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Digital Inclusion

Major Change on the Horizon? Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of House Majority Whip James Clyburn from March 2012 by the Office of the House Speaker

December 2, 2020 – As House GOP leaders ask the Government Accountability Office to audit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program because of concerns federal funds are being used to “overbuild,” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have filed legislation that aims to build broadband infrastructure on a national-scale.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act is a bill that harkens back to when the federal government – through FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, established in 1935, and the Rural Electrification Act, passed by Congress in 1936 – invested in local cooperatives and brought electricity to the abundance of Americans still living in candle-lit homes without electrically-powered refrigerators.

The proposed legislation may well frame the Democratic agenda on broadband moving forward, as the Biden administration enters the White House in January. It’s a bold bill that has garnered the support of a who’s-who of broadband experts and advocacy organizations from Public Knowledge, the National Consumer Law Center and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Breaking it Down

There’s a lot to unpack in this bill, which is why we are publishing a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation. This first installment is the 30,000-foot view. Forthcoming posts will examine the legislative details where the devil – or the better angels – can be found.

Broadly, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act calls for a $100 billion investment to build high-speed broadband infrastructure that targets unserved and underserved parts of the country. It aims to ensure that every household has affordable and reliable access to online education, telemedicine, remote work, and other business opportunities in which Internet connectivity can no longer be considered a mere luxury, but a necessity.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation, which has already passed in the House, is being led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. The Senate version of the bill was filed in July by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and is being co-sponsored by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-CA).

“When we invest in broadband infrastructure, we invest in opportunity for every American,” Klobuchar said when the bill was filed. “In 2020, we should be able to bring high-speed [I]nternet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code — and this legislation is a critical step to help bridge the digital divide once and for all.”

As has become apparent since the pandemic lockdown last spring, the “underserved (and unserved) communities” in America comprise a significant portion of the U.S. population. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates there are 18.3 million Americans who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum Internet access speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). However, as we have reported numerous times here and discussed in various podcasts, the FCC maps almost certainly overstate actual broadband coverage. Some studies indicate the FCC is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access and that there may be as many as 41 million people without access.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act proposes to address the digital divide and encourage universal broadband access by:

  • Allocating $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure across the nation.
  • Earmarking $5 billion for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program.
  • Establishing a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ensure efficient use of federal money.

It aims to ensure affordability by:

  • Requiring an affordable option for Internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure.
  • Providing a $50 monthly subsidy for low-income consumers.
  • Directing the FCC to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.

The bill looks to promote adoption by:

  • Providing over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement.
  • Including $5 billion to enable students without Internet at home to participate in remote learning.
  • Authorizing funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can stay connected, especially in rural areas where longer bus rides are common.

A Wealth of Support, But No Guarantee

Joining a chorus of expert voices in support of the bill, Gigi Sohn – Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, former senior adviser to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, and one of a handful of names floated as a possible new FCC chair in the Biden administration – lauded the proposed legislation:

The Senate version of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act includes all of the critical provisions of the House version, but goes even further to address this country’s gaping digital divide. Like the House bill, it addresses the twin problems of broadband affordability and lack of network infrastructure and seeks to promote competition in a consolidated market by preferencing open access networks and repealing state laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband networks. In addition, the Senate bill would expand the FCC’s Rural Health Care program to provide funding for telehealth programs in urban as well as rural areas, and would create a fund to ensure that higher education students in need have access to robust broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has laid bare the need for every American to have robust, high speed broadband Internet access at home … It is long past time for Congress to act. Thanks to Senator Klobuchar and her Senate colleagues for co-sponsoring this vital legislation. The Senate should pass this bill without delay.

Prospects for passage of the bill, however, hinges on the outcome of the U.S. Senate run-off races in Georgia, as was noted in an op-ed published in the Albany Herald last week, co-authored by Clyburn and Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. “The votes of Georgians on Jan. 5 will determine whether 1 million Georgians and millions more across America are swiftly connected to the [I]nternet so they can participate fully in 21st-century commerce, health care, and education,” they wrote.

If the Democrats prevail in Georgia, it would tip the scales of power in the U.S. Senate where, Clyburn and Bishop lament, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, assisted by Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, has buried the legislation in his graveyard.”

In the second installment of this series, we will dive into the “Title I – Digital Equity” section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. 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

Kate Forscey: Biden’s Broadband Plan Begs the Question, If We Build it, Will Consumers Really Come?

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption.

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Author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, founder of KRF Strategies LLC

One good thing came out of the pandemic: Politicians across America have finally recognized that Internet access in 2022 is not a luxury, it is a necessity.  And Congress stepped up to the plate and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Job Act, dedicating more money to closing the digital divide than ever before.

The recipe for achieving ubiquitous broadband requires three things: deployment, affordability, and adoption. For the past couple of decades, however, the U.S. has taken a “Field of Dreams” approach that ignores the last element. Our government approach’s operating assumption is “if you build the network, consumers will use it.” The data show that simply isn’t the case.

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption of the technology. Household income, region, race, and even the pandemic all play intertwined roles.

study by NTCA in just the past year showed that broadband adoption in areas where it is available dips from 99% in the age range from 18-29 to 75% in older demographics. Lack of adoption is also linked to level of education, from 71% in less than high school education to 98% in college graduates. The fact remains that getting Americans connected hinges on a lack of digital literacy and awareness, which runs the gamut from not understanding the technology itself to not realizing the program is there in the first place.

So when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its rules for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program on May 13th, there was a bipartisan breath of relief that the ball is rolling.

The Biden Administration is following the same tired playbook in focusing on buildout

Unfortunately, a closer analysis suggests the Biden Administration is following the same, tired playbook by placing the primary focus on buildout. The BEAD Program makes $42.45 billion available for broadband via grants to the States. States must prioritize buildout in unserved areas before moving on to underserved areas (or at least show that they have a plan to get access to an unserved area). The discussion of “non-deployment activities” for spurring adoption is short and relatively vague, almost like an afterthought.

Here’s one problem: States are not homogenous in terms of unserved areas. States like Kansas and West Virginia have significant (largely rural) unserved areas, while states like Maryland, Connecticut, or Florida have few.  So NTIA’s focus on broadband deployment means that States with fewer unserved areas are likely to focus their spending on additional buildout in areas that are already served (i.e., overbuilding), which is inefficient and likely unnecessary. After all, why spend scarce dollars to build out more in areas that already have broadband? Such an approach ignores the adoption prong of a successful broadband plan.

We need to adjust how we think of our priorities. Instead of implementing a field-of-dreams broadband plan, policymakers should ask themselves, if broadband is laid using federal infrastructure funding, but no one elects to adopt it, what have we accomplished? Probably nothing.

States don’t need to follow the NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment

The good news for States with fewer unserved areas is that they don’t need to follow NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment. The rules allow them to use federal funds on adoption projects  once they bring affordable broadband to all unserved areas. Education, outreach, and digital literacy are paramount in furthering Congress’s bipartisan goals. States should give more priority to educating consumers via digital equity programs (e.g., digital literacy education, broadband sign-up assistance, and remote learning facilities) once they have reached the unserved.

It’s time for States to formalize programs to Get Out The Adoption. States should hire people to knock on doors and leave pamphlets that let low-income Americans, minority and Tribal Americans, and veterans know there is a subsidy program available to them, how to apply, what the services are, and how to get access (and plus–that’s job creation!).

States should provide pop-ups like knock-off Genius bars in neighborhoods with historically low adoption rates where people can go to get help with devices or troubleshoot their newly acquired access. States should teach new users how to practice good cyber-hygiene; show them how telehealth can make their lives easier. States should create programs to educate new users about things a lot of those of us who work online every day take for granted as obvious.

Any funding program designed to bridge the digital divide needs to account for deployment, affordability, and adoption. And it is a fundamental economic principle—the more people see the value proposition and the less intimidated they are in using the technology, the more likely they are to adopt the technology. This cannot be an “if you build it, they will come.” We need to make the case for why we’re doing all of this in the first place. If it’s really worth $42.45 billion, then let’s make it so.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. 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

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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