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CARES Focused on Learning, States Alone on Privacy Laws, Texas’ Broadband Problem

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Photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

March 17, 2021 — Officials administering the Coronovirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) prioritized immediate digital learning over long-term broadband deployment to help close the digital divide, according to a study released Monday by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition.

The study, by Bailey McHale and Abigail Simmerman at SHLB, found “over half of the spending focused on digital learning for K-12 students, while a third was spent on broadband infrastructure.”

President Joe Biden signed the $1.98 trillion American Rescue Plan Act into law on Thursday . It provides $7 billion in E-Rate funding that extends internet subsidies to households.

Though welcomed by many, McHale and Simmerman report that “some believe that the March 2020 [CARES Act] already took care of the connectivity gap. After all, the legislation included significant capital to connect students at home…Yet nearly a year later, the nation still struggles with the digital divide.”

The two SHLB interns found that 43 states used some CARES Act funding for broadband on top of the two federal programs administered by the FCC and USDA—Lifeline and the Emergency Broadband Benefit programs.

South Dakota’s ’s K-12 Connect program stood out as an example where short-term and long-term needs were addressed by working with telecom companies to provide direct services to homes, while still giving free internet service to eligible K-12 students during the 2020-21 school year.

States going it alone on privacy legislation

Instead of looking to Congress to pass federal legislation for comprehensive data privacy laws, a growing number of states are going it alone, following California’s lead, which began enforcing its own net neutrality rules last February.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the Consumer Data Protection Act into law earlier this month, joining Florida, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington State which had similar laws passed.

Writing for Perspectives for the Free State Foundation, Andrew Long said “the adoption of rival state data privacy laws similarly might drive companies to abide a Frankenstein’s monster assembled from the most onerous privacy regulatory requirements.” This would cause confusion among consumers and would cause “unreasonably burdensome and unjustifiably costly compliance obligations,” he said.

The federal government should thoroughly check these state-by-state approaches, because left unchecked, they can hurt effective compliance and “leave consumers uncertain as to their rights,” he said.

Long added that internet traffic knows no political, national, or international boundaries, and called for a “single set of data privacy rules” that should uniformly govern the United States.

9 million Texans don’t have broadband

March 17, 2021 – The Texas Tribune has reported on March 8 that some 9 million Texans don’t have broadband internet. This is due to broadband infrastructure not even reaching their homes or because Texans simply aren’t subscribed to a service.

Texas is one of six states that does not have a broadband plan to close the digital divide. According to a 2019 analysis of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, four of the five least connected cities in the country are in Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this year has designated broadband access as a top priority this legislative session to address internet access across the state.

A lot of the “digital divide” talk focuses on extending broadband to rural areas of the country, but there are needs in urban, too. In Harris County, nearly 200,000 households still don’t have internet in their homes, according to the Census Bureau. The six biggest urban counties in Texas have over 590,000 households with no internet subscriptions.

Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Connected Nation Texas, a broadband promotion organization, said that the challenge in rural areas of the state is definitely big, but urban challenges are overlooked.

Not only is it a challenge to get people connected or subscribed, ensuring they can even pay for broadband is a significant issue.

Income levels and race may be correlated to broadband access. According to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of adults in households nationwide that earn $30,000 or less don’t have broadband.  A February report from the Texas Comptroller’s Office found that almost 90 percent of non-Hispanic whites in Texas have broadband access, compared to 80 percent of Black Texans and 78 percent of Hispanic Texans.

In calling for more resources and training for communities of color, Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, said “Federal resources have been allocated to rural areas and rural areas in the United States are mostly white. So those resources are not being distributed among the diversity of our population.”

Broadband Roundup

High Demand for Middle Mile Grants, Local Concerns in FCC Process, Musk Agrees to Buy Twitter Again

The NTIA said it has received $5.5-billion worth of applications for the $1-billion middle mile program.

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Photo of Elon Musk

October 5, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said Tuesday it received more than 235 applications worth more than $5.5 billion for money from the Enabling Middle Mile Infrastructure Grant Program.

The grant program, which is part of the larger Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and a number of other programs of the NTIA, only has $1 billion allocated to it.

“The volume of applications we received demonstrates the high demand for increasing middle mile capacity throughout the country,” Alan Davidson, head of the NTIA, said in a press release.

The applications were due on September 30 and will be awarded on a rolling basis by March 2023.

In response to current natural disasters, the NTIA has waived the deadline for entities that want to deploy middle mile infrastructure in Puerto Rico and parts of Florida, South Carolina and Alaska. The deadlines for these applications are set for November 1.

Next Century Cities says local government insights are overlooked

The non-profit advocacy group Next Century Cities on Tuesday released a report in which it highlighted the way that local government insights and concerns are often overlooked by the Federal Communications Commission.

The 21-page report, “Resounding Silence: The Need for Local Insights in Federal Broadband Policymaking,” said that municipalities often lack the capacity to participate in the FCC’s rule-making process.

In particular, the report highlights Next Century Cities’ concerns regarding the FCC’s “small cell” proceeding and  wireless infrastructure facilities. In particular, the report by Ryan Johnston, senior policy counsel, said that “communities are critical for broadband deployment, but not trusted to see it through.”

Another example of the argued neglect cited in the report concerns the FCC’s regulations regarding bans on exclusivity in the provision of broadband within multi-tenant environments. The Next Century City report says that local government efforts to ensure competitive access to these properties “have been only partially addressed.”

Musk agrees to buy Twitter – again

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Monday through his lawyers that he is reinterested in buying Twitter at his original asking price of $44 billion, according to a letter from his firm, after he previously tried backing out of the deal.

The deal would end legal proceedings, which began when Twitter sued Musk after the billionaire said he would not be pursuing his original offer. Musk countersued in July, alleging the company couldn’t verify the number of fake accounts that are currently in its system. Twitter said it wouldn’t be able to calculate the number of fake accounts based on public information.

Twitter said it will go ahead with the deal, according to Bloomberg.

Last month, Peiter Zatko, a former Twitter employee, testified against Twitter saying the platform didn’t permanently delete user data from its system after users had deleted their accounts. The accounts were left susceptible to unlawful use by foreign governments and Twitter employees due to the lack of user security, the whistleblower testified.

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FCC Targets Spam Call Offenders, Disaster Assistance Requirements, U.S. 23rd in Fiber Development

For the first time, the FCC is proposing removing voice service providers for breaking spam call rules.

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October 4, 2022 – For the first time, the FCC proposed Tuesday that seven voice service providers be removed from receiving call traffic, after violating the commission’s new scam call framework.

Voice service providers Akabis, Cloud4, Global UC, Horizon Technology Group, Morse Communications, Sharon Telephone Company, and SW Arkansas Telecommunications and Technology have 14 days to show why the FCC should not remove them from the Robocall Mitigation Database.

The database is a filing portal voice service providers must use to inform the commission that they have implemented the STIR/SHAKEN framework, an FCC mandated caller identification technology that allows carriers to digitally validate the authenticity of a phone number, allowing a customer to be sure that the number seen on a caller ID matches the possible caller.

Removal from the database would require all other providers to cease carrying the offending companies’ traffic, meaning all calls from these providers’ customers would be blocked and no traffic originated by the provider would reach the called party, according to the release.

“These and other recent actions reflect the seriousness with which we take providers’ obligations to take concrete and impactful steps to combat robocalls,” Loyaan Egal, acting chief of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, said in the release. “STIR/SHAKEN is not optional. And if your network isn’t IP-based so you cannot yet use these standards, we need to see the steps taken to mitigate illegal robocalls. These providers have fallen woefully short and have now put at risk their continued participation in the U.S. communications system. While we’ll review their responses, we will not accept superficial gestures given the gravity of what is at stake.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel added in a statement that, “Fines alone aren’t enough. Providers that don’t follow our rules and make it easy to scam consumers will now face swift consequences,” saying this is a “new era.”

FCC adopts emergency carrier assistance rules

The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it has adopted rules requiring wireless service providers to assist other carriers in the event of emergencies.

The commission codified certain terms from a voluntary program known as the Mandatory Disaster Response Initiative, which has been used by the carriers since 2016 to assist each other in emergency scenarios. The new MDRI requires providers arrange mutual aid, improve public awareness of restoration efforts, and mandate roaming agreements so that any carrier with network outage may get voice roaming on a carrier that is still operational during natural disasters. The new MDRI will be effective October 31.

The September order also requires that the carriers submit performance reporting to the commission in order to improve “reliability, resiliency, and continuity of communications networks during emergencies,” it said in the order.

On Tuesday, the FCC said also is seeking comment on whether MDRI reports to the commission “would benefit from standardization, and what it should entail.”

The FCC is seeking comments until October 31, 2022, with reply comments due on November 29.

United States in 23rd place for fiber development

Technology research group Omdia listed the United States in 23rd place on fiber development relative to other countries, according to a report released Tuesday.

“Only by maximizing investment in next-generation access can countries optimize their growth potential, and fiber-optic technology is key to that investment. Countries, such as the UK and the US, that are further down the list than many less developed countries, may need to consider policy reforms to ensure that it is easy to deploy infrastructure and that competition in the market remains high in light of mergers taking place,” said Omdia research director Michael Philpott in a statement.

Omdia’s Fiber Development Index measures fiber household coverage, household penetration, business penetration, mobile cell site fiber penetration, total fiber investment, and average download and upload speeds across 81 countries, its website says.

Singapore is ranked first in the Fiber Development Index, as it pushes to become the next “smart nation” by 2025, the report said.

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Broadband Roundup

Supreme Court to Hear Section 230 Case, Small Business Broadband Bill, TikTok Deal Pressure

The highest court in the land will hear a case about the scope of internet platform liability under Section 230.

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October 3, 2022 – The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear a case from a petitioner who argues Google should be held liable in the death of his daughter during an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015.

Reynaldo Gonzalez sued Google under the AntiTerrorism Act for the death of Nohemi Gonzalez because the company’s video sharing platform, YouTube, allegedly hosted ISIS recruitment videos.

Large internet platforms are generally immune from the legal consequences of their users’ posts under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But the highest court in the land will now examine the scope of those protections in this case.

“These cases underscore how important it is that digital services have the resources and the legal certainty to deal with dangerous content online,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, said in a statement Monday.

“Section 230 is critical to enabling the digital sector’s efforts to respond to extremist and violent rhetoric online, and these cases illustrate why it is essential that those efforts continue,” he added.

Senate passes small business broadband legislation

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation that would designate a broadband coordinator to improve programs to better assist small business customers in accessing broadband technology.

The Small Business Broadband and Emerging Technology Enhancement Act of 2022 directs the Small Business Administration to designate a senior Office of Investment and Innovation employee as the broadband and emerging technology coordinator, establishing measures to aid the productivity and competitiveness of small businesses with broadband access and other information technologies that emerge.

The coordinator is expected to identify the best practices that relate to broadband and emerging technology to help small businesses, and coordinate SBA programs that assist small businesses so they can best adopt and use broadband and other emerging information technologies.

The bill, which makes its way to the House, requires Small Business Development Centers to assist in the access of broadband for small businesses.

Republicans promise hearings on TikTok security if successful in midterms

The upcoming midterm elections for control of the House and the Senate are putting pressure on the Biden administration to formalize an agreement with Chinese-owned TikTok to clamp down on security and privacy issues with the video-sharing app, as Republicans open the door to possible hearings on the matter if they are successful in taking back control of Congress, according to the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

The New York Times reported last week that the Biden administration and TikTok have come to a preliminary agreement to make changes to the app’s data security and governance without requiring the Chinese owner ByteDance to sell the company. The terms include storing American data on servers in the United States, with cloud company Oracle monitoring the app’s algorithms to see what content the app recommends to users.

But as the midterm elections near next month, the Journal, citing anonymous sources, is reporting that the talks have taken on an “added urgency,” as Republicans are promising hearings on the security of the app if they wrestle control from the Democrats on November 8.

“These people say a deal with TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. aimed at erecting a wall between the U.S. and Chinese operations is close, but caution that hurdles remain—including operational challenges and possible opposition by China’s communist government,” the Journal reported, adding Republicans would challenge any agreement that falls short of “tough safeguards.”

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr has already chimed in on the preliminary agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough for the alleged threat the app poses to the country’s national security.

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