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RDOF Reverse Auction Criticized, Google Makes Pandemic Gains, California Broadband Access For K-12

RDOF reverse auction criticized again, Google ups revenues during Covid, California survey on broadband access for K-12 students.

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Photo of Claude Aiken of WISPA

April 29, 2021 – There’s no end in sight for criticism against the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a reverse auction that rewarded funds to the lowest-bidding companies for building broadband into unserved rural areas.

“Many policy makers and communities see the results as highly problematic and have roundly criticized the outcome, leaving us to ask: Is the FCC’s reverse auction fatally wounded or just bloodied?” wrote Ziggy Rivkin-Fish in an Op-Ed for Benton Institute. “The biggest gripe about the auction results is that many bidders won on the basis of speed and latency claims that are widely believed to be unrealistic at best, and downright wrong at worst.”

Fixed-wireless service in urban areas can achieve higher connection speeds above the FCC’s 25/3 megabits per second standard, but in rural areas where line of sight and distance to towers provide a greater challenge, fixed wireless may not even see service that meets that minimum criteria for some consumers.

Another issue is Elon Musk’s satellite provider Starlink that won almost a billion dollars in the auction based on nascent low-earth orbit satellite technology. The FCC had previously expressed hesitation about using tax-payer money for experimental broadband technology, wrote Rivkin-Fish. But the agency apparently changed their stance, as the company won a considerable chunk of the $9 billion pool, which “effectively broke the auction design,” Rivkin-Fish wrote.

The FCC is now in the process of reviewing the long-form applications for the winners, determining if the providers can actually deliver their promised broadband service.

In light of the criticism levied against smaller rural providers, Wireless Internet Service Provider Association CEO Claude Aiken has said he trusts the FCC’s ability to vet the auction winners.

Pandemic helped propel Google financial results

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought worldwide hardship for companies, but not the tech industry, including Google, which saw a 34 percent boost in revenues over the previous year.

“With people staying home clicking and watching Pinkfong’s Baby Shark (with 7.91 billion YouTube views), Google’s owner Alphabet hoovered in $55.3 billion in revenue in the first three months of this year,” reports Pádraig Belton, a contributor for Light Reading.

The tech giant’s primary revenue comes from ads, with $31.9 billion in the first quarter of 2021, almost $8 billion more than a year ago. YouTube ads brought in another $6 billion, up from $4 billion.

Google’s parent company Alphabet yielded $17.9 billion in profit, an increase of 162 percent. 44 percent of Alphabet’s revenue originated from Asia, compared to 33 percent in the U.S., according to the report.

“This isn’t to say it’s all sunny driving in the Googleplex,” Belton wrote, “Google faces a tough year in the gunsights of prosecutors and legislators, in Washington, London and Brussels.”

Google has come under fire from Washington on several occasions, including lawsuits filed by the Department of Justice in December last year and a recent congressional hearing that targeted Google, Facebook and Twitter on social media problems.

California survey on broadband access for students

The California Emergency Technology Fund, a non-profit advocacy group focused on closing the digital divide for California residents, in partnership with the University of Southern California, found that access to devices for remote learning improved over the course of the pandemic but with some economic and racial disparities.

Of 575 parents with K-12 students surveyed, the results for child-per-device ratio showed that white families had the highest ratio at 97 percent, while the lowest ratio was Hispanic families who primarily spoke Spanish, coming in at 92 percent.

The survey reported similar disparities for income level. 98 percent of families with income above 200 percent of the poverty line ($53,000 for a family of four) had a device for each student in the household. For families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, the ratio of device-per-student drops to 92 percent.

The move to remote learning during the pandemic had a large impact on the number of devices for each household. The survey reported that 72 percent of families had at least one device loaned to them by the school district, and 76 percent had received the device after the onset of the pandemic.

Reliable broadband connection was also a factor, with 78 percent of respondents reporting that their children “always” had access to internet for classes, 16 percent reported “sometimes but not always” and 6 percent reported “rarely” or “never.”

The survey was conducted between February 10 and March 22 in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese to reflect population patterns. The overall sample error was 2 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level. According to the survey report, “the results are weighted for age, gender, race/ethnicity, education and region based on totals from the American Community Survey.”

The Statewide Broadband Adoption Survey has been running since 2008.

Broadband Roundup

Federal Court Blocks Social Media Law, Illinois Broadband Initiative, Fiber Leads for Telecom Giants

A Texas court blocked enforcement of a social media that would prevent companies from removing extreme speech.

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott

December 2, 2021 – A federal court in Texas temporarily blocked a new state law that would prevent social media companies from removing political speech.

Federal district court judge Robert Pitman for the Western District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction against the law which is set to take effect today.

The law, HB 20 targets companies with at least 50 million users in the United States, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Texas governor Greg Abbott signed the law in September, calling the measure a move to “protect Texans from wrongful censorship on social media platforms.”

The law would also allow Texas residents to sue companies in order to reinstate their accounts.

In his decision, Pitman ruled that social media companies have a First Amendment right to moderate users’ content on their platforms. “This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by HB 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” he decided.

Internet industry groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association filed to challenge the Texas law in September. CCIA president Matt Schruers said the ruling was “not surprising.” “The First Amendment ensures that the Government can’t force a citizen or company to be associated with a viewpoint they disapprove of, and that applies with particular force when a state law would prevent companies from enforcing policies against Nazi propaganda, hate speech, and disinformation from foreign agents.”

In June, a federal court judge imposed a temporary ban on a similar social media law signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis until the case is settled in court.

Illinois starts broadband investment initiative

Illinois announced Wednesday a broadband acceleration project that will help communities receive support and funding for broadband expansion.

Governor JB Pritzker, together with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Broadband Office, announced the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program – a collaborative program for local governments to receive expert support as they apply for and receive federal funding for broadband deployment.

Pritzker emphasized how his state is making broadband deployment a priority for towns in Illinois. “Keeping our communities connected has never been more important than it is today and this pilot will help communities play a direct role in delivering broadband infrastructure improvements to close the gaps on service,” he said.  “With an historic amount of funding available thanks to our own Connect Illinois initiative and with new federal infrastructure dollars coming from Washington we are committed to reaching our goal of delivering universal broadband access across our state.”

The Accelerate Illinois program will offer 30 hours of free expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. The Accelerate Illinois “Notice of Collaboration Opportunity” is open and accepting applications through December 30, 2021. The State expects to serve up to 12 communities as part of the initial pilot initiative.

Fiber leading telecom giants’ investment goals

Telecommunications companies are rushing to invest in fiber amid an “alternative networks” trend, according to a Wednesday story in the Financial Times.

The report notes that while some investors are funding a new generation of “alternative networks” – networks deployed using fiber-to-home, fixed wireless networks, hybrid networks, and satellite broadband services to bring broadband solutions to urban and rural areas – incumbent telecoms providers are pushing for more fiber investments.

William Hare, an analyst with technology consulting firm Omida, said fiber has become more important over the past two years. “Through the pandemic, fiber has become much more of a priority.”

The Times reports that the speed and resilience offered by a full-fiber network matches consumer expectations. “Fiber really outperforms copper,” says Hare. “The raw speed is one thing; but reliability and stability is the real advantage.”

Omida predicts that the United States will be among the countries with the most fiber growth by 2024, behind Spain, China, and Egypt. For 5G markets, the US, South Korea, and Finland will see the biggest growth.

A barrier to wider worldwide deployment of 5G in some countries is the availability of smartphones, especially in some African countries, the report said.

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Broadband Roundup

Sohn Broadcast Ties Questioned, Broadband in Baltimore, Facebook Asked to Sell Giphy in U.K.

The National Association of Broadcasters raised concern about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn’s ties to defunct streaming service Locast.

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December 1, 2021 – The National Association of Broadcasters has this week raised what it calls “serious concerns” regarding President Joe Biden’s Federal Communications Commission nominee Gigi Sohn and potential ties to streaming service Locast.

Locast was a nonprofit service which used statute within the Copyright Act to retransmit local broadcast signals to its 2.8 million registered users for free, but shut down its services in September following a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Locast had operated in 35 U.S. markets.

NAB flagged Sohn’s involvement as one of three directors of Locast, yet did not go so far as to oppose her nomination, a hearing of which began in the Senate Wednesday.

The organization stated that it is “confident that these concerns can be resolved,” though it contends that the ethics agreement Sohn submitted to the Senate does not adequately address the conflict of interest between her role with Locast and her nomination to the FCC.

A district court dismissed Locast’s argument that it could not be sued for copyright violations before it shut down.

Mayor of Baltimore commits to closing digital divide in city by 2030

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott has committed to closing the digital divide in his city by 2030 and plans to use current funding made available by President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act to make investments in Baltimore’s digital infrastructure.

The first $6 million in funding that the city receives will be used to expand fiber access to 23 recreation centers and create 100 Wi-Fi hotspots in 10 west Baltimore neighborhoods.

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that internet access is critical, basic public infrastructure,” said Mayor Scott.

Overall, the city plans to use $35 million in ARPA funds, with more details on specific allocation to come in early 2022.

The city also plans to hire a digital equity coordinator and staff with significant knowledge of Wi-Fi, fiber engineering, operations and tech support.

Its approach to ending the digital divide will focus on root causes of broadband inequality by constructing open-access fiber infrastructure across the city.

UK competition watchdog asks Facebook to sell Giphy

The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority is asking Facebook’s parent company Meta to sell Giphy, a GIF-sharing platform, marking the first time that the antitrust watchdog has attempted to end a tech deal, according to the Associated Press.

Per CNBC, the watchdog group found that if Facebook were able to limit other social platforms’ use of Giphy’s content and decrease competition, Facebook’s “already significant market power” would increase.

“By requiring Facebook to sell Giphy, we are protecting millions of social media users and promoting competition and innovation in digital advertising,” said Stuart McIntosh, inquiry chair of the Competition and Markets Authority.

A Meta spokesperson said the company disagrees with the watchdog’s request.

Meta and the watchdog group have entered into a legal fight over Facebook and Giphy’s deal, reportedly worth about $400 million.

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Broadband Roundup

Universal Service Fund Bill, Private-Public Era, USTelecom Expands Team, Giving Tuesday

A bill introduced this month requires the FCC to investigate the need to expand base of Universal Service Fund.

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Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2021 – Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, has introduced a bill this month to study whether the Universal Service Fund should broaden its contribution base to ensure the contribution requirement is imposed more equitably.

The “Reforming Broadband Connectivity Act of 2021” – co-introduced with Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, John Hickenlooper, D-Colorado, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas – requires that the Federal Communications Commission conduct a study on assessing the need to expand the contribution base of the USF, a program that funds basic telecommunications services to rural, remote and low-income communities, and to submit a report to Congress on the results.

The legislation asks to “ensure that the contribution requirement” under the Communications Act of 1934 is “imposed fairly and equitably.”

The bill has been read twice and was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. If the bill is passed in the committee, it will move on to a vote in the Senate. Should it pass with no amendments, the bill will then move onto the House where it will be voted on again.

The bill was introduced to the Senate on Nov. 18, 2021, and as of Tuesday, no further action has been taken on the bill.

On Monday, 254 organizations representing a swath of public interest groups, anchor institutions and telecommunications companies signed a letter to Washington policymakers to sustain the program by broadening the USF’s contribution base – which relies on declining voice service revenues – to include broadband revenues.

New ‘era’ for broadband

In a Tuesday op-ed for the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, Joanne Hovis, Ryland Sherman, and Marc Schulhof coined the past two years as “The Era of Broadband Public-Private Partnership,” following the “wave” of collaboration between public and private entities as Americans search more desperately than ever for means to bridge the digital divide.

The authors of the op-ed attributed the dawn of this era to four primary components: an influx of capital, a desire to invest in broadband infrastructure at the state and federal level, a sense of urgency to invest in broadband, a newfound willingness to operate with different types of internet service providers.

Though all these conditions existed prior to the pandemic, the authors argue that the pandemic was largely responsible for driving much of the urgency and demonstrated “to American policymakers the absolute need for plentiful connectivity and the crises faced by those who don’t have it — and simultaneously demonstrated to private investors the economic potential of best-in-class, future-proof broadband.”

In the view of the authors, public-private efforts represent win-win situations, whereby consumers are able to finally get the broadband coverage they need, and private entities are able to receive a greater return on their investment that may not otherwise be possible in certain regions and communities.

“The potential for public-private collaboration changes that binary and attracts private investment to areas where return is low or nonexistent but can be improved through collaboration with the local community,” the op-ed states. “And the potential for collaboration unlocks local public investment in already-served communities where policymakers want better broadband but prefer to do so in partnership with the private sector.”

The authors also recently published a new report covering these trends.

US Telecom expands their government affairs team

The Broadband Association announced the promotion of Hawley Stanton to senior director of Government Affairs. Additionally, Diana Eisner was made vice president of Policy and Advocacy, and Nicole Henry was made senior director of Government Affairs.

“I am thrilled to welcome new team members Diana Eisner and Nicole Henry and to announce a well-deserved promotion for Hawley Stanton. They are talented, experienced and ready to help advance our shared broadband priorities in 2022 and beyond,” said USTelecom President and CEO Jonathan Spalter.

Giving Tuesday appeals

Organizations from across the telecom industry have rolled out their Giving Tuesday appeals, asking from members of their communities to donate what they can in the wake of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The trend started back in 2012 as a way for communities to show their appreciation, thanks, and charity on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving. In 2020 alone, nearly $2.5 billion was given to various institutions in the U.S.

Though telecom advocacy only makes up a percentage of that total, groups have pointed out how important their work is as the Covid-19 pandemic continues into its third year.

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