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.
Debra Berlyn: What’s New in 2022 for Aging and Tech?
Older adults continue at a rapid pace to adopt tech that assists the aging process.
It’s the start of a new year and time to view what’s on the horizon for the latest technology innovations. To our great anticipation, the most significant technology event of the year, the Consumer Electronics Show, returned in-person to Las Vegas!
CES 2022 literally rolled in with some eye-catching innovations and gadgets unveiled at CES, notably with a BMW that can change its color and patterns with the use of a phone app. CES also unveiled the usual army of robots to clean the house, provide learning skills, and entertain. The Ameca robot is “human-like” and can be programmed with software using artificial intelligence, offering both speech and facial/object recognition. Ameca will engage in conversation and complement you on your lovely red hat.
The more important technology story for consumers for 2022, isn’t just the “wow” innovations that may or may not make it to market this year, it is the tech that will enhance and improve all of our lives. This is particularly important for the aging community, who increasingly rely on tech to stay connected to family and community, and as an important component of healthcare.
Those 65 and older continue to adopt tech at a rapid pace, narrowing the gap with their age 18-29 younger counterparts. Now, over 65% of older adults have broadband at home, 44% have tablets, and 61% have a smartphone. These “basics” form the foundation for layering the more sophisticated health and wellness and smart home innovations available today, and on the horizon.
The pandemic has emphasized the importance of tech for the aging community. A recent AARP study has confirmed that technology is a “habit” that is here to stay for older adults. The past couple of years has led to an emphasis on tech devices to monitor our health, help us stay fit and get connected to our health care professionals. We are spending more time at home for work and leisure, and while at home we want to be able to manage our energy use, home security, appliances and more.
According to the chief technology officer at Amazon, Werner Vogels, one of his primary predictions for tech this year is, “In 2022, our homes and buildings will become better assistants and more attentive companions to truly help with our most human needs. The greatest impact in the next few years will be with the elderly.”
Technology can provide solutions to make life easier for older individuals
A critical opportunity that technology provides is to solve tough problems such as how to make life just a bit easier for older individuals and address their greatest challenges as they age. Voice assistive tech continues to be a popular device for older adults. One-third (35%) of those 50-plus now own a home assistant, up from 17% just two years ago, with the voice assistant serving as a significant tool to reduce isolation for older adults.
While the AARP study found that growth of ownership of voice assistants, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, may have slowed for younger demographic groups, ownership continues to be on the rise for older adults.
Here are several examples of innovations for the aging community:
- The Labrador Retriever is an assistive “robot” that empowers individuals to live more independently by providing practical, physical assistance with everyday activities. The robot is a rolling container with trays that can be “commanded” to go to different locations in the home to retrieve objects and carry them to various locations. It maps the home and “learns” how to navigate the space to operate wirelessly.
- Tech devices that enable older individuals to track several critical aging factors continue to be introduced and desired in the marketplace. The “Buddy” from LiveFreely, is smartwatch software that monitors and manages fall prediction and detection, medication schedules and reminders, and emergency notifications. With alerts to family members, caregivers and emergency services providers, it provides wearers with an enhanced sense of security and independence. The software operates on both the Apple and Fitbit device.
- For any aging adult with mobility issues, or their caregivers, you know that just getting around can be a challenge and now there are advances to the most needed tool in aging: the walker. One company, Camino, has developed a sleeker, advanced walker with an ergonomic design, lights and improved navigation for bumps in the road to provide greater walking assurance and balance.
- The “Freestyle,” from Samsung, is an entertainment component of the smart home for older adults. It is a projector device with accessibility features that can be used inside the home or out, to project content such as a movie, photos or messages from any smartphone onto any surface.
AARP’s 2022 study on technology trends also recognizes that the increasing older demographic has significant purchasing power in the consumer market, including for technology spending. The study found, “Tech spending in 2020 among adults 50+ is up 194% (from $394 to $1144) to modernize, update, or create a better experience online.”
It also projected that by the year 2030, “the 50-plus market is projected to swell to 132 million people who are expected to spend on average $108 billion annually on tech products.”
In the coming years, older adults will have a wide range of new and innovative products to exercise their market power and find the right technology to enhance and assist their lives as they age. Over the past decade, technology has empowered older adults to be increasingly more independent, battle isolation, and stay informed and connected. While we can’t predict the future, the next decade should be an exciting opportunity for new innovations for the aging community.
Debra Berlyn serves as the executive director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the president of Consumer Policy Solutions. She represented AARP on telecom issues and the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns. She serves as vice chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and is on the board of the National Consumers League and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. This Expert Opinion is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
Digital Inclusion Leaders a Critical Step to Closing Digital Divide: National League of Cities
The National League of Cities said government leaders need to have ‘multiple points of engagement’ with communities.
WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – To understand the digital divide, cities need to include digital equity leaders in their broadband needs assessment programs, the National League of Cities said at an event on community connectivity challenges Wednesday.
A broadband needs assessment would allow city leaders to explore the extent of the digital divide in their communities, said Lena Geraghty, the National League of Cities’ director of urban innovation.
“[A needs assessment] enable city leaders to dig into who’s being excluded, what’s currently available in your city, and what solutions city leaders can use” to close the digital divide, she said.
“The community is going to know best about where access exists, where gaps exist, and the needs that will make connectivity better,” Geraghty said. To get the best picture of a community’s need, stakeholders must find and include the community’s digital equity leaders in the data-gathering process, she added.
“These could be people that are knowledgeable about digital equity or people that are experiencing the digital divide,” she said. “Think really broadly about what it means to be a leader and the type of information these folks can bring to bear in solving the digital divide in your communities.”
Geraghty said it may be useful to formalize the leaders’ work by creating a broadband working group or ad hoc committee led by the city’s government. “Giving some roles and responsibilities can help everyone move in the same in direction, there’s agreement, and really clear goals and outcomes.”
Geraghty added that it’s important for government leaders to establish multiple points of engagement for the community. “It’s not enough to gather data or information from people once,” she said. “The state of access to the internet and devices is always changing,” so leaders should create multiple touch points for community input.
The National League of Cities released its Digital Equity Playbook for cities in December, walking readers through how they can promote digital equity in their cities. The playbook has a four-step process on how to get started with digital equity.
By walking readers through the process of connecting with the community, evaluating the connectivity landscape, gathering foundational information and reporting on findings, city leaders will be prepared to target broadband funding to unserved and underserved areas in their communities.
Infrastructure Bill Supports Digital Inclusion, Says Advocacy Group
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes billions for states to expand digital inclusion efforts.
WASHINGTON, December 10, 2021 – National Digital Inclusion Association Policy Director Amy Huffman explicated the role of the recent federal infrastructure legislation – and its support for digital inclusion and digital equity – in a Tuesday webinar.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42.5 billion in the Broadband Equity and Deployment program. IIJA also allocates $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act.
The Digital Equity Act funds are designed to help improve states and local governments’ digital inclusion efforts. The federal government recognizes that states, local governments, and practitioners “who already are embedded in your communities are the trusted resources in your communities that you all are the best ones to do digital inclusion,” Huffman said.
“You’ll see that ethos has made its way throughout all of the both the Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program” of the broader legislation.
The Digital Equity Act codifies the definitions of “digital equity” and “digital inclusion.” Digital equity is our “goal,” said Huffman.
“That’s what we’re trying to achieve, we want to make sure that we live in a nation where everyone, every individual and community has the capacity for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy,” she said. Digital inclusion involves the programs, policies and tools that help the nation achieve a digitally equitable state.
Indeed, the Digital Equity Act contains two programs: the State Digital Equity program and the Competitive Grant program.
The Act also creates three grant funds. Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, the digital equity competitive grant program will supply money for states to do digital equity work.
The program is split into planning grants and capacity grants: Planning grants help states create digital equity plans, while capacity grants give money to states to implement those plans.
The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.
Each state will receive at least $100 million, and use an additional formula for determining how much additional funding states receive. Eligible grantees are all U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories. Subgrantees can be cooperatives such as telephone or electric member cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and public-private partnerships.
Each state’s plan funded by these grant programs must create “measurable objectives for documenting and promoting various digital inclusion activities that will advance the covered populations pursuit of digital equity and closing of these barriers,” Huffman said.
“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.”
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