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Broadband's Impact

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.

Broadband's Impact

Steve Lacoff: A New Standard for the ‘Cloudification’ of Communications Services

The cloudification of communications services makes it easy to include voice, data, SMS, and video within any existing service.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Steve Lacoff, general manager of Avalara for communications

The line of demarcation between what has traditionally been considered a telecommunications service was once very clear. It was tangible – there were wires, end points, towers, switches, facilities. Essentially, there was infrastructure required to relay voice or data from point A to point B.

Today that line is fuzzy, if not invisible. The legacy infrastructure remains, but an industry of cloud-based services that don’t require the physical connections has exploded. Voice, data, SMS, and video conferencing can now be conveniently delivered OTT. Enabled by simple API integrations, businesses can embed just one of these services or a complete communications platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) into an app, service, or product.

Cloudification is a game changer

This “cloudification” of communications services makes it easy to include voice, data, SMS, and video within any existing application, product, or service. These are essential components for many business models.

Consider these services we have come to rely on in our daily lives: food or grocery delivery, ride services, and business and personal communications. These require multiple methods of communication with shoppers, drivers, co-workers, watch party groups, and external business partners.

The exciting news is there is no end in sight. Use cases will continue to evolve and growth will continue to skyrocket. The scale cloud delivery accommodates is massive. These untethered, easy to embed communications services are a critical differentiator for both business-to-business and business-to-consumer buyers, and the lifeblood of the businesses providing both the end user subscriptions and the APIs.

In fact, one industry juggernaut saw H1 YoY video application service demand grow nearly 600% in 2020.

Not surprisingly, as business demand for these services increases smaller CPaaS players continue to enter the market to quickly snag market share. According to a recent IDC study, “the global market revenue for CPaaS reached $5.9bn in 2020, up from $4.26bn in 2019, and is expected to reach $17.71bn by 2024.”

Merger and acquisition activity is aligned with this hockey stick growth forecast. Large telcos, SaaS providers, and even other CPaaS providers are all on the hunt. Whether they want to add additional features to punch up their products or eliminate the competition in a very tight, nuanced market, the end game is clear – as the market expands, the players will ultimately contract leaving only the most competitive offerings.

Don’t let communications tax take you by surprise

One of the least understood risks when adding cloud-based voice, data, SMS, or video conferencing to an existing product or service is new eligibility for and exposure to the complex world of communications taxation. Making mistakes can get costly very quickly.

Here are some of the key pitfalls to keep an eye on:

  • Expanded nexus: Understanding communications tax nexus is different – and exceptionally more complicated – than sales tax. There are approximately 60,000 federal, state, local, and special taxing jurisdictions, each with uniquely complex rules that tend to change at their own pace. Rules are very different for each service.
  • More complex calculations: The more communications services you provide via API, the more complicated communications taxes will be. Each feature can be taxed at different rates in each individual jurisdiction, or the whole bundle can be taxed at one rate. It’s critical to monitor monthly to avoid audit issues.
  • Maintaining overall compliance: Just as tax rates and rules need to be maintained, so must tax and regulatory filing forms in each jurisdiction. Some of these are very long and require significant detail.  They must be filed in a timely, accurate cadence to avoid additional audit risk.

Bottom line: Don’t assume, be prepared! As these communications services become more pervasive a larger swath of technology providers will find themselves liable for communications tax. The more your business falls behind, the more it can cost you.

It pays to be proactive and prepared. Tax and legal advisory experts can help determine your level of risk, and tax and compliance software providers can help you keep up with changing rules and regulations. Don’t underestimate the ongoing value of networking with peers who are either struggling to answer the same questions or have already overcome the hurdles you’re facing today.

Steve Lacoff is General Manager of Avalara for Communications. With a focus on data, VoIP, and video streaming, Steve has spent 15 years in various product and marketing leadership roles in communications and technology industries, including Disney’s streaming services and Comcast technology solutions. Steve now drives business strategy on today’s changing industry landscape and associated tax impacts. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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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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Health

Senate Subcommittee Hears Broadband Affordability, Regulatory Flex Key to Reducing Hospital Burdens

Health providers testified before a Senate subcommittee that Congress should be open to all forms of telehealth.

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WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – A Senate subcommittee heard Thursday that affordability is the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that lawmakers should exercise regulatory flexibility when it comes to the forms of telehealth to help reduce inessential hospital visits.

Covid-19 often brings about extreme shortness of breath, the severity of which is best assessed by a doctor, Deanna Larson, president of Avel eCARE, told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, which convened a hearing on the state of telehealth and removing barriers to access and improving patient outcomes.

Patients with affordable, high speed internet access can be monitored at home by doctors so that they don’t enter an emergency room or take up a hospital bed prematurely, she said.

Larson urged Congress to extend or make permanent their regulatory flexibility toward telehealth especially as it relates to being neutral on the kinds of telemedicine, such as phone-only care, asynchronous care, and remote patient monitoring. An economic benefit of which would be keeping medical commerce local, she said. Patients wouldn’t be required as often to move to a higher level of care out of town.

Physicians would have 24-hour access to the patient through video calls, monitoring patients in a way which significantly lightens the burdens of the healthcare system, added Larson. With telehealth, doctors can advise patients on exactly when and if they need to go to an emergency room.

Steps to improve telehealth

The committee also heard testimony from Sterling Ransone Jr., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Ransone, a strong proponent of telehealth, has found that the digital divide touches rural, tribal and urban communities alike and proposed a series of steps Congress could take to increase public health through broadband policy, including investing in universal affordable broadband service, digital literacy services, end-user devices, audio-only telehealth and data collection in the determinants and outcomes of telehealth as it relates to key factors such as race, gender, ethnicity and language.

Defining broadband as a social determinant of health, Ransone highlighted that affordability is possibly the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that affordability and access disproportionately affect rural communities.

Sanjeev Arora, founder of Project ECHO and distinguished professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, agreed: “expanding access to high-quality, high-speed broadband connectivity is critical. It’s a prerequisite for the success of any telehealth model in rural communities and urban underserved areas.”

Telehealth isn’t just vital and broadly popular, it is cost saving. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who also appeared before the subcommittee, shared an estimate that widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

Carr, in an effort to reduce inessential hospital visits and decrease the risk of spreading Covid-19, endorsed the CONNECT for Health Act, the RUSH Act of 2021, the Telehealth Modernization Act, and the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which in combination would remove geographic restrictions to telehealth services, foster use of telehealth in skilled nursing facilities, grant the Secretary of Health and Human Services greater ability to reduce telehealth restrictions and more.

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