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COVID Relief Bill Provides $7 Billion for Broadband Access, Pew on Pandemic, Education Broadband Service Decision

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Photo of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Inquisitr

Sunday evening, Congress announced reaching a deal on an emergency coronavirus relief package, which includes $7 billion in funding to support broadband internet access. The bill is expected to pass both the U.S. House and Senate on Monday.

The $7 billion for broadband set aside in the stimulus agreement will include a reported $3.2 billion for an emergency-broadband benefit that will be available to individuals and families who cannot readily afford essential internet connections, and up to $1.3 billion for broadband connectivity on tribal lands and in communities surrounding historically Black colleges and universities.

The funding also includes $1.9 billion for “rip and replace” efforts to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from U.S. networks, $300 million for rural broadband deployment, $250 million for the Federal Communications Commission’s telehealth program, and $65 million to improve broadband mapping.

Most significant is the shift in legislators’ attention to the affordability crisis that predated the pandemic, but has become even more dire over the past 10 months. The broadband funding includes an Emergency Broadband Benefit that will provide $50 per month for broadband for low-income families, a provision based on legislation from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

The final legislation does not include other important broadband measures the House first passed in May as part of the HEROES Act. It also leaves out measures discussed in negotiations last week by the bipartisan group of senators who helped restart stimulus negotiations. Yet the broad eligibility criteria for the broadband benefit will provide assistance to many in need of financial assistance to get connected.

In response to the Congressional stimulus package, Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, said that broadband funding in the stimulus package is an important band-aid to help keep Americans connected, but stresses “the pandemic makes clear that our networks require surgery.”

“Millions of families lack coverage, while the majority of Americans are forced to live with older networks that are too slow, over-congested and expensive where there is a lack of competition,” said Pickering, noting “other nations have taken massive steps forward to deploy faster speed networks with gigabit goals.”

Pickering called the next Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration to make universal, high-speed, affordability a top priority in the first 100 days, in order to prevent our economy getting ‘stuck in the slow lane’ for decades to come.

Pew Research Center studies reveal Americans’ views of technology during COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak led to widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country in March, forcing Americans to adapt and shift parts of their daily routines online.

To paint a full picture of Americans’ attitudes towards the role and effectiveness of various technologies, the Pew Research Center surveyed public opinion on tech over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

A month into the pandemic, 87 percent of U.S. adults said the internet had been at least important for them personally during the outbreak, including 53 percent who deemed the internet as “essential” for them. According to a March survey, roughly half of adults, 49 percent, said that a major interruption in their internet or cellphone service during the coronavirus outbreak would be a very big problem for daily life in their household.

The research reveals that age and level of formal education are the main factors shaping American attitudes toward tech. Adults under the age of 65 were more likely than those 65 and older to say internet outages would be a very significant problem. Individuals with a bachelor’s or advanced degree were also more likely than those with lower levels of educational attainment to say this.

When it comes to data collection and digital privacy, only a minority of Americans said in April that they thought cellphone tracking would be beneficial for curbing the spread of the virus. Some 38 percent said that if the government tracked people’s locations through their cellphone during the coronavirus outbreak it would help at least a little in limiting the spread of the virus. A larger share, 60 percent, said this type of tracking by the government would not make much of a difference in limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

A majority of Americans, 64 percent, said that internet and phones would be useful, but not be an adequate substitute for in-person interactions.

SHLB disappointed in FCC Educational Broadband Service decision

On Thursday, the FCC denied a petition for reconsideration of the Transforming the 2.5 Gigahertz Band Report and Order, filed by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition and several education advocates. Friday, the SHLB Coalition expressed disappointment that the FCC rejected the Coalition’s call to award educational institutions an opportunity to acquire Educational Broadband Service in rural markets.

In the petition, the SHLB Coalition provided many examples of successful wireless deployments by schools working with private sector companies, and provided detailed economic evidence that awarding schools EBS licenses would promote economic growth and help address the homework gap.

“The FCC’s denial of our petition for reconsideration is quite disappointing,” said John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, in a recent statement. “For many schools, access to EBS spectrum would have been their golden ticket to quickly deploy networks that reach their students without home internet access. It is extremely unfortunate that the Commission did not give schools and other educational organizations this opportunity.”

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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