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Digital Inclusion

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

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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

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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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for 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],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an 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.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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