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Biden Justice Department Withdraws Net Neutrality Suit, Section 230 Changes, Community Digital Infrastructure

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Photo of net neutrality protesters from MarketWatch

February 9, 2021 – The Justice Department on Monday withdrew its lawsuit against California for proposing net neutrality laws in the wake of a 2017 vote by the Federal Communications Commission that repealed those rules. The move signals a shift in how the White House and the new FCC could approach the issue.

“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has withdrawn this lawsuit,” Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a Monday statement. “When the FCC, over my objection, rolled back its net neutrality policies, states like California sought to fill the void with their own laws. By taking this step, Washington is listening to the American people, who overwhelmingly support an open internet, and is charting a course to once again make net neutrality the law of the land.”

The net neutrality rules in California are suspended pending a lawsuit brought by the industry challenging the legality of the proposal. That hearing will be held on February 23.

In 2017, the FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai reversed the Obama Administration-era neutrality rules that ensures telecoms cannot prioritize certain content over others, such as to slow them down or block them entirely.

Senate Democrats propose reform of Section 230

Senate Democrats Mark Warner, D-Virginia, Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. last week proposed changes to Section 230, the law governing liability of internet intermediaries.

The proposed legislation, known as the Safe Tech Act, would effectively keep the general spirit of the legislation, but with a caveat that content that the platform is paid to post – such as advertising — will not be protected from legal liability.

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any speech provided by another information content provider, except to the extent the provider or user has accepted payment to make the speech available or, in whole or in part, created or funded the creation of the speech,” the proposal pitches.

This, the proponents say, will “allow social media companies to be held accountable for enabling cyber-stalking, targeted harassment, and discrimination on their platforms.”

Critics of the proposal, including Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have said that, if enacted, the change would effectively create a new form of liability on commercial relationships that would force “web hosts, cloud storage providers and even paid email services to purge their networks of any controversial speech.”

Pandemic has put community broadband in focus

Increased dependence on remote learning has forced a deeper conversation about affordable and accessible broadband – and seeking stable models that don’t necessarily rely on private funding.

One such model is community broadband, where the municipality invests its own money to provide cheaper connectivity options to keep up with the increasing number of Americans turning to online learning for their education. However, according to a Broadband Now bulletin in May, 22 states have blocked or outlawed municipal broadband projects due to concerns about unfair competition, according to Bloomberg.

“The options in front of them looking at the affordability barrier were to pay for existing service — cellular through a hotspot, or wireline — or build something,” says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “And I think the folks who went with the build-it solution are the ones thinking, ‘This problem isn’t going away after the pandemic.’”

“Basically, try to offer free connectivity in areas that are heavily populated by people who cannot afford the connections that are available,” says Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

With authorization from the FCC, a number of school districts in the western states have begun leveraging a band of the wireless spectrum known as Citizen Broadband Radio Service to establish high-speed wireless networks for students.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Director of Broadband and Spectrum Policy Mitchell Brake said, “It’s an exciting technology, but it’s also not clear to me that there is enough spectrum yet to be able to ensure that you can provide high-quality service.”

“One of the things I really hope the FCC does is create more spectrum that would be available to be shared in this way because I would worry that in many cities, it might be exhausted and congested very quickly.”

Brake says that it might be hard for some cities to afford the cost of building a CBRS system with the competitive agencies that are well place in the market, so he suggests communities invest as well on internet hotspots at public places. How these communities choose to overcome these challenges eventually depends on their needs and resources.

Broadband Roundup

CCA Wants Rip and Replace Funding, Executive Movements at Lumen, Rise Closes Buy of GI Partners

Industry associations have agreed that the FCC’s rip and replace program needs more funding.

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Photo of Sham Chotai, Lumen's new executive vice president of product and technology, via Lumen

February 6, 2023 – The Competitive Carriers Association has pressed the Federal Communications Commission on the need for more funding to replace equipment deemed a national security threat.

In a meeting late last month, the industry association said its members are struggling to complete the replacement of equipment that includes Chinese companies flagged by the commission and the government as unsafe because of a lack of funding.

“CCA discussed its members’ progress and participation in the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program (Program), and the challenges faced due to lack of full funding for the Program,” said a letter of the interaction published Thursday. “CCA discussed Congressional activity and timing for a potential solution to the funding issue, and emphasized the need for full funding as soon as possible. CCA discussed the consumer, competitive, and national security risks associated with the status quo.”

Congress allocated $1.9 billion to the “rip and replace” program as part of the Secure Networks Act. But the FCC had already identified a shortfall in the funds because requests from applicants far exceeded the amount available.

Last month, a report from the Federal Communications Commission said nearly half of respondents required to submit status reports on their replacement efforts complained about a lack of funding.

The head of the Telecommunications Industry Association had said the association was “stunned” to see that the spending package that would allow the government to run through September did not include additional money for the program.

The Rural Wireless Association had also requested further funding, as it claimed its members could not get loans to bridge them over to their statutory requirements.

Lumen mixes up executive leadership

Lumen Technologies announced Thursday changes to its executive team over the coming weeks.

Sham Chotai will be executive vice president of product and technology, Jay Barrows will be vice president of enterprise sales and public sector, and Ashley Haynes-Gaspar will include marketing organization her responsibilities and will take the title of executive vice president of customer experience officer in wholesale and international.

Chotai, who has previously worked in leadership positions at General Electric and Hewlett-Packard, will work to “evolve IT architectures and solutions.” Barrows, who also held leadership positions at GE and Red Hat, will help business and government on their digital futures.

“Lumen is focused on becoming customer obsessed, rapidly innovating valuable solutions, and aligning our business model to deliver amazing customer experiences,” Kate Johnson, Lumen’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “Sham and Jay will each play a critical role in modernizing our business and improving our execution capability to support these goals. Both are agile leaders who have driven successful strategic corporate transformations with impressive results.”

Fiber provider buys data infrastructure investor

Rise Broadband, which provides fiber infrastructure across 16 states, said Thursday it has completed the acquisition of data infrastructure investor GI Partners.

The deal is said to help the Englewood, Colorado-based Rise to expand its hybrid fiber-to-the-home and fixed wireless network.

“Rise Broadband provides essential broadband connectivity with a focus on customers in rural America,” Brendan Scollans, managing director and co-head of GI data infrastructure, said in a press release.

“Rise’s existing network infrastructure is uniquely positioned to execute a fiber expansion effort that will provide rural communities with next generation broadband service,” Scollans added.

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Broadband Roundup

Satellites Expected to Increase, $30 Million From Emergency Connectivity Fund, NTIA 5G Challenge

The U.S. must remain a market leader in the satellite sector, said Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone

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Photo of Lago Argentino Department, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina

February 3, 2023 – The number of satellites in the communications marketplace will continue to increase, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr, D- N.J., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during opening remarks at a Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

“Wireless carriers and phone manufacturers continue to build this capability into their networks and phones,” Pallone said.

“Quite simply, failing to ensure that the United States remains a market leader in this sector risks our nation falling behind our counterparts across the globe, including China, in producing cutting-edge consumer innovations and fortifying our public safety and national security capabilities,” Pallone said.

FCC disbursing another $30 million from Emergency Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday that it will commit more than $30 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which helps students stay connected to the internet when not in school.

The newly announced award is expected to fund applications from all three previous application windows, and will support more than 200 schools, 15 libraries, and 1 consortium.

Thus far, the program has provided support to approximately 10,000 schools, 10,000 libraries, and 100 consortia, plus more than =$12 million in connected devices. Around $6.5 billion in funding commitments have been approved to date, approximately $4.1 billion is supporting applications from the first funding window, $833 million from the second window and $1.6 billion from the third window.

$7 million competition by NTIA to promote development of 5G

National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced the launch of the 2023 5G Challenge with the Defense Department l. It’s purpose is to accelerate the adoption and development of an open and interoperable multi-vendor environment for the 5G wireless standard. “ Such an ecosystem will spur a more competitive and diverse telecommunications supply chain, drive down costs for consumers and network operators, and bolster U.S. leadership in the wireless sector.”

“A competitive wireless ecosystem is vital for our domestic and economic security. The research conducted from this competition will benefit everything from our cellphones to the secure radio networks needed for our national defense,” said Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and head of the NTIA.

Participants are required to create 5G equipment prototypes and then test to see if their subsystems can connect to other contestant’s equipment. For specific application and registration information, see the NTIA website .

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Broadband Roundup

Apple and Google Called ‘Gatekeepers,’ Huawei Trade Restrictions, Meta’s Antitrust Win

The NTIA claims that Apple and Google take advantage of their app stores to put unfair limitations on their competitors.

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Photo of NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson in 2017 by New America, used with permission

February 1, 2023 — Apple and Google are “gatekeepers” of the mobile app market, placing unfair limitations on competitors and ultimately harming consumers, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The app market is almost entirely confined to the app stores run by Apple and Google, and the report alleges that these companies create unnecessary hurdles for developers — such as restricting app functionality and imposing “slow and opaque review processes.”

The NTIA’s recommendations, issued at the direction of President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order on competition, include prohibiting self-preferential treatment from app store operators. The report also recommends that consumers be allowed to set their own default apps, delete pre-installed apps and have access to alternative mobile app stores.

Many of the recommendations echo the Open App Markets Act, a bill that gained significant bipartisan support in the last Congress but was not ultimately included in the year-end spending bill.

Alan Davidson, head of the NTIA, said that the agency’s recommendations would “make the app ecosystem more fair and innovative for everyone.”

“This report identifies important ways we can promote competition and innovation in the app market, which will benefit consumers, startups, and small businesses,” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council.

Apple and Google have previously argued that their stores allow users to access millions of apps while being protected from predatory apps and spam.

The report fails to “grapple with the acknowledged risks regarding consumer privacy, security and content moderation,” said Krisztian Katona, vice president of global competition and regulatory policy for the Computer  and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google and Apple as members.

Further trade restrictions for Huawei

The Biden administration has blocked export license renewals for certain U.S. companies that provide essential components to Chinese tech giant Huawei, and some officials are reportedly advocating for a complete ban on sales to the company.

The move is “contrary to the principles of market economy” and constitutes “blatant technological hegemony,” said Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over alleged threats posed by Chinese technology to national security. At a Wednesday hearing about technological competition, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., called China “the greatest threat to our country right now.”

However, some industry experts argue that China is being unfairly targeted for broad digital privacy risks that are not actually country-specific.

Amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and China, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March, where he will respond to committee members’ accusations that the app “knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data.”

Meta reportedly beats FTC antitrust challenge

A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request from the Federal Trade Commission to temporarily halt Meta’s acquisition of a virtual reality startup, according to Bloomberg, citing anonymous sources.

The FTC originally sued Meta in July, claiming the purchase would allow the company to dominate the emerging virtual reality industry. The case was unusual in that it focused on future competition, rather than the existing marketplace.

The decision marks a major loss for FTC Chair Lina Khan’s crusade against Big Tech monopolies. Under the direction of Khan, the agency has taken aggressive antitrust action against several tech companies, including a high-profile suit against Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

The agency now has a week to decide whether to appeal the ruling before the deal closes on Feb. 7.

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