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

Derek Shumway

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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

Hawley Calls For Ban On Large Corp Mergers, Chip Shortage Coming For Routers, Big Telecom Breakup

Derek Shumway

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Photo from the American Independent Institute

April 12, 2021 – Senator Josh Hawley, R-MO, shared with Axios a new proposal that would bar corporate giants from acquisitions and strengthen century-old antitrust laws.

“This country and this government shouldn’t be run by a few mega-corporations,” Hawley told Axios. The Republican Party “has got to become the party of trust-busting once again. You know, that’s a part of our history.”

Though he is among the Senate’s most conservative members, him attacking corporate power is not out of place when read with Senators Elizabeth Warren’s or Bernie Sanders’ agenda.

The “Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act” would include banning mergers and acquisitions by firms with a market cap over $100 billion. The threshold for prosecution under existing federal antitrust laws would be lowered, emphasizing the protection of competition instead of replacing consumer harm standards. Companies would also be required to forfeit all their profits resulting from monopolistic conduct that lose federal antitrust lawsuits. And the Federal Trade Commission would have new power to designate and regulate “dominant digital firms” in online markets.

If enacted, Hawley’s call to regulate mergers would affect far more than Silicon Valley. Its rules on mergers would also cover dozens of corporate giants in virtually every economic sector of the country.

If anyone is confused about the Republican “party of business” proposal being tough on business from one of its own kind, the Senator offered two responses: “’Trust-busting’ was a Republican concept originally, under Progressive-Era GOP president Teddy Roosevelt,” and “strong antitrust laws are ultimately about the sanctity of competition, and Republicans ought to embrace that.”

Axios reported that while his ideas might win some support from other populist Republicans, the broader party would need a sea-change in thinking to embrace it. Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to prefer their own bills, reported Axios.

Chip shortage could hit routers next

According to sources who spoke with Bloomberg, wireless routers “are poised to be the next piece of hardware to feel the effects of a global chip shortage currently disrupting the availability of the latest generation CPUs, GPUs, and game consoles.”

Internet service providers are already feeling the crunch in supply, with the sources stating ISPs are looking at delays for broadband router orders that will last up to 60 weeks—twice as long as the previous lead time.

PC Gamer reports that it has not seen any signs of chip shortages affecting standalone consumer routers for the of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) models on shopping sites Amazon and Newegg, but warned things could turn on a dime, as other hardware has.

In some parts of the world, including Canada, carriers have complained that next-generation modems have been in short supply because of the chip shortage.

The reason behind the shortages? A series of unfortunate events, really. Karsten Gewecke, senior vice president of Zyxel, a major player in the router market, said the COVID-19 pandemic affected its supply chains. One of Zyxel’s manufacturing facilities in China temporarily stopped when COVID first hit over a year ago, and has been spotty ever since.

The situation has worsened due to increased consumer demand for broadband hardware as more people are working from home. And for a triple whammy: “Zyxel routers are among the cargo on Ever Given, the Evergreen-owned container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal and has now been detained,” reported PC Gamer.

Gewecke said ISPs could run out of router inventory in the next several months due to these events.

Does big telecom need a break-up?

First it was big tech, and now big telecom is coming under scrutiny for its concentrated market power, as “too big to trust” accusations are leveled against internet service providers (ISPs).

The overwhelming majority of connections are now controlled by a cartel, just a few companies dubbed “Big Telecom” — AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Comcast, and Charter, reports telecom veteran Bruce Kushnick on Medium. Often, in addition to controlling broadband access, these companies have a bundled package that also includes phone and cable TV services.

Kushnick argued that in the United States, bundled service packages are 5-20 times more expensive than most of Europe, averaging $215/month compared to Europe’s $23-50/month. He said that “Many countries have wireless services for $35 with 1000 GB or more, what he called “truly unlimited.” The US price is about $90 with an ‘unlimited’ plan of 50GB, whose speed is throttled after that threshold.

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Broadband Roundup

Biden Presses Infrastructure Plan, FCC Date For Mapping, T-Mobile Fixed Wireless Service

Tim White

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April 8, 2021 – President Joe Biden wants America to think more broadly about what infrastructure means, countering Republican criticism against his new American Jobs Plan.

In a Wednesday speech, Biden reiterated his goals for the $2.3-trillion infrastructure package and urged a broader view of what infrastructure should mean for America, reported the Wall Street Journal.

The plan includes $100 billion for broadband, in addition to funding roads, bridges, ports, electric vehicles and charging stations, bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., and many other funding areas. The plan would be implemented over eight years and would raise the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called Biden’s plan a “trojan horse” for tax increases, more debt and more spending than what he considers infrastructure. “I think infrastructure is roads, it’s bridges, it’s broadband. Beyond that, they’ve sort of thrown everything but the kitchen sink into it,” McConnell said.

“It still depends on roads and bridges, ports and airports, rail and mass transit. But it also depends on having reliable high-speed internet, in every home, because today’s high-speed internet is infrastructure,” Biden said.

The American Jobs Plan is just the first part of Biden’s infrastructure proposal. The second part – the “American Families Plan” – is due sometime in April.

FCC sets May 7, 2021 for Digital Opportunity Data Collection

The Federal Communications Commission issued a final rule Wednesday on the new Digital Opportunity Data Collection, setting May 7, 2021 as the effective date for the new broadband mapping system that will improve on the Form 477 data.

Broadband mapping has been a long-standing issue for many years, which has historically been based on inaccurate Form 477 data. A “served” area is one in which a 25 megabit per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speed are offered. One of the problems is that if a single location within a census block receives that minimum service, it counts the entire census block as “served,” regardless of other broadband service in that area.

The new DODC system, or Broadband Serviceable Location Fabric, will use more granular data to improve broadband maps. This will include service providers distinguishing between residential and business served locations, connection speeds offered, and geographic coordinates for fixed wireless base stations.

“This dataset will be one of the building blocks of our data collection and will help give us an accurate and comprehensive picture of the availability of fixed broadband service throughout the country,” Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, said in a March 16 statement.

T-Mobile offers 5G home internet service

T-Mobile announced the launch of their home internet service Wednesday, offering wireless broadband service to up to 30 million locations across the U.S., reports the Verge.

The service plan costs $60 with autopay, or $65 without, has no data caps, and will offer service on their 5G or 4G network depending on available coverage, whichever is faster. “T-Mobile says most customers will experience speeds of 100Mbps, and all eligible customers should see average speeds of 50Mbps,” reported the Verge.

However, consumers may experience slower connection in congested areas.

The company has been touting home internet access since it acquired Sprint in 2019, saying the merger was necessary to develop a competitive internet service to other providers.

T-Mobile has been running a pilot program for home internet service since before the merger with Sprint happened.

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Broadband Roundup

Broadband As Civic Infrastructure, Telehealth Under Net Neutrality, Worre Studios Builds Virtual Arena

Derek Shumway

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April 7, 2021 – The German Marshall Fund is calling for broadband to be considered part of the civic infrastructure to draw more public and private partnerships and funding to connect more citizens.

Equity issues in communications policy have only worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, and redefining what helps citizens engage with their communities by including broadband to open-up opportunities for long-term success after the pandemic ends is critical, the GMF said in a late-March policy brief.

That includes forming a “digital new deal,” which would see the federal government play a stronger role in financing broadband for public purposes. Such a deal will also require that citizens have digital skills training, tech support, and information literacy to properly prepare for the future.

The government must also demonstrate strong commitment to oversight, enforcement, and assessment of progress toward goals for community connectivity. States also need to have the capacity for broadband planning and the resources to deliver these services via digital platforms, the policy brief states.

Coordinating with the private sector and all levels of government with communities to integrate broadband can create long-term solutions to close the digital divide.

“At a time when the nation faces a crisis of commitment to social and physical infrastructure, access to broadband carries the potential to create opportunities for individuals and communities,” the brief said.

California net neutrality law puts telehealth apps in focus

April 7, 2021 – Critics of California’s new net neutrality law are concerned that a telehealth app that doesn’t count against users’ monthly data allowance may be blocked because of zero-rating provisions in the act, according to Law360, but others say that won’t be the case.

The effective net neutrality law – a justice department legal challenge against which was revoked earlier this year — means internet service providers cannot influence on how traffic moves on their networks, including whether or not an app will be counted against data caps, also known as zero-rating.

In late March, news reports surfaced indicating that officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs were concerned that VA Video Connect, an app that provides free telehealth services to veterans that doesn’t count against subscribers’ mobile data caps, may be blocked or become no longer supported by ISPs. Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr tweeted on March 24 that, “Cutting off free mental health services for veterans is the unconscionable outcome demanded by regressive ‘net neutrality’ laws. This is wrong.”

AT&T already said it will end sponsored data arrangements nationwide to adhere to the law, to which critics said this could harm veterans struggling to get health care during the pandemic.

Worre Studios Builds Arena To Host Virtual Audience

Worre Studios announced Monday that a 25,000-square-foot circular arena located in Las Vegas, Nevada, that will host thousands of virtual attendees is now open.

Similar to how the NBA has been hosting viewers who are seen in broadcasts, the new studio featured a 360-degree interactive screen that allows a presenter to stand in the middle as if they are performing in front of a large audience.

Virtually every industry has been affected by the Coronavirus in some form or another. The events and entertainment industry lost approximately $30 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic, reported Worre Studios. And no one knows for sure when things will return to “normal,” especially for events. Worre Studios is trying to change that and built a 25,000 square foot circular arena that is designed to host hybrid events. The arena is located in the Southwest part of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The circular screen stage can be used for anything from standard business meetings to live television broadcasts, new product launches, and even live concerts and awards shows. The host or performers can also live interact with digital audience members, which uses Canvas software and Zoom video to connect up to 250,000 live interactive participants, in addition to being spacious enough to fit a 250-person live audience, making it a true hybrid experience.

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