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Faster Rural Broadband Bill, Tools For Robocalls, Opposition To Instagram For Kids

Senators introduce rural broadband legislation, FCC tackles robocalling, advocates ask Facebook to stop developing Instagram for kids.

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Photo of Mark Kelly via Flickr.

April 15, 2021 – Sens. Steve Daines, R-Montana and Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, introduced the “Accelerating Rural Broadband Deployment Act” Wednesday to increase access to existing infrastructure that will allow easier and faster installation of broadband services.

The legislation, S.1113, would make it easier for broadband companies to receive federal right-of-way licenses to install broadband alongside existing infrastructure like federal highways, ensure costs of federal right-of-way licenses are fair market prices and increase transparency into the federal right-of-way license awarding process, according to the news release.

“Broadband coverage is essential to rural states like Montana as we work to close the digital divide. It helps support jobs, connects folks in every corner of our state, and makes life easier for working families,” Daines said in a statement. “I’m glad to work across the aisle on this commonsense, bipartisan legislation that will help expedite broadband deployment across Montana by capitalizing on existing infrastructure.”

“Broadband access is not just about staying connected, it’s how small businesses, hospitals, and students thrive in today’s economy,” Kelly said. “I’ve spoken to so many Arizonans, especially in rural areas, who have faced challenges because of poor internet access, and that’s why I worked with Republicans and Democrats to introduce this legislation that will cut red tape and help broadband projects move faster in rural communities. Every Arizonan deserves reliable broadband access.”

Several broadband organizations expressed support for the legislation, including the Internet and Television Association, the Rural Broadband Association, USTelecom, Advocates for Rural Broadband, Montana Telecommunications Association and Blackfoot Communications.

FCC calls on carriers to ensure free tools for consumers to protect against robocalls

Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced Tuesday the agency’s efforts to protect consumers from unwanted and scam robocalls and spoofed calls.

The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau wrote to major phone companies and issued a public notice to ask about what free robocall blocking tools they make available to consumers. The bureau seeks to learn more about the tools available to consumers, their effectiveness, and any potential impact on 911 services and public safety.

“No one wants more unwanted robocalls in their life.  I’m proud that we continue to find new ways to use all the tools at our disposal to make it clear to illegal robocallers that their days are numbered.  We want them to know that we’re advocating on behalf of consumers everywhere to put an end to these calls,” Rosenworcel said.

Additionally, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued two more cease-and-desist letters to phone service providers suspected of facilitating robocalls that market auto warranties and credit card debt reduction service, or falsely claim to be from the Social Security Administration or other well-known companies.

The robocall cease-and-desist letters instruct the voice providers to investigate and, if necessary, cease transmitting the identified traffic immediately and take steps to prevent its network from continuing to be a source of apparently illegal robocalls.

Lastly, Rosenworcel announced the launch of a new effort to track the agency’s actions to implement the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act). The new webpage outlines the agency’s progress in using its strengthened enforcement authority, progress on updated call blocking rules, and steps taken to implement new Caller ID authentication technology.  It also details the agency’s work to address one-ring scams, protect hospitals from illegal robocalls, and establish a reassigned numbers database.

Advocates Ask Facebook to stop development of an Instagram for kids

A coalition of almost 100 experts and advocates globally wrote a letter Thursday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to abandon the company’s plans to build an Instagram for kids under 13, reported USA Today.

Instagram, the popular social media app, currently does not allow users under the age of 13. Zuckerberg confirmed during a March congressional hearing that a new ‘Instagram for kids’ app was in the planning stage.

The advocates, led by several organizations including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Humane Technology, Common Sense Media and the Center for Digital Democracy, wrote their concerns to Zuckerberg, saying that the app “preys on their fear of missing out as their ravenous desire for approval by peers exploits their developmental growth,” reported the USA Today article.

“The platform’s relentless focus on appearance, self-presentation, and branding presents challenges to adolescents’ privacy and well-being,” the letter said. “Younger children are even less developmentally equipped to deal with these challenges, as they are learning to navigate social interactions, friendships, and their inner sense of strengths during this crucial window of development.”

During the March 25 congressional hearing when asked about the new app, Zuckerberg defended social media apps, saying they are a positive way for people to connect with each other. He also said the details of a kids’ version of Instagram was still being ironed out.

Members of Congress are also concerned about Facebook’s plans for a new children’s app. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Florida, and Lori Trahan, D-Mass., wrote a letter to Zuckerberg on April 5 requesting details on the company’s plans.

Broadband Roundup

Verizon, Amazon Partner on Broadband, Farmers Need Broadband, Social Work Important to Close Digital Divide

Verizon will use Project Kuiper, agriculture needs broadband for progress, social work advocacy key to close digital divide.

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

October 27, 2021–– Verizon and Amazon announced Tuesday they are partnering to expand rural broadband access across the United States.

The partnership will involve Verizon using Amazon’s satellite internet system, called Project Kuiper, to extend its terrestrial service.

Project Kuiper has a network of 3,236 satellites from which it plans to provide high-speed broadband around the world.

Amazon has not launched its satellites, but has said it plans to invest more than $10 billion in the project. The Federal Communications Commission authorized the project last year, finding that the Kuiper system would benefit the public by “increasing the availability of broadband service to consumers, government, and businesses”

Amazon plans to launch the thousands of satellites into low earth orbit, which is expected to provide faster connections and better communication times compared to satellites higher up in the sky. Amazon said it will deploy the satellites in five phases, with broadband service beginning after 578 satellites are in orbit.

Broadband an existential matter for U.S. agricultural sector  

A new analysis by the Benton Institute found that the digital divide slows progress for American farmers.

The article, authored by Jordan Arnold, found that broadband access and market competition prevents greater adoption numbers and limits options for farmers. The study found that 78 percent of farmers do not have another viable option to change service providers. Among farmers that Arnold interviewed, a consensus was established that farmers need robust upload speeds, accurate network deployment data, and scalable technologies.

“Only 82 percent of farms have internet service in any form,” Arnold found. “On average, 70 percent of Hispanic-operated farms, 66 percent of American Indian–or Alaska Native-owned farms, and 62 percent of Black-owned farms have internet access.”

Broadband access is critical to agricultural sustainability because connected technologies allow farmers to measure their inputs and outputs, allowing for more efficient resource management Arnold argues that deploying broadband ubiquitously across the farming sector unlocks powerful benefits to minimizing farming’s environmental impact.

Social work advocacy should help address digital divide

A University of Kansas professor co-authored an article Tuesday arguing that the social work field should be included in the fight to close the digital divide.

Scanlon argues as such because social work serves and advocates for marginalized and underrepresented communities.

“The digital divide is not just a policy or infrastructure issue. It is a social justice matter in that lack of access disproportionately affects people of color, low-income individuals and families, and those who live in rural areas” wrote Edward Scanlon, associate professor of social welfare at University of Kansas.

Similar to the way the field advocates for underserved communities “in terms of child-care, health care access, mental health,” Scanlon said policy leaders should focus on the divide as a high priority social justice issue. “Social workers need to advocate like they do for mental health, issues of race, fighting poverty and those traditional causes.”

Scanlon said that the problem would be addressed with a consistent national strategy similar to the New Deal era push to introduce electricity adoption ubiquitously across the U.S.

“This really is a problem that’s national in nature and needs to be seen as part of infrastructure, just like bridges and roads” Scanlon said.

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Broadband Roundup

Rosenworcel and Sohn Expected On FCC, Electric Coops Praise USDA Program, Internet Speeds Up 40%

Report says Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel will be permanent and Gigi Sohn will break the party tie on the FCC.

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Gigi Sohn, right, is expected to be selected as commissioner of FCC, Politico reports.

October 26, 2021 – President Joe Biden is expected to select Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel as the permanent head of the Federal Communications Commission and will install former agency official Gigi Sohn as the tie-breaking commissioner, according to Politico, citing sources.

Biden has been under pressure from senators representing 17 states and has been urged by institutions and former FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly to make interim head Rosenworcel permanent.

Observers have speculated that the lack of action on the selections have put the Democratic agenda for broadband policy at risk. It has even stirred speculation that Rosenworcel was on her way out.

But one consistent has been speculation that Sohn, a net neutrality advocate, could have gotten the nod as chair of the commission.

If selected, Democrat Sohn will break the party deadlock that has pitted two Democratic and two Republican commissioners.

Electric co-ops pleased with changes in USDA ReConnect broadband program

Electric cooperatives are praising changes made to the third round of applications for the $1.15 billion ReConnect loan and grant program for rural broadband, which include increasing the download speed for served areas.

That means for the latest round of applications, served areas will be defined by access to speeds of 100 Megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload, compared to 10/1. In addition, networks built with the funds will need to deliver symmetrical speeds of 100/100 Mbps; applications to areas that lack 25/3, the federal standard, will be prioritized; and areas lacking 100/20 Mbps service that have previously received federal money will be eligible.

“We greatly appreciate USDA’s work to help spur rural broadband deployment, and their appropriate recognition of the need to make sure the program continues to serve those communities most in need of broadband,” the National Rural Electric Cooperation Association, which represents nearly 900 local electric cooperatives, said in a press release Friday.

“Significant changes to this new round of the ReConnect program will allow electric cooperatives and other broadband providers to offer service to many more unserved and underserved rural communities.”

Report finds internet speeds increased 40% over pre-pandemic speeds

According to a report from comparison website WhistleOut this month, average internet speeds have increased 40 percent nationwide over pre-pandemic speeds, which the organization said could be due to customers upgrading their internet packages or providers increasing overall speeds.

The speeds bump on average moved from 84.5 to 118.4 Mbps, with Alaska seeing the largest bump at a 170 percent increase. Idaho followed with a 77 percent increase, then it was Kentucky at 70 percent, Iowa at 64 percent, Wyoming at 62.6 percent, Kansas at 60.3 percent, Maine at 59.7 percent, Montana at 57.7 percent, Oklahoma at 57.4 percent, and South Carolina rounding out the top 10 with 56.1 percent.

The only state that saw a decrease was West Virginia, which saw a decline of 17 percent over the period.

Whistleout measured nearly one million speed test results from December 1, 2019 to March 15, 2020 (pre-Covid) and from May 1, 2021 to August 17, 2021 (during Covid).

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Broadband Roundup

Space Cybersecurity Concerns, USTelecom’s New Board, Agriculture’s $1.15 Rural Broadband Grant

Cybersecurity experts are concerned about space hacking, USTelecom elects new board, USDA makes $1B for rural broadband.

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Jaisha Wray of the NTIA.

October 25, 2021 — Cybersecurity experts raised concern Friday about the vulnerabilities of satellite technology to hacking at the FCBA’s cybersecurity lunch event.

“There’s a wide range of malicious activity that is disruptive to space activity,” said Jaisha Wray, associate administrator for international affairs at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Wray is raising alarm about the potential losses from bad actors in space missions. Space agencies risk the loss of mission data or even completely losing control of their space systems, Wray said. Space systems are defined as a combination of a ground control network, a space vehicle, and a user or mission network that provides a space-based service.

The problem, she said, is space systems are difficult to physically access while in orbit. The solution, panelists said, is to design cybersecurity features into space systems prior to launching into orbit. Cybersecurity should be integrated into “the full life cycle” of the space system to ensure systems are protected from bad actors, the panelists agreed.

Wray said that the U.S. must identify risks and coordinate with stakeholders to manage cybersecurity risks to space systems. “Information sharing [between government and suppliers] is key” to protecting U.S. data in space, she said.

Wray said that Space Policy Directive 5, signed in September 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, emphasized the need to improve cyber protections when developing space systems. Wray worked on the development of Space Policy Directive 5 as director of international cyber policy on Trump’s National Security Council.

USTelecom elects new mostly women-led board, officers, and leadership

Telecom trade association US Telecom announced Friday a number of telecommunications executives to the board of directors and leadership, making US Telecom’s board mostly women-led for the first time in the association’s 124-year history.

The elected positions represent “the full spectrum of US Telecom’s diverse and innovative membership” said CEO Jonathan Spalter.

Kathy Grillo, senior vice president of the public policy and government affairs group at Verizon, was elected as the new chair of the USTelecom board of directors. Calling this moment “a pivotal time” for broadband expansion, Grillo emphasized broadband’s impact on our economy and her call to action.

“Broadband during the pandemic, broadband helped sustain our economy,” Grillo said. “But we can do better. We must close the digital divide and ensure all Americans have access to broadband and the benefits it brings. Expanding broadband’s reach will fuel our nation’s future growth,” Grillo said.

The board also elected Julie Kearney, vice president of communications regulatory affairs and policy at Twilio. Other elected members include Jason Williams, CEO of Montana-based Blackfoot Communications, and Takami Abe, general manager at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.

USDA to make $1.15 billion available for broadband, distance learning grants  

Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday that the agency would make up to $1.15 billion available to fund broadband expansion nationwide.

Beginning November 24, the USDA will begin accepting applications to distribute the funds in loans and grants to expand the availability of broadband in rural areas through the ReConnect program.

“For too long, the digital divide” has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources all Americans need,” Vilsack said. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace.”

To be eligible for funding through the ReConnect program, an applicant must service an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload). An applicant must also commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area.

Vilsack also announced a $50 million investment in 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. The awards will be funded by USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program.

The announcement follows President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda by mobilizing federal agencies to invest in the nation’s infrastructure.

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