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Alabama Dispenses $17M In Broadband Funds, New Broadband Mapping Insight, Pipeline Attack

Ivey announces $17 million to deploy broadband, Microsoft data for broadband map, and “Robin Hood” group involved in pipeline attack.

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Photo of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey

May 11, 2021—Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey awarded broadband providers nearly $17 million in funding to improve and deploy broadband infrastructure to un(der)served communities in the state.

The awards were announced in a press release on the governor’s website. Though the awards may have been prompted by the ongoing pandemic, Ivey stated that this is not a new issue.

“The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced what we already knew; that Alabama’s broadband coverage is an issue we must continue addressing.”

The funds in question were a part of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund, which was established by the Alabama Legislature in 2018. The fund is administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, “Access to broadband can make all the difference in the world to a family or rural business,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said, “ADECA is pleased to join Governor Ivey in this program that is making real differences in the lives of Alabamians.”

This is not the first time the fund has dispensed awards. In 2020, the fund dispensed $12.4 million to finance two separate expansion efforts featuring multiple ISPs across several counties. This most recent round of funding was directed toward 20 projects across Alabama. Qualified ISPs could apply for grants up to $1.5 million per project and could apply separately for multiple projects.

The Verge publishes interactive broadband map

On Monday, the Verge published an interactive broadband map that illustrated the extent to which the U.S. still lacks sufficient broadband.

The map highlighted counties where less than 15 percent of residents have access to speeds of 25 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload. The map reflects the regional disparity in the Digital Divide; while some regions, like the North East, have few regions highlighted, the West, Midwest, South West, appear to fair far worse—some with more counties without broadband speeds than with.

The data used to construct the map was pulled from Microsoft’s cloud services network and published publicly online. As noted in the Verge’s coverage, there are significant discrepancies between Microsoft’s data and the FCC’s. The Verge pointed to Lincoln County, WA., where the FCC states that 100 percent of residents have broadband coverage, compared to Microsoft’s data which indicates only five percent of residents have broadband.

Insufficient mapping only compounds the challenge of closing the digital divide and realizing the Biden administration’s goal of universal broadband by 2030.

The inaccuracy of FCC broadband mapping has been noted by experts in the past. Critics have pointed out that it is difficult to roll out broadband deployment strategies without accurate maps, but the issue persists.

Hackers behind Colonial Pipeline breach identified

The Colonial Pipeline was subjected to a ransomware attack that exploited a security flaw in the pipeline’s system, which resulted in the pipeline being shut down by its operators out of an abundance of caution. When it was functioning, the pipeline provided gas and jet fuel for nearly half of the east coast.

The FBI has identified the hacker group DarkSide as the perpetrators of ransomware attack. Often compared to the folk tale of Robin Hood, the group uses ransomware attacks as a business model, extorting wealthy organizations and individuals and donating a portion of their ill-gotten gains to charity.

The group claims to never target “hospitals, hospices, schools, universities, non-profit organizations, or the government sector,” has stated that its goal is not to create havoc for society, and that they do not have any political motives or aspirations for power; the group insists that their only motivation is money.

As of Tuesday, the Colonial Pipeline shutdown has been going on for four days.

This is not the first attack on U.S. infrastructure, but it is one of the worst. In February of 2021, the FBI identified an attempted attack on Tampa’s municipal water treatment system, where a hacker added 100 times the necessary level of lye to the water supply in an apparent attempt to poison residents. Thanks to the quick actions of a plant operator, the levels were reset before anyone could be injured in the attack.

The U.S. is already grappling with the alleged Russian cyberattack on software company SolarWinds, one of the most significant in recent memory.

As a child of American parents working abroad, Reporter Ben Kahn was raised as a third culture kid, growing up in five different countries, including the U.S.. He is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore, where he majored in Policy, Politics, and International Affairs. He enjoys learning about foreign languages and cultures and can now speak poorly in more than one language.

Broadband Roundup

House Could Vote on Infrastructure Thursday, Senators Want Rosenworcel Permanent, JSI Buys Mid-State

Infrastructure bill could be up for vote Thursday, senators ask Biden to make Rosenworcel permanent FCC chair, JSI buys Mid-State.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California

September 28, 2021 – The House could be expected to vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill on Thursday, according to reports, one day before its actual implementation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who said in August that the vote would come on September 27, shifted on a previous commitment that the infrastructure package, which includes $65 billion for broadband, would not be taken up until a larger “reconciliation” package of social initiatives is addressed.

Now, according to NBC News, Pelosi told Democrats in a private caucus meeting that her position has changed because the larger package is not ready to be taken up for a vote. That is expected to cause some tensions with some Democrats who pledged to only take up the infrastructure bill if the reconciliation package is completed.

The vote is rubbing up against October 1, when the infrastructure package has been slated to take effect if it passes the House. Democrat supporters of the bill noted, in response to pressure to vote on the bill before the August recess, that the implementation date doesn’t change, regardless of when the House vote takes place.

Senators ask Biden to make Rosenworcel permanent FCC chair

Over two dozen senators are asking President Joe Biden to make Jessica Rosenworcel’s position as acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission permanent.

In a letter on Wednesday, the senators, representing 17 states, said that “there is no better qualified or more competent person to lead the FCC at this important time” than Rosenworcel, who has been the interim chair since Biden appointed her in January.

The senators said delay on her nomination as permanent chair “simply puts at risk the major broadband goals that we share and that Congress has worked hard to advance as part of your administration’s agenda.”

To make Rosenworcel permanent chair would make her the first woman to hold the position in that capacity.

Rosenworcel has overseen a number of big broadband initiatives, including distribution of funds from the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund programs.

Biden has a number of other options to make as FCC chair, as some have also speculated that Gigi Sohn, a former agency staffer with a track record on telecom-related issues, could be a frontrunner.

JSI acquires Mid-State Consultants in preparation for more government broadband funds

Consulting firm JSI has acquired Utah-based engineering firm Mid-State Consultants in an effort to help its clients take advantage of the influx of broadband infrastructure funds coming down the pipe, the companies said in a press release Thursday.

“The move further enhances JSI’s ability to help clients as they take advantage of unprecedented funding resources available on the federal and state levels to expand and maintain broadband networks across the country,” the release said. “The acquisition of Mid-State Consultants significantly grows the engineering capabilities that JSI began building last year.

“We are pleased to add Mid-State to the JSI family. Our clients now have access to more services and solutions and a talented team with the broadband technology, regulatory and business know-how,” said JSI CEO Tasos Tsolakis in the release. “The broadband industry’s future is bright and JSI is well positioned to support our clients every step of the way.”

The big piece of broadband funding is the $65 billion in the infrastructure bill, which is awaiting a vote in the House and is said to be a once-in-a-generation amount for the cause. Money from that bill will be given to the states and cities to distribute.

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Broadband Roundup

Facebook Pauses Instagram for Kids, $1.2B from Emergency Connectivity Fund, Ransomware Attacks

Facebook pauses photo-sharing app for kids, FCC announces $1.2B in first wave of ECF, ransomware attacks on the rise.

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September 27, 2021 – Facebook-owned Instagram has announced that it is “pausing” the development of an equivalent product for kids under 13, following pressure from lawmakers after a report emerged that showed the company knew about the impact of its platforms on kids’ mental health.

The head of the photo sharing application Instagram, which is forbidden for children under 13, said in a blog post Monday that building “Instagram Kids” is the “right thing to do, but we’re pausing the work.”

“We’ll use this time to work with parents, experts and policymakers to demonstrate the value and need for this product,” Adam Mosseri said in the post, adding the company is looking to build opt-in parental supervision tools for teens.

The development comes after lawmakers sent a letter to Facebook demanding that it halt the idea after a report in the Wall Street Journal unveiled internal company research that showed Instagram is harming kids’ mental health. Mosseri acknowledged the research, according to the Journal.

“Critics of ‘Instagram Kids’ will see this as an acknowledgement that the project is a bad idea. That’s not the case,” Mosseri said. “The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today.”

In response to the news, senators Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and representatives Kathy Castor, D-Florida, and Lori Trahan, D-Massachusetts, who wrote concerned letters to Facebook about the app in development, said they are “pleased” about its pausing.

“We are pleased that Facebook has heeded our calls to stop plowing ahead with its plans to launch a version of Instagram for children. A ‘pause’ is insufficient, however. Facebook has completely forfeited the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting young people online and it must completely abandon this project,” said the lawmakers in a joint statement.

“Time and time again, Facebook has demonstrated the failures of self-regulation, and we know that Congress must step in. That’s why we will be re-introducing the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, which will give young internet users the protections they need to navigate today’s online ecosystem without sacrificing their wellbeing. We urge our colleagues to join us in this effort and pass this critical legislation.”

FCC announces $1.2 billion from first wave of Emergency Connectivity Fund

The Federal Communications Commission said Friday that it is committing $1.2 billion from its first wave of applicants for its $7-billion Emergency Connectivity Fund program.

The money will go to 3,040 schools, 260 libraries and 24 consortia, which will produce roughly three million devices and over 700,000 broadband connections to connect over 3.6 million students. The fund provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and general connectivity.

The first round of applications, which closed in August, requested a combined $5 billion for 9.1 million devices and 5.4 million broadband connections.

The money is allocated to all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and D.C. Rural libraries and sprawling urban school districts alike will be impacted. New York received the most funding of any state with 243 million this round, beating Texas’ 97 million and California’s 71.

The window to file applications for funding will open again between September 28 and October 13.

Ransomware attacks have reached ‘stratospheric’ levels, warns report

Ransomware accounted for 69 percent of cyber-security attacks involving malicious software in the second quarter of 2021, found Positive Technologies, published Wednesday.

Ransomware is the holding of data hostage for money. The types of cyber security attacks on retail indicate that hackers have shifted from trying to steal large amounts of data to seeking direct financial gain, the report found.

Attacks on government “soared” from 12 percent in the first quarter this year to 20 percent of attacks on all institutions in the second quarter.

Governmental, medical, scientific, educational and industrial firms were the most common targets of ransomware attacks in the second quarter of 2021, it said.

The report follows high-profile attacks on transport company Colonial Pipeline and software company SolarWinds.

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Broadband Roundup

Apple Blacklists Fortnite, T-Mobile Expands Home Internet, Ajit Pai Reflects on Virginia’s Broadband Leadership

Apple will not reinstate Fortnite after court fight, T-Mobile expands in 4 states, Ajit Pai on Virginia’s broadband success.

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Ajit Pai, foreground, right

September 23, 2021 – Apple has blacklisted popular video game Fortnite from its app store until there are no appeals left in its court case, according to the head of the game maker.

On Wednesday, Tim Sweeney, the head of Fortnite maker Epic Games, posted a letter on Twitter from the lawyers for Apple stating that the company would not reinstate Fortnite on its app store until all court appeals have been exhausted, which Sweeney said could be as long as five years.

Last week, the U.S. District Judge ruled that Apple was not being anticompetitive when it banned Fornite from the app. The legal battle emerged when Fornite allowed its players to make in-game purchases directly through the game, which effectively bypassed Apple’s store and the commission it gets for transactions.

Sweeney said on Twitter on Wednesday that Epic agreed to “play by the same rules as everyone else” if reinstated on Apple’s app store.

“Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else,” Sweeney said in a tweet. “Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users.”

In August, Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, introduced the Open App Markets Act to ban app store operators from requiring app providers to use their in-app payment systems.

T-Mobile expands home internet in four states

T-Mobile is expanding its home internet service to 51 cities and towns across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, it said in a Tuesday press release.

The company said it is able to expand its service because of “massive investments” it has made in its 5G network, which was a pitch to regulators when the company purchase Sprint.

“The traditional landline [internet service providers] have failed the south,” the release said. “Across these four states, nearly 1 million people do not have access to a single wired internet provider. That bears repeating — nearly 1 million people across just four states do not have access at all. This is unacceptable. And unfortunately, that’s not all. Landline ISPs have left nearly 1.7 million people without any access to speeds above 25Mbps and nearly 3.3 million people with access to only one provider.

“This lack of access and choice has led to high prices, poor service, and the unhappiest customers in America —ISPs rank dead last in recent customer satisfaction scores from ACSI. Dead. Last.

Fixed wireless technologies, as T-Mobile uses here, can fill gaps where fiber builds in rural and remote areas are prohibitively expensive.

Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai writes op-ed about Virginia’s leadership in narrowing digital divide

Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai wrote in an op-end in the Washington Post on Wednesday outlining how Virginia became a leader in ending the digital divide.

The Virginia resident, who is now a partner at Searchlight Capital Partners, noted that the state’s Virginia Telecommunications Initiative ensured public funds weren’t a limiting factor to build the last mile connections to homes and businesses, as it plowed money in areas traditionally not ventured by private telecoms because of a lack of return. The initiative also involved public utilities to lease fiber capacity to the telecoms.

“Having led the Federal Communications Commission, I’ve been able to take a bird’s-eye view of the country and assess the effectiveness of various state programs,” Pai said.

“I can say without reservation that Virginia is leading the pack in establishing a framework for what I like to call “digital opportunity” for all its citizens. Its success in broadband can be attributed to several factors: the governor’s consistent prioritization of broadband, bipartisan support and funding from the General Assembly, an efficient and successful VATI program and enabling electric utilities to deploy middle-mile infrastructure.

“This framework will deliver universal broadband throughout the commonwealth. And it is a model for many other states in our nation, large and small, and from coast to coast.”

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