Connect with us

Digital Inclusion

Removing Roadblocks on Bridge Over Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

Published

on

Photo of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., in March 2011, from the office House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office

While the bulk of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All (AAIA) Act proposes to invest $100 billion to expand broadband access in unserved and underserved parts of the country, the legislation also looks to build an essential bridge across the digital divide that goes beyond new infrastructure.

An important part of the equation involves addressing laws and policies that have proven to be obstacles to Internet connectivity for tens of millions of Americans.

In our previous installments examining the AAIA, we covered the big-ticket items – the why, how and where the $100+ billion would be invested. This final installment in the series covers the last three major sections of the bill: Title IV – Community Broadband; Title V – Broadband Infrastructure Deployment; and Title VI – Repeal of Rule and Prohibition on Use of NPRM.

These last three sections of the AAIA do not call for any federal appropriations but instead aim to tackle several thorny policy challenges.

Removing State Barriers to Municipal Broadband Initiatives

Title IV – Community Broadband (Section 4001) of the bill is straight-forward. It would prohibit state governments from enforcing laws or regulations that prevent local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives from delivering broadband service.

As it stands now, there are 19 states across the country where state legislators have passed laws designed to shield the biggest corporate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from competition. Those laws were mostly written by lobbyists for these behemoth monopolies and duopolies, despite the fact that the Big Telcos have failed to deliver reliable, affordable and truly high-speed Internet access to large segments of the population.

In Colorado, for example, legislators in that state passed SB-152, a law that prevents local governments from investing in broadband infrastructure. Fortunately for Coloradoans, the law was amended to allow municipalities to opt-out through local referendum votes, which over 140 Colorado communities have done in the 15 years since Qwest (now CenturyLink) and Comcast successfully lobbied for passage of the anti-competition bill.

In North Carolina, home to the celebrated Greenlight Municipal Broadband Network, a 2011 state law (HB-129) effectively outlaws municipal networks in the Volunteer State by saddling local governments with a thicket of red tape, including territorial restrictions on existing networks. The building of the Greenlight Network, thankfully, predated the state law, although it continues to impede other municipalities in the state from building their own networks.

As we have written about on numerous occasions, we are strongly in favor of locally-controlled networks and the distinct advantages they provide in terms of affordability and superior customer service, as well as the benefit of keeping local funds in the community instead of dollars being siphoned away to the fill the coffers of out-of-state corporations who extract premium prices as a monopoly provider.

While we support this section of the AAIA, we also recognize the likelihood that some state governors will resent the federal government preempting them just as much as local officials are angry when states restrict local authority.

National “Dig Once” Policy 

The next section of the AAIA, Title V – Broadband Infrastructure Deployment (Section 5001), however, provides something the National Governors Association favors: a “dig once” provision to better coordinate transportation and broadband infrastructure projects, while giving states flexibility and preventing any unfunded mandates.

This section of the bill would create a “Dig Once Funding Task Force” to estimate the cost of a nationwide “dig once” requirement. The Task Force, in consultation with stakeholders in rural communities and communities with limited access to broadband, would then propose funding options to implement a “dig once” requirement.

“Dig once,” which effectively eliminates the need to dig up recently-paved roads by requiring broadband conduit to be laid during road construction projects, is an easily overlooked but important consideration. It’s important because up to 90 percent of costs associated with underground deployment are often due to the excavation rather than materials, which is why forward-thinking “dig once” policies save tax dollars, to say nothing of the relief it provides commuters too often stuck in road construction traffic.

The challenge is one of administration. It is not clear who would be responsible for maintaining and leasing out the access as these highways cross many jurisdictions. ILSR and others have encouraged the federal government to focus on bottlenecks like overpasses, bridges, tunnels, railroad crossings, and the like rather than all highways. This would provide most of the benefits at a fraction of the costs and administrative burdens.

Saving a Tribal Lifeline

The final section of the AAIA, Title VI – Repeal of Rule and Prohibition on Use of NPRM (Section 6001), seeks to repeal the widely-criticized rule the FCC adopted in November 2017 that sought to “reform” Tribal Lifeline policies “to increase the availability and affordability of high-quality communications services on Tribal lands.”

While the rule was adopted under the guise of curbing abuses of Lifeline funds, outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with the support of GOP FCC commissioners, moved to eliminate Lifeline benefits in tribal areas. The program was designed for low-income households on tribal lands to receive a monthly subsidy – the $9.25 Lifeline discount plus an additional $25 – to help qualifying tribal households pay for broadband services.

Several companies had committed fraud in Indian Country to maximize their gains under the program and rather than sorting that out, Chairman Pai aimed to simply shut down needed benefits in tribal areas. In February 2019, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the move.

After the court-ruling, which allowed the Tribal Lifeline program to continue or require the FCC to re-do the rulemaking process in accordance with the court’s order, Indian Country leaders hailed the decision.

Gene DeJordy, an attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, lauded the legal victory and said it meant “that First Americans who live in some of the most impoverished areas of the country can continue receiving essential Lifeline services that they depend on in emergencies, and for work, family care, education, and other vital day-to-day needs.”

Section 6001 looks to settle the matter once and for all by preventing the FCC from adopting a rule to cap Universal Service Funds from which the Lifeline program draws its funding, codifying the view of broadband advocates and Democratic lawmakers who rightfully criticized the rule. This change will likely lead to renewed calls to deal with “contribution reform” – how the Universal Service Fund is filled.

Final Thoughts

In our view, the AAIA represents an important step forward and should be the building block for broadband legislation in the 117th Congress. We believe Congress should provide more focused support for urban needs, which have been overlooked historically, as a considerable amount of effort has been focused on rural areas that are less politically controversial.

As with so many other policy areas that involve the allocation of federal resources, the evidence indicates systemic racial imbalances even as every demographic group in the U.S. has challenges accessing high-quality Internet. White Americans have enjoyed disproportionate government support to address these barriers to access and we believe it is a simple matter of equity to craft policies and legislation that ensures no segment of the population is left behind.

This concludes our series on the AAIA. The previous parts of our series below:

Major Change on the Horizon? Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 1

Building a Bridge over the Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 2

“You Can’t Use an Old Map To Explore a New World”: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 3

Big Bucks for Broadband in the Balance: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act – Part 4

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.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Published

on

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

Continue Reading

Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

Published

on

Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

Continue Reading

Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

Published

on

Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

Continue Reading

Signup for Broadband Breakfast

Twice-weekly Breakfast Media news alerts
* = required field

Broadband Breakfast Research Partner

Trending