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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.

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Robocallers Disconnected, Connecting Minority Communities Grants, No Licenses for Huawei

The FCC said that MV Realty used the PhoneBurner dialing platform, and ordered Twilio to disconnect the companies.

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Photo of Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves

January 31, 2023 – Responding to a Federal Communications Commission order on January 24 to disconnect robocallers, internet voice service provider Twilio on Monday told Broadband Breakfast that it had blocked the accounts of MV Realty and PhoneBurner.

State attorneys general have filed suit against real estate firm MV Realty for alleged real estate scams via robocall. The FCC said that MV Realty used the PhoneBurner dialing platform, and ordered Twilio to disconnect the companies from its voice-over-internet-protocol network.

“We are continuing to cooperate with the FCC about our efforts to further mitigate illegal robocalls and to ensure the safety, reliability, and trust in our platform with regards to wanted communications by our customers and end users,” said Twilio Corporate Communications Director Cris Paden.

The FCC has been increasingly aggressive against alleged robocallers. On December 21, the agency proposed a near $300 million fine against an apparently fraudulent robocall and spoofing operation called “Cox/Jones Enterprise,” placing the largest fine of its type, according to the agency. The robocallers placed more than five billion calls in early 2021 to more than a half a million phones and using more than a million unique caller ID numbers, according to the FCC.

The agency in November took action to crack down on straight-to-voicemail robocalls and in October launched an inquiry into combatting calls on non-internet-protocol networks.

12 minority-serving colleges received more than $33.5 million

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration Monday awarded grants to 12 colleges as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. The program is directing $268 million to Historical Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities and focusing on training potential information personnel.

Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves said that the program creates “opportunities for good jobs supported by equitable hiring, fair compensation, safe workplaces, and the tools and training needed for long-term success.”

The grants, totaling $33.5 million, will be used to upgrade campus technology settings, equipment, and increase digital literacy skills in 10 states.

Awardees include: H. Councill Trenholm State Community College in Alabama, University of Arizona, Loma Linda University in California, Broward College in Florida, St. Augustine College in Illinois, Dominican University in Illinois, Simmons College of Kentucky, Coppin State University in Maryland, Elizabeth City State University and Saint Augustine’s University in North Carolina, Central State University in Ohio and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Biden administration stopping export licenses to Huawei

The Biden Administration is refusing to give licenses that would permit U.S. companies to sell semiconductors to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, according to a report  published by Reuters on Tuesday. Citing anonymous sources, the story said the Biden administration has stopped approving licenses for U.S companies to continue to export most items to Huawei.

The Commerce Department and other branches of the government have been increasingly restricting the access of Huawei to American-created technologies, at the same time they have also added 38 affiliates to the so-called “entity list”. A Commerce Department statement from August 2020, regarding the list imposed license requirement for items subject to Export Administration regulations and modified several Huawei entity list entries.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Secure Networks Act, requiring the FCC to prohibit the use of moneys it administers for the acquisition of designated communications equipment. The act promoted the removal of existing compromised equipment through a reimbursement program – called Rip and Replace – and further directed the commission to create and maintain the covered list.

In September 2022, the The Federal Communications Commission’s added Pacific Network Corp. and China Unicom Operations Ltd. to a growing list of communications equipment banned from the country on national security grounds.           

In December, the agency took additional action to prevent Chinese tech companies deemed to be national security threats – such as Huawei and ZTE – from gathering data on and surveilling American citizens.

And on January 10, 2023, House Republicans created a select committee on the strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party designed to conduct investigations, hold public hearings, and submit policy recommendations on China’s “economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.”

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TikTok to Testify Before House Committee, Tech Association Warns on Antitrust, US Telecom Board Adds

It will be the first time TikTok’s CEO will appear for a congressional hearing.

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Photo of Chew Shou Zi, CEO of TikTok by Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary used with permission

January 30, 2023 – The CEO of video sharing app TikTok will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, the chair confirmed Monday.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, said Shou Zi Chew will testify on the Chinese firm’s consumer privacy and data security practices, its impact on kids, and its relationship with the Chinese government.

It is the first time Chew will appear before a congressional hearing, according to a committee press release.

“Big Tech has increasingly become a destructive force in American society,” the committee said in a release. “The Energy and Commerce Committee has been at the forefront of asking Big Tech CEOs – from Facebook to Twitter to Google – to answer for their companies’ actions. These efforts will continue with TikTok.

“ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data,” the statement added. “Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security, as well as what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms. We’ve made our concerns clear with TikTok. It is now time to continue the committee’s efforts to hold Big Tech accountable by bringing TikTok before the committee to provide complete and honest answers for people.”

Industry association warns of patchwork of state antitrust laws

The Computer and Communications Industry Association released a report Thursday warning about the negative impact on businesses of states implementing various antitrust laws.

The association, which counts big tech companies including Google, Amazon and Apple as its members, flagged antitrust laws before state legislatures, including abuse of dominance, price discrimination, mergers and acquisitions reporting requirements, monopoly and monopsony, and regulating app stores.

It warns that problems addressing these issues on a state level could deter pro-competitive business activity. The CCIA said without a clear definition of discrimination, monopoly and monopsony, these laws could harm legitimate business practices and rob consumers of discounts – in the case of price discrimination, where a business provides different prices for similar products.

Excess reporting requirements on M&A could increase compliance costs for businesses because they already report the information to the federal government, it noted. And laws that prohibit app stores from banning alternative payment systems used for third-party apps could present privacy and security risks because payments systems chosen by those stores aim to provide the greatest safety for consumers and compliance on data protection legislation, the CCIA added.

Similar app store legislation and other antitrust legislation have been introduced in Congress.

“For each of these competition areas, if states adopt an increasing patchwork of laws, businesses will face difficulties navigating conflicting disparate requirements, which could ultimately result in barriers to innovation and investment.”

State legislatures with antitrust legislation include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

Last week, the Justice Department sued Google for allegedly abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

USTelecom adds three board members

Industry association USTelecom announced Friday the addition of three new board members.

Joining are Texas’s Totelcom Communications CEO Jennifer Prather, Brightspeed vice president of public policy and government affairs Tom Dailey in Charlotte, North Carolina, and altafiber’s vice president and general counsel Chris Wilson in Cincinnati.

The association also added two members to its leadership committee, including general counsel for Oklahoma-based MBO family of telecom companies Jake Baldwin, and Ryan Johnson, interim CEO of telecom Chariton Valley in Missouri.

“These inspiring leaders represent the full spectrum of USTelecom’s diverse and dedicated members, who are squarely focused on connecting communities and businesses to the power of broadband-enabled innovation,” the association said in a press release.

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Meta Restores Trump’s Accounts, Alaska Uses AI for Mapping, Public Interest Model for Spectrum Policy

Former President Trump will face heightened penalties for future, repeated violations of Facebook’s and Meta’s policies.

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Photo of Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg by Moritz Hager, used with permission

January 26, 2023 — Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will soon be reinstated, just over two years after the platforms suspended him for inciting violence, parent company Meta announced on Wednesday.

The “serious risk to public safety” present during the Capitol riot in January 2021 has “sufficiently receded,” said Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

However, the company said it would put “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses,” including heightened penalties for repeated violations, and would potentially limit the distribution of content that “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon” — even if such content did not explicitly violate Meta’s community standards.

Clegg’s statement also made a nod to the broader content moderation debate playing out across multiple state laws and upcoming Supreme Court cases involving online platforms and speech.

“Many people believe that companies like Meta should remove much more content than we currently do,” he said. “Others argue that our current policies already make us overbearing censors… We believe it is both necessary and possible to draw a line between content that is harmful and should be removed, and content that, however distasteful or inaccurate, is part of the rough and tumble of life in a free society.”

Alaska partners with AI company to create state broadband map

Artificial intelligence-based mapping company Ecopia AI on Tuesday announced a partnership with the State of Alaska and other companies to create a comprehensive, high-definition map of buildings and broadband serviceable locations — data that is essential for securing federal broadband funding.

“Without the data from Ecopia, the State of Alaska was at an immediate disadvantage for receiving funding to expand broadband services,” said Hillary Palmer, geospatial and technology manager at Dewberry Alaska, an engineering company involved in the mapping process. “Now we have a source of truth with which we can identify broadband serviceable locations and secure federal funding for network expansion throughout Alaska.

Prior to the partnership, less than five percent of Alaska’s buildings were mapped, according to Ecopia. The company’s artificial intelligence mapping systems leveraged satellite imagery to extract buildings in areas where reliable GIS data did not exist.

“We believe in using AI for good, and are thrilled to enable the expansion of more equitable broadband access across Alaska,” said Sean Lowery, senior director of product and business development at Ecopia.

Public Knowledge proposes public interest model for spectrum policy

A white paper published by Public Knowledge on Thursday proposes the adoption of a public interest backcasting model to guide future spectrum policy, arguing that its value-based framework will provide policymakers with a path towards universally accessible, affordable and reliable telecommunications services.

“In short, we have a chance to make the wireless future a good one, but it comes down to what we’re willing to work together to achieve – either a digitally divided society where only a privileged few benefit from new technologies, or a world where everyone does,” said Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge and author of the paper, in a statement.

The paper reflects on the Spectrum Policy Task Force created 20 years ago by Michael Powell, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, identifying the problems that may have hindered its success and reframing its suggestions for future spectrum efficiency and access models.

In order for future spectrum policy to succeed, it must overcome the zero-sum game fallacy currently present in the spectrum stakeholder dynamic, Burke wrote. In addition, Burke argued that spectrum policymakers should focus on preventing inequalities from happening rather than attempting to remedy them after the fact — particularly in policies addressing Tribal reservations, which remain among the most underserved areas in the U.S.

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