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Vice President Kamala Harris Compares Administration’s Broadband Effort to Rural Electrification

The Biden administration aims to support broadband as the New Deal measure provided electricity in isolated rural areas.

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Screenshot from the White House listening session on broadband

May 24, 2021 – Highlighting the importance of broadband to the president, Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday compared the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to what the Biden administration aims to do with expanding internet infrastructure.

Harris said that the New Deal-era measure, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt almost exactly 85 years ago on May 20, 1936, provided federal support for the installation of electrical distribution systems for isolated rural areas of the United States.

It was necessary, she said, because private power companies were unwilling or unable to create an energy infrastructure at a reasonable cost.

“We must act in the same way,” she said.

Six panelists shared their experiences with broadband infrastructure at the administration event. The discussion emphasized the vitality and the need for reliable connectivity for telehealth, remote working, and small business having access to betters speeds in order to survive.

Breaking down barriers to broadband

Harris explained the three barriers to broadband infrastructure that the Biden-Harris Administration aims to overcome. These are the lack of support in rural and indigenous areas, the lack of competition and affordability, and broadband equity. Equity, she said, included both racial and income disparities with broadband.

One noteworthy panelist was Kimberly Vasquez, a student-advocate from Baltimore. She created Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society, a program that seeks to provide connectivity for communities suffering from the pandemic.

Vasquez’ family struggled to make decisions allowing her to get better internet connectivity in order to get an education, versus being able to put food on the table.

Harris said she was excited by Vasquez’ initiative and said she sympathized with her struggles. Harris asked questions to elicit answers about the how difficult it is to obtain good quality internet connectivity during the pandemic.

“We know what we need to do,” Harris said. She said the event proved the fundamental nature of broadband infrastructure. “This is doable.”

Harris concluded by saying that internet connectivity is both a civil rights and economic issue. It must be tackled to increase competition and advancement in all areas of the country.

The White House listening session is available on YouTube.

Expert Opinion

Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Carr is Wrong on the Treasury Department’s Broadband Rules

The Federal Communications Commission has no excuse for why the agency finished with the same bad data it started with.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at Institute for Local Self-Reliance

With all due respect to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carrhis reaction to the Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is way off base. As I wrote last week, the rules for broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing down decision-making to the local level where people actually have the information to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson recently also responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.)

See Christopher Mitchell, Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022

The Final Rule from the Treasury Department gives broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend some of the SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The earlier draft of rules made it more complicated for networks built to address urban affordability challenges.

However, in coming out against the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr is giving voice to the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after collecting evidence of need, make broadband investments even in areas where those companies may be selling services already. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he has been reduced to chirping from the sidelines on this issue because the previous FCC, under his party’s leadership, so badly bungled broadband subsidies in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that Congress decide NTIA should administer these funds and have the state distribute them.

Nonetheless, the issues that Commissioner Carr raised are common talking points inside the Beltway and we feel that they need to be addressed.

Background Note

The failure of the FCC to assemble an accurate data collection is many years in the making. No single presidential administration can take the full blame for it, but each of them could have corrected it.

President Joe Biden’s FCC is not yet fully assembled because of delays in appointment and in Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it is not clear that we are on a course for having better maps and data that will resolve these problems anytime soon.

Commissioner Carr’s Criticism 

Commissioner Carr jumps immediately into the rural vs urban frame, suggesting that the Biden Administration could leave rural families behind by allowing local governments to invest in broadband in areas where an existing provider may already claim to offer service. Outlawing this practice – which he and others close to the largest cable and telephone companies call “overbuilding” – has been a major point for Republican FCC Commissioners.

  • Rather than directing those dollars to the rural and other communities without any Internet infrastructure today, the Administration gives the green light for recipients to spend those funds on overbuilding existing, high-speed networks in communities that already have multiple broadband providers. This would only deepen the digital divide in this country.

Pardon me? Logically, it is not clear what exactly Commissioner Carr is griping about here. Using Maryland as an example, if Baltimore is allowed to spend some of its funds to ensure unconnected families in public housing have high-quality Internet access, it is not clear that rural Garrett County in the western part of the state is harmed. Local governments do not receive different amounts of funds based on whether they spend it on broadband or other allowable expenses.

See Christopher Mitchell and other from the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online for Wednesday, January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding

Broadband Breakfast on January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding

States could be the issue. Perhaps Commissioner Carr is concerned that Maryland will use some of its SLFRF money for broadband and it will spend too much in urban areas rather than rural regions. That would be an historical anomaly, even though there are far more people living in urban areas than in rural areas who are not on the Internet. And yet, nearly all state and federal dollars have gone to rural areas for infrastructure improvements, with very little being spent to help the low-income families left behind in urban areas. There is no history of states prioritizing urban investments over rural.

Bad Data, Srsly?

What I found really galling though was this bit:

  • It gets worse. The Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by authorizing recipients to determine whether an area lacks access to high-speed Internet service by relying on informal interviews and reports—however inaccurate those may be—rather than the broadband maps that the federal government has been funding and standing up

It is 2022. The FCC announced three weeks ago that it did not have a timeline for better maps.  Many of us have complained for more than 10 years about the misleading and inaccurate collection of claims that the FCC advances as its understanding of where broadband exists in the United States.

Commissioner Carr has been an FCC Commissioner for more than four years, nearly all of that time when his agency was run by a Republican. For part of that time, the Republicans controlled the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. They have no excuse for why his party’s FCC finished with the same bad data processes it started with. No one was defending the FCC data or maps during those years, but the FCC did not bother to begin collecting new data.

Now Commissioner Carr claims that “parts of this country” have broadband services at speeds near 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. OK, Commissioner. Where? Do you have a secret list? No, these are talking points to obscure the fact that Commissioner Carr and his agency has utterly failed to track precisely what “parts of this country” actually has access to broadband.

Will I agree that most, perhaps 80 percent, of the country has access to 100 by 20 Mbps? Yes. But that doesn’t matter if no one can agree which homes are well-served. And it opens up a whole other set of questions that Carr neatly sidesteps, which is that contemporary broadband service goes beyond the academic question of whether an ISP provides that service most of the time at some price. If the price isn’t affordable, then there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Or as we like to say, if it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible. And, if the service is not very reliable, then there is a problem that must be addressed.

This is why the final rule is both necessary and good: because it allows communities the flexibility they need to address not just the gaps in infrastructure, but reliability and affordability as well. But of course Commissioner Carr should know that we do not have this information at the federal level, because I’m quite sure he opposes collecting pricing and other information. Despite the many instances in which providers have lied to the Commission in presenting the areas they offer service, Carr objects per se to local evidence gathered via interviews to understand where broadband actually is.

A Prediction: This Is Not A Problem

It is remarkable to see the amount of performative horror Commissioner Carr expresses at the prospect of a city like Baltimore using some of the Rescue Plan dollars to ensure its families in public housing are on the Internet, even if a cable provider could theoretically sell them Internet access for $75/month, or provide a subsidized service if they jump through all the right hoops. Compare that to the silence from the Commissioner when it became clear that the largest telephone companies took billions of dollars in broadband subsidies and might have forgotten to upgrade their services.

The SLFRF Treasury Rules give the appropriate amount of deference to local and state leaders to act in an utter void of information about what is available to each home. Commissioner Carr is deeply worried – because the largest cable and telephone companies are deeply worried – that some places will use these dollars to build networks that are unneeded or would create too much competition for the existing companies.

My prediction is that communities will not do this. Of course it’s not zero: a cardinal rule of dealing with large numbers of humans is that there are always outliers. But of the cities that allocate some of their SLFRF dollars to broadband infrastructure, they will overwhelmingly focus on areas where there are real affordability and reliability challenges from existing services. The reality is that very few of these investments will result in any material losses to existing ISPs, but the monopoly providers know that even modestly opening the door to locally built and operated infrastructure driven by community-driven solutions could open the floodgates to the competition they fear so much.

Commissioner Carr has spent years as one of a very small number of people that could correct the abject failure of the FCC to collect useful information about broadband deployments. The rest of us have had to move on and figure out how to work in the absence of data. The best option is to allow for local decision-making where they can collect evidence and act. And most importantly, they will have to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action in ways that FCC Commissioners often do not.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on January 20, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

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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FCC

FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel Shares Proposal to Promote Broadband Competition In Apartment Buildings

If adopted, the FCC’s regulations would increase broadband options for tenants.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2022––Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel shared a draft regulation that aims to would promote competition and greater broadband choice for tenants in apartment buildings.

If adopted, the regulations would prevent practices that keep tenants from choosing their own broadband provider.

“With more than one-third of the U.S. population living in apartments, mobile home parks, condominiums, and public housing, it’s time to crack down on practices that lock out broadband competition and consumer choice,” said Rosenworcel.

The proposal would prohibit broadband providers from entering into revenue-sharing agreements with apartment building owners. If approved by her fellow commissioners and hence adopted as official agency rules, the regulation would also require providers to disclose any existing marketing arrangements they have with building owners to tenants.

“Consumers deserve access to a choice of providers in their buildings. I look forward to having my colleagues join me in lifting the obstacles to competitive choice for broadband for the millions of tenants across the nation,” Rosenworcel said.

Her proposal builds on a September 2021 notice that invited a new round of comments during an examination of broadband access In apartment and office buildings. The FCC said the proceedings revealed “a pattern of new practices that inhibit competition, contrary to the Commission’s goals, and limit opportunities for competitive providers to offer service for apartment, condo and office building unit tenants.”

More than one third of the U.S. population lives in condominiums or apartment buildings.

Exclusive agreements between broadband providers and buildings owners limit options for tenants, who are precluded from access to new carriers. “Across the country throughout the pandemic, the need for more and better broadband access has never been clearer,” Rosenworcel added.

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Funding

Preparing Collaboration Model, Data Collection Suggested Before Infrastructure Money Flows

With infrastructure bill, there is no longer a shortage of funds for states to expand their broadband infrastructure, consultants said.

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Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology and Energy

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – While billions in federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are still many months away, work can be done to tie-up some loose ends, including figuring out internet speed criteria and best partnerships for broadband builds, said a consultant Wednesday.

Heather Gold, founder and CEO of broadband consulting firm HBG Strategies, noted on a Broadband Bunch webinar that the $65 billion for broadband from the infrastructure bill won’t be available until next year. But she noted that infrastructure money and existing American Rescue Plan Act funding means states are no longer financially limited in their efforts to expand broadband.

That means internet service providers and states need to be thinking about how to manage this pool of funds, according to Joanne Hovis, president of engineering and consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy.

Hovis said local service providers can get ahead by choosing the right collaboration model for broadband builds. That includes partnerships with electric cooperatives, which can own wood poles on which telecoms attach their equipment, or a partnership with the local government, such as that being done in Vermont.

Hovis also encouraged data collection efforts to make broadband service prices publicly available and easily accessible knowledge, and advocated for competitive bidding processes for broadband grants that result in benefits for as many service providers as possible.

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