiber development relative to other countries, according to a report released Tuesday.

“Only by maximizing investment in next-generation access can countries optimize their growth potential, and fiber-optic technology is key to that investment. Countries, such as the UK and the US, that are further down the list than many less developed countries, may need to consider policy reforms to ensure that it is easy to deploy infrastructure and that competition in the market remains high in light of mergers taking place,” said Omdia research director Michael Philpott in a statement.

Omdia’s Fiber Development Index measures fiber household coverage, household penetration, business penetration, mobile cell site fiber penetration, total fiber investment, and average download and upload speeds across 81 countries, its website says.

Singapore is ranked first in the Fiber Development Index, as it pushes to become the next “smart nation” by 2025, the report said.

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Broadband Roundup

Supreme Court to Hear Section 230 Case, Small Business Broadband Bill, TikTok Deal Pressure

The highest court in the land will hear a case about the scope of internet platform liability under Section 230.

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Photo of the U.S. Supreme Court building

October 3, 2022 – The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear a case from a petitioner who argues Google should be held liable in the death of his daughter during an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015.

Reynaldo Gonzalez sued Google under the AntiTerrorism Act for the death of Nohemi Gonzalez because the company’s video sharing platform, YouTube, allegedly hosted ISIS recruitment videos.

Large internet platforms are generally immune from the legal consequences of their users’ posts under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But the highest court in the land will now examine the scope of those protections in this case.

“These cases underscore how important it is that digital services have the resources and the legal certainty to deal with dangerous content online,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement Monday.

“Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist and violent rhetoric online, and these cases illustrate why it is essential that those efforts continue,” he added.

Senate passes small business broadband legislation

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would designate a broadband coordinator to improve programs to better assist small business customers in accessing broadband technology.

The Small Business Broadband and Emerging Technology Enhancement Act of 2022 directs the Small Business Administration to designate a senior Office of Investment and Innovation employee as the broadband and emerging technology coordinator, establishing measures to aid the productivity and competitiveness of small businesses with broadband access and other information technologies that emerge.

The coordinator is expected to identify the best practices that relate to broadband and emerging technology to help small businesses, and coordinate SBA programs that assist small businesses so they can best adopt and use broadband and other emerging information technologies.

The bill, which makes its way to the House, requires Small Business Development Centers to assist in the access of broadband for small businesses.

Republicans promise hearings on TikTok security if successful in midterms

The upcoming midterm elections for control of the House and the Senate are putting pressure on the Biden administration to formalize an agreement with Chinese-owned TikTok to clamp down on security and privacy issues with the video-sharing app, as Republicans open the door to possible hearings on the matter if they are successful in taking back control of Congress, according to the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

The New York Times reported last week that the Biden administration and TikTok have come to a preliminary agreement to make changes to the app’s data security and governance without requiring the Chinese owner ByteDance to sell the company. The terms include storing American data on servers in the United States, with cloud company Oracle monitoring the app’s algorithms to see what content the app recommends to users.

But as the midterm elections near next month, the Journal, citing anonymous sources, is reporting that the talks have taken on an “added urgency,” as Republicans are promising hearings on the security of the app if they wrestle control from the Democrats on November 8.

“These people say a deal with TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. aimed at erecting a wall between the U.S. and Chinese operations is close, but caution that hurdles remain—including operational challenges and possible opposition by China’s communist government,” the Journal reported, adding Republicans would challenge any agreement that falls short of “tough safeguards.”

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr has already chimed in on the preliminary agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough for the alleged threat the app poses to the country’s national security.

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Broadband Roundup

Tech Against Texas Social Media, Alabama Middle Mile Grant, IP3 Awards Bestowed

Two information technology industry groups are trying to stall implementation of Texas’ social media law.

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Photo of IP3 Award winner Kyle Courtney at Public Knowledge's award ceremony Thursday by Drew Clark

September 30, 2022 – Plaintiffs NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association on Thursday petitioned the Fifth Circuit of Appeals to delay the implementation of a Texas law that limits social media companies’ ability to moderate content on their platforms.

The Texas law – H.B. 20 – would limit the ability of large social media companies to remove user speech from their platforms based on viewpoint. Supporters of the law say it will prevent platforms such as Twitter from discriminating against conservative political speech.

H.B. 20 was initially blocked by a federal judge last year, but the Fifth Circuit upheld the bill earlier this month. The plaintiffs say they will soon file a petition for a writ of certiorari at the Supreme Court. Thursday’s motion attempts to prevent H.B. 20 from taking effect before the High Court weigh ins.

“There is no question that a law that defies over two centuries of First Amendment protections warrants further federal court review,” said a statement from CCIA President Matt Schruers.

“If states like Texas are allowed to issue must-carry mandates, internet users can expect a torrent of dangerous content and misinformation, just as we head into an election season. Given the implications for the First Amendment and democratic institutions, we are asking the court to block this statute from taking effect until its constitutional problems have been heard.”

Alabama invests in middle-mile infrastructure

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Tuesday a $82.45 million grant to Fiber Utility Network, a conglomerate of eight rural electric cooperatives.

The grant will fund a middle-mile network that is expected to connect nearly 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure within three years. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs’ Alabama Digital Expansion Division will administer the grant, the funds for which came from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Achieving full broadband coverage is a journey, not a short trip, and today is an important step toward completing that journey. The Alabama Middle-Mile project – the infrastructure setting part of this journey – is going to lead our state to be the model for the nation when it comes to providing broadband capabilities,” said Ivey.

“In 2022, being able to be connected at home, work or on the on go is absolutely necessary, and this is certainly key to making that a reality.”

“The eight electric cooperatives that make up the Fiber Utility Network are honored to be a part of building a middle mile network to bring internet service closer to those Alabamians,” said Tom Stackhouse, president of the Fiber Utility Network. “We want to thank Governor Ivey and the staff at ADECA for the vision, leadership and assistance to make this a reality.”

Public Knowledge honors IP3 awardees, for Internet Protocol, Information Policy and Intellectual Property

Public Knowledge hosted the 19th annual IP3 Awards ceremony Thursday, honoring leading voices in technology and tech policy.

Public Knowledge presented the “Internet Protocol Award” to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., chair of the House Rural Broadband Taskforce, for his work promoting affordable broadband access. Notably, his work advanced the broadband-funding provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Emma Llanso, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project, received the “Information Policy Award” for her work promoting free expression online.

Kyle Courtney, copyright advisor at Harvard University, received the “Intellectual Property Award.” He works extensively on copyright and library-related legal issues.

Courtney developed the Copyright First Responders program to “help advance teaching, learning, and scholarship through community engagement with copyright.”

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