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Former FCC Commissioners Disagree on Bill Increasing Broadband Speed Thresholds for Funding

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Photo of Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler taken during the hearing

March 23, 2021 – A former Federal Communications Commissioner and a former chairman of the agency exchanged disagreements Monday over a large broadband funding bill re-introduced in the House of Representatives on March 11.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee virtual hearing on the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America (LIFT) Act, Mike O’Rielly and Tom Wheeler expressed opposing views on the broadband portion of the bill, which would provide up to $100 billion in funding for expanding broadband access across the country.

“I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I say this is a once-in-a-generation, maybe once-in-a-century, opportunity,” Wheeler said, defending the broadband initiatives in the bill.

The legislation creates a new ‘build-it-once’ plan to deliver broadband and will finally stop the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of billions of dollars with limited results, he said. “Solving the rural broadband problem once and for all, requires supporting the build out the same way we build highways—pay once,” he said.

But O’Rielly said there are a host of issues with the bill and it needs major revisions. There is no dispute that millions of Americans still lack access to broadband, he said, and there are two ways to get them connected: First, targeted subsidy programs for those unserved areas and ignore areas that are already served; second, barriers to private sector deployment must be reduced or completely eliminated, he said.

Michael O’Rielly takes issue with high broadband speeds

“While I appreciate the interest of some to future-proof networks, I disagree with the extensive funding and out-of-touch definition of broadband,” O’Rielly said. “For instance, the push for symmetrical speeds at exorbitant levels, such as 100/100 megabits per second (Mbps), makes little sense,” he said.

The LIFT America Act, incorporating Rep. James Clyburn’s Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, would raise the FCC’s current threshold definition of served areas from 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload minimum to 25/25 symmetrical speed for low-tier service and 100/100 Mbps symmetrical for mid-tier service.

See “Broadband Breakfast Panelists Wrestle With the Speed Definition of High-Speed Broadband,” Broadband Breakfast, March 18, 2021

O’Rielly’s chief criticism with the updated speeds was on the upload side, which he said far exceeded consumer needs. “A 100-megabit upload speed does not reflect reality for now or any time soon,” he said.

“Such a push for an inflated broadband speed will lead to a gigantic level of subsidized overbuilding, since most of the nation does not meet the new definition,” O’Rielly said. He emphasized that ‘overbuilding’ leads to a competitive broadband market, distinguishing it from subsidized overbuilding, which he said is bad because public money should focus on getting broadband to unserved areas.

The dollars would go to areas that are easier to serve and more well-to-do than for Americans who don’t actually have broadband today, he said, so it would push unserved Americans to the back of the line.

Wheeler disagreed. “Everybody gets the same opportunity to bring their service up to the kinds of levels that the vast majority of America enjoys,” he said. “The excuse that somehow unserved areas are going to the back of the line is just a figment. You run an auction, and you say, ‘Y’all come!’ And everybody gets the opportunity to come to participate in that auction,” he said.

Priority should be on fiber, says Wheeler

Eighty percent of Americans have access to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) service, Wheeler said, referring to data from NCTA, an Internet and Television Association. Private capital didn’t build that capacity to waste money but to meet demand, he said.

Public funds have an even higher obligation to spend money wisely, he said, “to prevent 20 percent of Americans from being trapped in second-class service, and to spend tax-payer dollars as wisely as private capital is spent.”

To connect the other 20 percent of Americans to high-speed broadband means building with fiber and hybrid fiber-coax, Wheeler said. Build with fiber once so that we don’t have to come back and build again later, he said. If we want to use the money wisely, we should do it in the same way that companies are spending wisely, which is to build fiber, he said.

O’Rielly countered that most people don’t care which technology delivers broadband to them, as long as it meets their needs. There should be a laser focus on getting Americans connected who are unserved today through current programs, he said, because the updated speed thresholds in the LIFT America Act would drastically increase the number of unserved Americans.

Impact on broadband mapping

The LIFT America Act would also impact the new FCC’s broadband mapping, because once the Digital Opportunity Data Collection fabric is implemented, the maps would need to be redone using the updated speed thresholds, said O’Rielly.

But the broadband maps wouldn’t need to be redone, Wheeler replied. The maps aren’t a static object like an actual map, he said, but rather is a database system that is constantly evolving.

Broadband maps are static in the sense that they represent the data at the current time, O’Rielly said. Updating the speed thresholds means the data would need to be recollected and reanalyzed, he said.

Spectrum

FCC Spectrum Authority Expires on September 30, Agency Seeks Renewal

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s proposal for increased auction authority would allow the agency to support infrastructure investment.

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WASHINGTON, September 26, 2022 – Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel urged Congress last week to extend the agency’s authority to conduct spectrum auctions, which is set to expire this week.

“The FCC has held the authority to hold spectrum auctions for about three decades,” Rosenworcel said during a National Telecommunications and Information Administration spectrum policy symposium on September 19.

“It has been a powerful engine for wireless innovation and economic growth.
In fact, using this authority the FCC has held 100 auctions and raised more than $233 billion in revenue”

September 30 will mark the end of Congress’s fiscal year and the expiry of the FCC’s authority. In July, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce passed the Spectrum Innovation Act of 2022, H.R. 7624, which includes an extension of the auction authority through to March 2024.

Spectrum and Next Generation 911

The Spectrum Innovation Act was passed in July of this year, which required the FCC to host a spectrum auction to use $10 billion of allocated funds towards Next Generation 911, an Internet Protocol-based system to replace the analog 911 system.

Implementing NG911 in states and counties nationwide will require the coordination of emergency, public safety, and government entities. 

Urgent Telecommunications reported last week that the Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition, a coalition of public-safety associations, said that NG911 would not be available for years.

The coalition requested that NG911 funds could be borrowed immediately from the U.S. Treasury, which would be repaid when the proceeds from the 3.1-3.45 GigaHertz (GHz) spectrum auction are made available.

 

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Kirsten Compitello: The Need for a Digital Equity Focus on Broadband Mapping

Incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Kirsten Compitello, National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International

Broadband for all is in the spotlight right now, and closing the digital divide is recognized as a national priority. The divide goes far beyond access and touches issues of costs, ownership, culture, awareness, skills, and more. As we enter into a period of major statewide planning and deployment efforts, incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities in access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital equity is not just a value statement: it’s a commitment to inclusive and equitable decision making at every stage of broadband deployment, from planning to service delivery.

Ensuring equitable representation at the table

Embedding digital equity analysis into mapping is especially critical at this moment in time as we prepare for historic broadband funding. This funding is an opportunity to rebalance systemic patterns of exclusion and ensure rapidly deployed planning and implementation funds are fairly dispersed.

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion, including the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. In creating these Statewide Digital Equity Plans, extensive outreach to and collaboration with underserved, unserved and historically marginalized populations will prove critical. These discussions will be much more informative and effective in guiding successful policies, programs and projects if they are rooted in clear understanding of social, economic and environmental patterns alongside broadband access maps.

Documenting the effects of digital exclusion

Access is not an equal term: reducing it simply to speed of service available neglects the social and economic complexities that determine how and where users are affected by a lack of broadband. In short, mapping where the infrastructure exists only tells part of the story. Data analysis needs to layer in demographic and economic information in order to reveal patterns of exclusion and identify root causes.

To better understand community impacts, our team at Michael Baker developed data visualization tools such as a Digital Equity Atlas which takes the next step toward analyzing how broadband gaps disproportionately impact segments of the population. The methodology looks at Title VI and Environmental Justice data to reveal where poor connectivity correlates to social factors including low income, senior populations, English as a Second Language, households without a vehicle and more. As an example, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission leveraged the Digital Equity Atlas to prioritize new broadband expansion projects that stand to benefit the greatest number of at-risk or marginalized households. These households should not be last in line to see broadband investment finally bringing greater connectivity and opportunities to their doorsteps.

Fulfilling Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program requirements

Federal reporting requirements for upcoming Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act funding call for a proven and documented understanding and analysis of digital equity needs, from planning to projects in the ground.

The IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.45 billion to expand broadband access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs across the country. Statewide Five-Year Action Plans, funded through this program, will require government agencies and their partners to take an integrated digital equity approach.

From planning through the ensuing reporting requirements, establishing digital equity strategies and a clear rubric for measuring success in achieving digital equity goals is a must for agencies. These entities must demonstrate how projects funded through BEAD improve digital equity. A strong data-driven baseline – such as the Digital Equity Atlas – will be a necessary starting point for agencies to track and monitor the effect of each new deployment on surrounding households. These data-driven metrics will also be a win for state and local governments to tell the story of their successes with clear data to back it up.

Setting a goal for sustainable inclusivity

As the consumption of internet content continues to rise and as broadband for all projects bring connectivity to the unserved, baseline expectations for broadband service and speed will only continue to grow. If we aren’t careful, new categories of have-nots will emerge: for example, those who pay high fees for minimum speeds versus those with lower fees for premier plans and Gig speeds. The currently unserved will gain access to service, but many will continue to struggle with basic internet skills, navigating through complex terms of service, or even simply finding time to schedule installation without missing a day of work.

To create a truly equitable society, everyone – no matter age, ability, location or status – needs access to affordable and reliable broadband; internet-connected devices; education on digital technology and best use practices; tech support and online resources that help users participate, collaborate and work independently.

By grounding our planning in equitable practices from the very first step, we can help to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from Internet for All.

Kirsten Compitello, AICP, is the National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Spectrum

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chair Takes FCC to Task for Communication With Tribes

‘You need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities,” the chairman told the FCC.

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Screenshot of Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2022 –Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Brian Schatz on Wednesday urged the Federal Communications Commission to consult more regularly with Tribal leaders on the spectrum-licensing processes.

“Some of [the problems voiced native panelists at the roundtable] could simply be avoided by better, more aggressive, more continuous, more humble consultation, and you’re going to save yourselves a ton of headache,” said Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. “I’m wondering if you need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities at every step in the process.”

“Chairman, I think you put that extremely well,” responded Umair Javed, chief council for the office of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Tyler Iokepa Gomes, deputy to the chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, told the committee of difficulties faced by native Hawaiians in obtaining spectrum licenses. Since the DHHL is a state entity, not a Tribal government, Gomes said, it was forced to compete against two local, native communities in a waiver process. Gomes said that his agency’s competition with the other waiver applicants caused considerable friction in Hawaii’s native community at large.

Low digital literacy is also a problem for some native communities attempted to secure spectrum licenses. “When it comes to technology, a lot of people seem to be scared of it,” said Keith Modglin, director of information technology for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a federally-recognized Indian Tribe.

Modglin argued that education initiatives to raise digital literacy and explain the intra- and intercommunity benefits of spectrum would benefit his band greatly.

The land of the Mille Lacs Band is a “checkerboard,” meaning that Tribal lands are interspersed with non-tribal lands, said Melanie Benjamin, the tribe’s chief executive officer. According to Benjamin, navigating government’s failure to account for this status caused substantial delays for her tribe.

In addition to improving communication, Schatz called on the FCC to take affirmative actions to ease regulatory burdens on small tribes. “There are some really under resourced native communities, and it shouldn’t be a labyrinth to figure out what they’re eligible for,” he said. “Try to figure out some one-stop shop, some simple way to access the resources that they are eligible for under current law.”

Javed acknowledged a need for the FCC improve its communication with native communities, but he said the FCC is making strides in other areas. “While spectrum is one piece of that puzzle, I think we are making a lot of progress in some of our programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, updates to the E-Rate program, some of our mapping efforts as well,” he said.

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