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California Push for Inclusion, Former AT&T Lawyer Alleges E-Rate Overcharges, Virginia Funds Broadband

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Photo of Theodore Marcus by Sarah Voisin for the Washington Post

March 24, 2021 – The University of Southern California and the California Emerging Technology Fund announced a partnership on Monday to determine internet access in California based on demographics and location.

The two organizations hope to identify the impact a lack of broadband causes for those who don’t have access in an increasingly digital world, and to inform policymakers on how to close the digital divide.

In its press release, USC said “the most severely impacted demographic groups include households earning less than $20,000 per year, adults 65 and over, and adults without a high school diploma.”

Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of CETF, said “the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the widespread inequities that demand immediate action to accelerate the deployment and adoption of high-speed Internet.”

USC and the CETF launched a statewide survey on February 10, called the Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption, that included 1,650 California adults that aims to identify broadband access to fulfill a public policy goal of state leaders. The results are expected by the end of March.

CETF is a nonprofit foundation focused on digital equity in the state and has monitored California’s broadband progress since 2008. According to CETF, broadband access has steadily increased, reaching 88 percent of households in 2019, yet 1 in 8 California households has no broadband.

Former AT&T employee claims company overcharged on E-Rate

Theodore Marcus, once an in-house lawyer for AT&T, has been accused by his now former employer of “shocking” legal misconduct for handing over what he thought was “damning information to a lawyer suing the company” over allegations it did not charge low prices required by law for E-Rate funding. E-rate is a federal program that offers low-priced phone and internet service to schools based on need.

Marcus said AT&T mislead the government about its compliance with the rules of the federal program. Originally, while working for AT&T, he was charged with the responsibility to determine whether the company was overcharging schools and libraries for internet and telephone service.

Marcus said he believed AT&T was not fairly charging them and claims it abused the government program, thus hurting needy schools. He said there are “poor Black and Brown kids” who cannot fend for themselves, in an interview with The Washington Post.

AT&T is now trying to persuade a federal judge to dismiss the sweeping lawsuit due to his “shocking” legal misconduct. Marcus reportedly had an expectation that he too might share in the payout if the suit was successful.

The problem though is “he never locked in an agreement to benefit from the pending suits that allege overcharging, and is not in line to share in any proceeds.” Complicating matters more, The Washington Post reported that “the future of the case will depend, in part, on whether a federal court views Marcus as a whistleblower trying to right a wrong, or a corporate lawyer violating his duty to his former employer.”

In a statement, AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook said the company always complied with the rules of the E-Rate program, and there was no evidence brought by Marcus to support “absurd claims.” Cook also called Marcus’ claim that AT&T’s actions hurt children living in poverty “baseless and offensive,” instead accusing Marcus of raising concerns only after a poor performance review and not receiving a position he sought, to which Marcus said was denied to him.

Virginia doles out $20 million for broadband projects

Virginia awarded network operators this week $20.1 million for 11 projects that is expected to connect 13,400 homes, businesses and other institutions across the state.

Grant money was given based directly on infrastructure needs for each broadband project. Second-round projects and funding requests also included some that had been re-scoped and re-evaluated due to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s impact, an FCC initiative designed to inject billions of dollars into the construction and operation of rural broadband networks. 

CenturyLink, one of the operators, was given $2.2 million and is working with Albemarle County on a project that would construct 100-miles of fiber network. Cox Cable received over $90,000 to connect 69 units in the City of Chesapeake that also includes 16 businesses.

The grants were given out as part of the second round of the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI), which is administered by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

“Quality broadband service is key to growing our economy, and learning, competing, and succeeding in today’s digital world,” said Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a statement.

“This funding will have an enormous impact on thousands on unserved Virginians and bring us closer to our goal of every community in our Commonwealth having access to high-speed internet.”

Broadband Roundup

Commerce Vote on Sohn Wednesday, Facebook Abandoning its Crypto Technology, Low EBB Awareness

The Senate Commerce Committee will vote on Sohn’s renomination after confirmation efforts stalled last year.

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Photo of Gigi Sohn from March 2011 by the Stanford Center for Internet and Society used with permission

January 28, 2022 – On Wednesday the Senate Commerce Committee will vote on President Joe Biden’s nomination of Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission.

Sohn, the co-founder of intellectual property nonprofit Public Knowledge, was renominated by Biden earlier this month after the Commerce committee failed to advance her nomination at the end of last year.

Much of the opposition to Sohn’s nomination has centered around Republican pushback on comments Sohn had made about conservative media.

Additionally on Wednesday, the committee will vote on Biden’s nominee to the Federal Trade Commission Alvaro Bedoya.

Like Sohn, Bedoya saw his nomination stalled late last year as Republicans opposed comments he had made on conservative media.

Both the FCC and FTC are split 2-2 in terms of the partisanship of their voting members, limiting the ability of their Democratic chairs to enact their policy agendas.

Facebook’s cryptocurrency project fizzles

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Facebook is selling the technology behind the Diem Association, the company’s cryptocurrency project, amid concerns over its ability to provide security and privacy.

Silvergate Capital Corporation, a California bank that works with bitcoin and blockchain companies, will reportedly buy the technology for $200 million.

In an earlier effort to appease regulators the bank and Diem had agreed to issue some stablecoins, which are considered less volatile and are backed by hard dollars.

Diem, previously called Libra, was originally conceived as a simple way for users to spend money and partnered with PayPal, Visa and Stripe to demonstrate institutional financial backing to officials and distance the venture from Facebook as criticisms against the platform mounted.

In October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told U.S. House members that he would support delaying the cryptocurrency’s release until all regulators approved of it.

AT&T survey on Emergency Broadband Benefit’s reach

An AT&T-commissioned survey found that as of October 2021 a majority of individuals in the company’s 21-state footprint were not aware of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, Fierce Telecom reported Wednesday.

Only 12% of survey respondents were aware of the program started by the FCC during the coronavirus pandemic to help fund low-income people’s internet connectivity.

The survey also found disparities in program awareness between different age groups and ethnicities.

Since administration of the survey, the EBB has been converted into the permanent Affordable Connectivity Program with Congress’ passage of its bipartisan infrastructure bill in November 2021.

The EBB was able to gain the participation of most internet service providers and roll over their participation to the ACP once it became available at the start of this year.

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Broadband Roundup

FCC Axes China Unicom, Tucows Has New Software Business, Texas County Broadband Initiative

The FCC on Thursday revoked the operating authorization of China Unicom, in latest effort to weed out national security threats.

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Tucows CEO Elliot Noss

January 27, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday revoked the operating authority of telecom China Unicom Americas due to national security concerns.

In the press release, which coincided with the commission’s January open meeting, the FCC said China Unicom Americas must discontinue domestic and international services in the U.S. within 60 days of the order.

The decision was made, the release said, after nearly a year of review of the company’s responses to inquiries, the public record and a public interest analysis following a March 2021 finding by the commission that the company “failed to dispel serious concerns” about its ties to the Communist government in China.

The decision, which comes after an FCC vote in October to revoke the operating license of China Telecom, is part of a larger effort by the agency and President Joe Biden’s administration to weed out national security risks.

Tucows new communication service software

Toronto-based telecom Tucows on Thursday launched Wavelo, a software business it says will help other telecommunications companies aspects of their business, including the network and subscription and billing management.

“In today’s competitive landscape, operators need optionality from their software,” Wavelo CEO Justin Riley said. “They deserve solutions that keep pace with their network innovation and that are flexible enough to integrate seamlessly within their existing operations. Wavelo was launched to do just that.”

Gray County, Texas developing plan for better broadband

The Gray County Broadband Committee is asking the broader community Thursday for input through a survey on how it should develop a “technology action plan that will provide both immediate and long-term solutions for improving internet access.”

The committee, which includes stakeholders in business, education, government and healthcare, said in a press release it hopes to “identify unique challenges and opportunities for expanding high-speed internet” in the county.

The county said it is partnering with Connected Nation Texas on the initiative, which is funded by the Texas Rural Funders

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Broadband Roundup

Fear of Big Tech in Auto Industry, Montana Hires Lightbox, USTelecom Hires Media Affairs Director

Technology advocacy groups are concerned about big technology companies entering the auto industry.

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Montana Governor Greg Gianforte

January 26, 2022 – A letter signed by nearly 30 technology advocacy groups and sent to government and agency officials Tuesday is warning of the dangers of tech companies entering the automobile industry, The Hill reports.

“Make no mistake: The expansion of Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook into the auto sector spells trouble for workers and consumers…As automation expands, these [auto workers] jobs are at risk and Big Tech cannot be trusted to lead that transition,” the letter said, according to the report.

Recipients of the letter signed by the likes of the American Economic Liberties Project and Demand Progress include Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan.

The Hill also reports that the groups are concerned about the treatment and usage of data and private information if these big technology companies do successfully expand their reach.

The letter comes as lawmakers and government agencies wrestle with what to do about the future of antitrust.

Montana is taking mapping matters into their own hands

Montana’s Department of Administration said Monday that is has hired location analytics company Lightbox to build a statewide broadband map, following in the footsteps of Georgia and Alabama in getting ahead of federal efforts to improving insight into what areas are underserved.

“The completed map will provide a detailed analysis of current broadband service levels throughout Montana while protecting proprietary data and will be used for allocating $266 million to unserved and underserved communities throughout Montana,” a press release said.

“Lightbox is a proven national leader in cost effective and efficient detailed mapping for state level broadband programs,” said Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles in the release. “This platform will serve as a key component to help ConnectMT reach its goal of deploying broadband throughout Montana to bridge the digital divide.”

Montana, which began searching for a data platform in October, is listed on data platform BroadbandNow as the worst state for broadband coverage and access, according to a November report.

USTelecom hires new senior director of media affairs and digital engagement

USTelecom, an association that represents telecom-related businesses, announced Wednesday the appointment of Emma Christman to senior director of media affairs and digital engagement.

Christman is joining the USTelecom communications team after working as the director of external affairs and engagement at Glen Echo Group. While there, USTelecom says she provided “a range of clients strategic counsel, content creation, media outreach and other services.”

Prior to her time at Glen Echo Group, Christman worked at Dewey Square Group as a senior associate and at Mobile Future as a community outreach director.

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