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Two New Broadband Bills, Including One Aimed at Rural America, Introduced in Congress

The bipartisan Hassan-Capito bill would provide state and local governments with new financing options for broadband projects.

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May 21, 2021 — Two new bills introduced into Congress this week both aim to accelerate the rate at which quality broadband access reaches unserved and underserved Americans living in rural communities.

The Expanding Opportunities for Broadband Deployment Act introduced Thursday by Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., seeks to repeal unnecessary eligibility requirements that prevent otherwise qualified internet service providers from participation in federal universal support programs designed to close broadband access gaps nationwide. Universal support programs are federally funded and operate on the belief that all Americans should have access to communications services.

The bipartisan Rural Broadband Financing Flexibility Act introduced on Tuesday by Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., aims at helping states, cities and town spur investment in rural broadband projects. The bill would provide state and local governments with new financing options for broadband projects, giving states and localities access to additional tools to invest in rural broadband.

Butterfield’s legislation will retire the eligible telecommunications carrier designation requirements, which, according to the NCTA, “unfairly prevent qualified ISPs from participating in federal universal support programs.” By removing the requirements, more service providers with a history of competently operating broadband networks will participate in the federally funded programs.

Ideally, this will spur competition among more competing internet service providers, who will all seek to bring internet service to underserved areas for the best quality and lowest prices.

Hassan’s and Moore’s bill would allow states to issue tax-exempt bonds in order to finance rural broadband projects. These bonds would be backed by the federal government, which would ensure repayment on the bonds, thereby making the purchasing of such assets a riskless investment. Additionally, the legislation would create a federal tax credit that states and localities could direct toward rural broadband projects.

“I’ve been pursuing every angle to ensure rural areas get reliable, affordable connectivity,” Capito said. “This legislation will provide additional funding opportunities for communities looking to invest in rural broadband. I’m proud to team up with Sen. Hassan again to reintroduce this legislation that will help close the digital divide in West Virginia and across rural America by incentivizing buildout and expanding financing options.”

Reporter Tyler Perkins studied rhetoric and English literature, and also economics and mathematics, at the University of Utah. Although he grew up in and never left the West (both Oregon and Utah) until recently, he intends to study law and build a career on the East Coast. In his free time, he enjoys reading excellent literature and playing poor golf.

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Christopher Ali’s New Book Dissects Failures of Rural Broadband Policy and Leadership

“Farm Fresh Broadband” explains the world of broadband policy and provides solutions to bridge the digital divide.

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WASHINGTON, September 24, 2021—In his most recent book, University of Virginia Professor Christopher Ali argues that the ongoing battle for improved connectivity is not only far from over, but also critically flawed.

“Farm Fresh Broadband” proposes a new approach to national rural broadband policy to narrow the rural-urban digital divide. In Ali’s view, the lack of coordinated, federal leadership and a failure to recognize the roles that local communities and municipalities need to play in the deployment of broadband has contributed to a lack of competition between carriers, and ultimately, higher costs to consumers.

Just two days after it was released, Ali sat down for a video interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark to discuss his story – and Ali’s recommendations that resulted from his journey.

Ali raises the question about How the $6 billion in federal funds allocated to broadband is spent annually? Based on his findings, he makes policy recommendations to democratize rural broadband policy architecture and re-model it after the historic efforts to bring telephony services and electricity to Americans across the country.

In particular, Ali discusses how, in one chapter of his book, he raises the provocative question about whether “Good Is the Enemy of Great: The Four Failures of Rural Broadband Policy.” In his telling, less money, lower speed, and poor-quality broadband mapping have all contributed to an approach that, in seeking “good enough,” federal policy has failed Rural America.

Ali, an associate professor at UVA’s Department of Media Studies and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is also the chair of the Communication Law and Policy Division of the International Communications Association and the author of two books on localism in media, “Media Localism: The Policies of Place” (University of Illinois Press, 2017) and “Local News in a Digital World” (Tow Center for Digital Journalism, 2017)

“Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity” available at the MIT Press.

See Professor Ali’s recent Expert Opinion for Broadband Breakfast, “Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

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Expert Opinion

Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline

The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society

In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.

As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.

In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.

The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.

And it needs to act before December 1.

Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.

Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.

First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.

Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.

Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.

  • The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
  • Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
  • The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.

Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.

Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.

The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.

Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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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Ligado and Competitive Carriers Association Talk Unlocking Broadband Coverage at Lunch Event

Broadband Breakfast, in person and for lunch, heard about the possibilities with spectrum sharing and combining technologies for coverage.

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Left to right: Steven Berry, Doug Smith, Drew Clark

WASHINGTON, September 9, 2021—Doug Smith, president and CEO of Ligado Networks, said at Broadband Breakfast’s first in-person lunch event Wednesday that a combination of satellite and on-the-ground technologies will prove to improve connectivity for all Americans.

Smith said the ubiquitous coverage of satellites seamlessly coupled with the speed and penetrative capabilities of terrestrial networks thanks to 5G technology is where broad connectivity is unlocked.

Ligado, a satellite and technology company, has fostered close relationships with companies like Mavenir and Nokia to see these visions realized and allow more people around the country to access broadband and cellular services no matter where they are in the country. In 2020, Ligado received unanimous approval from the FCC to launch spectrum sharing operations in the L band, despite fierce push-back from the Department of Defense.

The question of providing better service to rural consumers is of particular importance to the Competitive Carriers Association, whose President and CEO Steven Berry also joined Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark for lunch.

Though they are not the largest advocate in the telecom sector, they provide rural carriers with a voice in areas that are economically difficult to serve. “Many of our members try and effectively serve rural areas that either no one else tried to attempt, or they are the most difficult areas in the United States,” Berry said. “That is why we have always had an appreciation for Ligado.”

Berry explained how historically, Ligado promoted a wholesale model that was designed to work with small carriers. He went further, explaining that for many regions, internet connectivity does not make economic sense, and that business models are often unsustainable due to the often sparsely populated and difficult terrain.

Ligado’s model allowed these companies, he said, to enhance their coverage, backhaul, and overall cost effectiveness. “We are of the opinion that every tool in the tool has to be utilized and each situation is unique,” Berry said.

“Each carrier that tries to service those unique areas is also unique—the possibilities to team with Ligado [puts small carriers in a great position to pull that off].”

The push for ubiquitous 5G

Whether it is improving coverage through expanding into more bands or creating handheld devices capable of utilizing satellite and terrestrial technologies, Ligado pushing to unlock the true capabilities of 5G technologies.

In the past couple years, Ligado has focused its efforts on bringing 5G to the forefront of its services. “This is the transition of a generation of technology that is not like anything we have seen before,” Smith said.

“This is not like 2G to 3G, or even 3G to 4G.” He described Ligado’s role, which he believes is to support the U.S.’s critical infrastructure in industries like energy, transportation, and manufacturing. He stated that operating in bands such as the L band is critical for Ligado to fulfill this role.

“Our vision is to bring the power of a 5G commercial network to bear on private industries.”

Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Broadband Breakfast for Lunch takes place at 11:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of every month at Clyde’s of Gallery Place, 707 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. You can watch the September 8, 2021, on this page, or sign up for the current Live Online event.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021, 12 Noon ET — A Conversation with Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith and Competitive Carriers Association President and CEO Steven K. Berry

Deployment of 5G and next-generation technologies promises tremendous opportunities for consumers across the country, particularly in rural areas. It means major advancements for American businesses, too – especially in energy and manufacturing that are seeking to modernize and digitize their operations.

With the Federal Communications Commission’s unanimous approval, in April 2020, of Ligado Networks’ application to facilitate 5G and Internet of Things services, Ligado has been a company on the move. It has recently announced business deals with Mavenir, Nokia, Rakuten and Saankhya Labs. And, Ligado says, its mobile network offerings for critical infrastructure provides another option for entities in need of 5G services. Join Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith and Competitive Carriers Association President and CEO Steven K. Berry, in conversation with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, for this special Broadband Breakfast Club for Lunch event.

Panelists:

  • Doug Smith, President and CEO, Ligado Networks
  • Steven K. Berry, President and CEO, Competitive Carriers Association
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

  • Doug Smith is President and CEO of Ligado Networks and is responsible for directing the vision of the company and managing every aspect of its day-to-day operations. He leads efforts to utilize its state-of-the-art communications assets in operating a network solutions firm designed to extend coverage, increase capacity, and accelerate the delivery of next-generation technology for America’s wireless and critical infrastructure industries. With more than 25 years of domestic and international telecom and wireless industry experience, Doug has engineered, built, and launched nationwide networks for GTE, Nextel, Sprint Nextel, and Clearwire.
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, also serves as Of Counsel to The CommLaw Group. He has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers negotiate telecom leases and fiber IRUs, litigate to operate in the public right of way, and argue regulatory classifications before federal and state authorities. In addition to representing public and private providers on broadband issues, Drew is actively involved in issues surrounding interconnected Voice-over-Internet-Protocol service, spectrum licenses, robocalling including STIR/SHAKEN, and the provision of video franchises and “over-the-top” copyrighted content.
  • Steven K. Berry is President and CEO of Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) the nation’s leading association for competitive wireless providers serving rural, regional and nationwide markets in the United States. A seasoned lawyer who worked for Congress (House and Senate), the Executive Branch and as a partner at Holland & Knight law firm, Berry has held positions as the Senior Vice President of Government Relations for three associations, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the CTIA-The Wireless Association, and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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