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Drew Clark: The Top 10 Broadband Stories of 2020, and What They Mean for 2021

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The author of this article is Drew Clark, the editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast and Of Counsel with The CommLaw Group

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2020 – Here are my reflections on the top 10 broadband stories of the past year, presented from number 10 to number one. I’ve also noted the Broadband Breakfast events, news, and expert opinion pieces tracking these topics as they evolve in 2021.

10. The fall of China

As might befit the year 2020, it began with many eagerly tracking the curious fate of a virus that first became known in Wuhan, China. In the eyes of the American broadband world, this year saw China fall from grace. Certainly Huawei and ZTE were already under close scrutiny last year. But in 2020, the American rejection became complete. The FCC and the Commerce Department have effectively foreclosed their future in America.

See Broadband Breakfast’s story next week on Huawei.

9. Spectrum sharing becomes a thing

Carriers and some broadband enthusiasts have been buzzing about 5G since well before 2020. But as policy-makers have dug into the issues associated with this technology transformation, more are discovering one of the most unique capabilities of the 5G wireless standard: “Spectrum slicing.” It’s just one facet of the world in which new technologies are enabling radio frequencies to be used in new and more innovative ways.

See Broadband Breakfast’s series, “A No-Nonsense Guide to 5G,” sponsored by Samsung Electronics America. The February 10, 2021 event is on “Spectrum Policies to Advance Better Broadband”.

8. Open access networks get some love

Broadband Breakfast readers have been aware of promise of open access networks for nearly a decade. But now, the rest of the broadband world is finally paying attention. From UTOPIA Fiber to SiFi Networks to new entrants like Next Level Networks, many alternative approaches are now being discussed. And new fiber investments make open access one of the go-to business models.

See Broadband Breakfast’s annual Digital Infrastructure Investment event, scheduled for Monday, April 19, 2021.

7. USF contribution levels and robocalls threaten the PSTN

It isn’t just robocalls that are corroding the value of the public switched telephone network. In December, the Federal Communications Commission announced that the contribution level is now 31.8 percent of telecommunications revenue. Between the contribution levels and robocalls, there is widespread agreement that it can’t last forever or the PSTN is doomed.

Broadband Breakfast is considering a series of events in 2021 on robocalls and USF contribution levels.

6. Broadband is infrastructure, and it needs a map!

Broadband Breakfast grew out of our sister effort, an audacious concept called Broadband Census, with the goal of mapping broadband speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition at the household address level. Just as somebody needs a map to navigate the interstate highway system, tertiary highways, and neighborhood streets, those who would navigate our broadband infrastructure need a map of the backbone, middle-mile, and last-mile access networks. The internet world rightly sees broadband as a critical form of infrastructure. What it needs now is a living, breathing map and dataset, including public interconnection options for these broadband assets.

See Broadband Breakfast’s series, “Tools for Broadband Deployment,” sponsored by ADTRAN and Render Networks. The January 27, 2021, event is on “Mapping the Rural Broadband Buildout”.

5. Reverse-auctions and rural broadband

Although once heresy, since 1993 FCC spectrum auctions have become stable and accepted. They are a tool for the seller (the government) to get as much revenue from buyers (wireless companies) who bid up price for exclusive access to frequencies. There are some growth pains with reverse-auctions. In these, sellers (broadband companies) are bidding down the price that the buyer (the government) will pay to support broadband in Rural America. This has led to criticism recently about the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, in which bidding recently concluded.

See “Broadband Breakfast Panelists Discuss How Rural Fund Recipients Can Prepare For Efficient Network Builds,” Broadband Breakfast, December 22, 2020.

4. Another lawsuit against Google and Facebook? Ho-hum

In less than a year, the notion has gone from tantalizing theory to a ho-hum reality: How many antitrust lawsuits have been filed against Google and Facebook? The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission began the year squabbling about who could punish them more. Republican and Democratic state attorneys general couldn’t shoot straight about who to sue and when. And U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr pressed for Justice Department action against Google before Election Day. Rest assured that the tech platform will have their day(s) in court. It won’t be easy to prove consumer harm against companies that thrive on innovation.

3. COVID-19 turns “teleworking” into “working” and “distance learning” into “learning”

The novel coronavirus has accelerated the trend toward “teleworking” and “distance learning” by five to 10 years. Employers will be hard-pressed to demand that workers come to the office, or that students sit in a school desk, after 2020. But so many questions are unanswered: How should we distance learn effectively? What kinds of virtual private networks fail to work without strong upload speeds? How can broadband be effectively adopted and used?

See more about Broadband Breakfast Live Online, our weekly online discussion series that we launched on March 13, 2020, because of the coronavirus.

2. Equity demands universal broadband

The COVID-19 pandemic has also emphasized the dire consequence of the lack of universal broadband. The need for everyone to have Better Broadband, Better Lives is clear and pressing. Without it, we are exacerbating America’s inequities. It is time to put a stronger emphasis on the combined effect that federal, state, local and private sector actions can take to make a difference.

In 2021, one of the key themes of our Broadband Breakfast Live Online series will be “Broadband Equity, Adoption and Use.”

1. Donald Trump’s final farce: The demand to repeal Section 230

Four years of governance by the Trump administration is finally coming to an end. In the three weeks that remain, hold on and hang tight. It is ironic that a president who promised infrastructure investment (and failed, except for Opportunity Zones) is leaving office ranting against Section 230. Whatever you think of it, the law is a landmark for enabling social media and internet interactions. Trump’s taking the military budget hostage as a demand for its repeal is absurd. Everyone from the populist right to the progressive left seems to have some reason for wanting Section 230 gutted or gone. The issue isn’t going away (at least very quickly), and neither is the core insight behind Section 230: It is simply too important an enabler for communication on broadband networks.

See Broadband Breakfast’s series from July 2020, “Section 230: Separating Fact from Fiction,” sponsored by the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Environment

FCC Commissioner Starks Says Commission Looking into Impact of Broadband, 5G on Environment

Starks sat down to discuss the promise of smart grid technology for the environment.

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FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2022 – Former and current leaders within the Federal Communications Commission agreed Thursday that it is important to make sure the FCC’s broadband efforts support the nation’s goals for the environment.

On Thursday, during a Cooley law firm fireside chat event, Robert McDowell, a former FCC director, and current FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks discussed how broadband expansion and next-generation 5G mobile networks will affect the environment.

Starks said that the commission is currently focusing on answering that exact question and are evaluating the current attempts to protect the environment, as more money is expected from the federal government and as broadband infrastructure expands. That includes putting more fiber into the ground and erecting more cell towers, but also allowing for a broadband-enabled smart grid system that will make automated decisions on energy allocation.

Smart grid systems, for example, provide real-time monitoring of the energy used in the electrical system. These systems can help to reduce consumption and carbon emissions, Starks said, by rerouting excess power and addressing power outages instantaneously in the most efficient and environmentally friendly manner. The smart grid systems will monitor “broadband systems in the 900 MHz band,” said Starks.

Starks also noted the Senate’s “Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation” initiative, which would set apart $500 million for cities across America so they can begin working on ways to lower carbon emissions.

FCC also focused on digital discrimination

Starks said the commission is also focusing on “making sure that there is no digital discrimination on income level, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin,” and that it all comes down to funding and who needs the money.

He stated that the first step is to finalize the maps and data that have been collected so funding can be targeted to the areas and people that need it the most. Many have remarked that the $65 billion allocated to broadband from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will not be divvied out until adequate maps are put in place.

Starks noted that broadband subsidy program Lifeline, although fundamental to some people’s lives, is significantly underutilized. Starks stated that participation rates hover around 20 percent, which led the FCC to explore other options while attempting to make Lifeline more effective. For example, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program – which provides monthly broadband subsidies – has been replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program, a long-term and revised edition of the pandemic-era program.

Starks and McDowell also stated their support for the confirmation by the Senate of Alan Davidson as the permanent head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and expressed that Davidson will be a key player in these efforts.

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Broadband's Impact

CES 2022: Public-Private Partnerships Key to Building Smart Cities, Tech leaders Say

Public-private partnerships will increase the community benefit of infrastructure projects, leaders at Qualcomm and Verizon said.

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Panelists on the “Smart Cities and Public-Private Partnerships” CES session on Friday.

LAS VEGAS, January 12, 2022––Telecommunications industry leaders said Friday at the Consumer Electronics Show that public-private partnerships will pave the way to realizing the future of smart cities.

Raymond Bauer, director of the domain specialist group that connects governments to Verizon’s telecommunications services, said the government needs private partners to improve its infrastructure efforts.

Referencing the recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Bauer said governments should look forward to partnering with private technology companies to improve upcoming infrastructure projects.

“There’s a once in a lifetime opportunity from IIJA,” Bauer said. “We should find common ways to work in a way we haven’t in the past. There are certain goals and use cases to leverage the infrastructure we have,” he said.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan legislation funds physical and digital infrastructure projects, including $65 billion for the expansion of broadband across the country.

Bauer said communities have a chance to monetize the services Verizon offers to communities if Verizon builds infrastructure for broadband access in underserved areas. “By bridging the digital divide, underserved communities get the services they need,” he added.

Ashok Tipirneni, head of smart cities and connected spaces at Qualcomm, said that cities should be thinking about how technology can improve much-needed infrastructure projects.

“Cities are growing faster than available utility,” he said, citing global issues of housing, water, and equity for vulnerable populations. “How do we ensure access for all citizens? And how can cities be in lock step with new technology, whatever it is?” he asked.

Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Accelerator Program delivers internet of things ecosystem products and services to member cities and local governments.

“New Orleans, Miami, and Los Angeles has local governments asking how they can do better,” he said. “They offer opportunities for partnerships that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago.”

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Broadband's Impact

Year In Review: Key Developments for Broadband’s Impact in the U.S.

This year saw a growing telehealth trend, federal digital inclusion efforts and greater attention to spectrum sharing.

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Photo of FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel (left) in February 2020 from the Prince George's County Library used with permission

WASHINGTON, December 29, 2021–High-speed internet access has never seemed more essential than in the days of another year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And that’s why, for the third in a three-part review of 2021, Broadband Breakfast focuses on broadband’s impact in enabling benefits through expanded internet access.

Telehealth takes center stage

Because the pandemic is continually forcing closures and stay-at-home orders, the expansion of telehealth services has become a critical, normalized service this year as remote health care is a safer, more efficient way to deliver high-quality care.

Broadband service is now important to maintaining overall health––experts have defined broadband services as a social determinant of health. Expanding telemedicine across rural and Tribal communities remain barriers to better health outcomes for vulnerable populations.

The pandemic prompted Congress to extend waivers that allowed patients to take advantage of telehealth services. Experts say the waivers encouraged the growth of telehealth systems, and that investment in telehealth is necessary to improving them.

Broadband access and affordability often restrict vulnerable communities’ ability to take advantage of telehealth services. This year saw massive investments focused on funding telehealth subsidies for patients in need.

In December alone, the Federal Communications Commission announced more than $42.7 million in COVID-19 Telehealth Program awards for health care providers spending on telecommunications information services and devices. The awards also reimburse health care organizations for innovative ideas that connect patients to quality care with broadband.

For example, the Westchester County Health Care Corporation in Valhalla, New York, was awarded $1 million for the purchase of remote monitoring software and video equipment, which will allow for the creation of a “tele-ICU” for the provision of remote care for hospitalized patients.

In October, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony that permanent regulatory flexibility allowing free or subsidized telemedicine services for patients would have  a positive impact on patient care. It may have a cost benefit too: FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr estimated that  widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

The FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission served as an accelerator to better connect communities during the pandemic through its Affordable Connectivity Program. As families and students struggled to stay connected to work and school during the pandemic, the FCC has taken historic steps to assist families can’t afford to pay for internet service and devices.

Originally established as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Affordable Connectivity Program is the nation’s largest broadband subsidy program to ever be enacted. The Emergency Broadband Benefit was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program after the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November.

The Affordable Connectivity Program transformed the Emergency Broadband Benefit into a long-term program that provides discounts for families to purchase internet service and devices. Households can also receive discounts to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet for their home.

The Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment period opens on December 31, 2021, allowing families to start the new year with the opportunity to receive new devices for the home. However, a long-standing challenge has been informing the community about these benefits. Policy experts agree that these benefit programs are not reaching the intended audience.

A November report showed that areas with low broadband adoption are less likely to enroll in the program. “If leaders want to connect the unconnected, in addition to low income groups, other programs will be needed. EBB isn’t targeting these low-adoption communities,” said Will Rinehart, senior fellow at the Center for Growth an Opportunity.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel agreed on the need for emphasizing 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],” Rosenworcel said during a September 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.”

Digital equity and inclusion

The past year was significant for its focus on digital equity and inclusion. The closing of many public institutions because of the pandemic has forced lower-income communities into isolation without sufficient devices or technology to stay connected, digital inclusion experts say.

Organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Association have decried a type of discrimination known as “digital redlining” in which internet service providers discriminate in broadband deployment, maintenance, upgrade, or delivery of service in lower-income neighborhoods. Because communities of color are more likely to have slower and less reliable internet service, policy leaders have been active in finding solutions.

To combat this alleged practice, Rep. Yvette Clark introduced the Anti-Digital Redlining Act on July 30.  The bill finds that lower-income residents pay the same for DSL internet as fiber customers, while wealthier residents receive much better internet service. The text of the bill also acknowledges that disparities in internet access “impose significant costs” on the government to choose between “either offering non-digital means of interaction or excluding residents without access to high speed, reliable broadband access.”

If passed as federal law, the measure would require the FCC to ban digital redlining.

This year also saw the passage of digital inclusion-focused legislation as part of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The law allocated $2.75 billion to the Digital Equity Act, which establishes the federal definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity.

The Digital Equity Act’s two programs and three grant funds will supply money to the states in order to do digital equity work. For example, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Association, said that states are best prepared to promote digital equity for their residents. “The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.” By connecting all residents to quality devices and internet-enabled services, residents are better equipped to fully engage with the community and improve their quality of life.

Satellite broadband takes flight

Apart from the high-profile space launches this year, the broadband industry is both excited and skeptical about satellites playing a greater role.

In late 2020, the FCC voted to adopt rules making it easier for satellite providers to obtain licensing to deploy satellites faster. In February, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 120 Starlink broadband satellites on two February missions, bringing the total number of satellites to over 1,700.

Low Earth Orbit satellites, which can bring broadband to rural communities, could connect harder-to-reach communities faster than laying fiber. By May 2021, SpaceX announced it had over 500,000 orders for the Starlink service.

Other companies are also jumping into the satellite business: the FCC approved Boeing’s  request to launch 132 satellites for its broadband internet network, and Amazon’s satellite imitative Project Kuiper partnered with Verizon in October to launch an internet service for underserved and unserved communities.

However, these massive investments didn’t come without controversy. Apart from concerns about Starlink’s capacity to deliver long-term, high quality service that complies with IIJA, public telecommunications policy leaders say the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) band, the portion of spectrum that Starlink uses for its services,  should be shared with 5G operators to deliver internet to lower-income communities.

Research commissioned by RS Access in August concluded that the mid-band spectrum can be shared between 5G and satellite broadband operators and finding that the 12 GHz spectrum is “highly favorable for 5G,” and “can rapidly accelerate 5G deployment nationwide.”

Next year regulators and policymakers will continue the battle to determine who, if anyone, will have greater control over the 12 GHz band.

Will the ‘homework gap’ persist in a world of online education?

Last year’s initial COVID lockdown left many families unprepared and unconnected to devices or internet access and the “homework gap” persisted.

In fall 2021, many schools embraced a “hybrid” in-person, virtual schooling model. Around this time, Pew research found that lower-income parents were more likely to say their children did homework on a cellphone and could not complete homework because they did not have computer access at home.

Some students have been using public Wi-Fi because they could not connect reliably at home. The FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund was authorized to help close bring devices to students who lack them.

Originally launching in June as part of March’s American Rescue Plan Act, the FCC has committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17 billion program to provide funding for schools and libraries to buy equipment students to learn remotely.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said last week in a press release. (See also Year in Review: Key Developments in Digital Infrastructure with Ramifications for Next Year.)

Last week, the FCC committed another $603 million in Emergency Connectivity funds to connect more than 1.4 million students across all 50 states.

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