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FCC Gridlock, FTC’s Investigating Amazon-MGM, Brendan Carr’s USF Proposal Raises Questions

FCC gridlock could hobble president’s wishes, FTC opens investigation into Amazon buy, law professor raises questions about Carr’s USF proposal.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan

July 12, 2021—Observers say the Federal Communications Commission won’t be able to implement some of President Joe Biden’s wishes – including his urging Friday for the agency to restore pre-Donald Trump net neutrality rules – because the White House still has yet to nominate a fifth, tie-breaking commissioner to the FCC.

For months, advocacy groups have been urging the president to nominate a third Democrat to the commission, and it’s unclear what’s causing the delay. Observers note that the FCC could struggle

Considering it can take months for the Senate to approve FCC nominations – and because the FCC is deadlocked with two Democrat and two Republican commissioners – some say that Biden’s delay in appointing the next commissioner could come at the cost of losing FCC direction for the 2021 year, as the stalemate brings the commission into gridlock.

On Friday, Biden urged the agency to commit to going back to former President Barack Obama-era net neutrality principles, which would bar telecommunications companies from influencing the traffic over their networks. California has already instituted it own net neutrality rules, which AT&T said forced the company to remove free app services.

Biden also asked the FCC to take steps to boost price transparency and competition in broadband.

The order encourages the FCC to “prevent ISPs from making deals with landlords that limit tenants’ choices.” While the FCC bans exclusive agreements for telecom services to apartment buildings, the problem has not been rooted out nationwide.

Federal Trade Commission opens formal investigation into Amazon’s MGM buy

The Federal Trade Commission officially opened a formal investigation into Amazon’s acquisition of major entertainment studio, MGM, the Information reported on Friday.

Amazon announced its deal to acquire MGM for $8.45 billion in late May, but it was largely suspected that the merger would receive scrutiny from government agencies. In June, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, urged the agency to give the deal a “meticulous” review in a letter addressed to FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan.

The FTC is focused on “the larger implications of the deal for Amazon’s market power,” the Verge reported, citing the Information’s report, itself based on two anonymous sources. “The FTC is wary of whether the deal will illegally boost Amazon’s ability to offer a wide array of good and services and is not just limited to content production and distribution.”

Khan is a longstanding critic of Big Tech, specifically Amazon, and published an article titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in the Yale Law Journal in 2017. Her ideas are popular among progressive circles seeking to reign in Big Tech’s power, but her special interest in Amazon has led the company to file a recusal motion, calling for her to remove herself from proceedings involving Amazon.

Op-ed raises questions for Universal Service Fund reform

Justin Hurwitz, a law professor at the Nebraska College of Law, said in an op-ed published Friday on the Free State Foundation website that he supports reforming the Universal Service Fund by forcing big technology companies to contribute to it, but key concerns need to be addressed before that can happen.

Hurwitz was using as his springboard FCC Commission Brendan Carr’s proposal, written in a Newsweek op-ed in May, calling for Big Tech to contribute to the fund, which brings basic telecommunications service to underserved institutions and communities across the country. The fund currently relies on voice revenues – the portion of telecom company revenues that has been consistently dwindling, which has brought into focus the fund’s sustainability.

While he called Carr’s proposal “unequivocally better than the status quo,” he said Congress – not the FCC – must first define what constitutes “Big Tech” and who, exactly, needs to contribute to the fund before such a reform can take place.

For example, considering how many online readers the New York Times pulls, he questions whether they would be defined as “Big Tech” for the purposes of contributing to the fund. If not the New York Times, he asks, what about Amazon? Why should Amazon be required, but not the New York Times?

Hurwitz noted that allowing the FCC to decide those questions could give them strong regulating power in non-communications-based markets, adding future regulation and a restructuring of the USF should be left to Congress, where it is more democratically responsible to the people than is the FCC.

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FCC Proposal for Robotexts, FCC Mapping Problems, TikTok’s Preliminary Deal

The FCC is looking to adapt its robocall methods for texts.

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September 27, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is requesting comments on a proposed new rule to apply caller ID authentication standards to text messaging, according to the release on Monday.

The FCC is proposing requiring mobile wireless providers to block texts, at the network level, that appear to be from invalid, unallocated, or unused numbers, and numbers on a Do-Not-Originate (DNO) list. It also seeks input on other actions the commission might take to address illegal texts, including enhanced consumer education, the release said.

“Recently, scam text messaging has become a growing threat to consumers’ wallets and privacy,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “More can be done to address this growing problem and today we are formally starting an effort to take a serious, comprehensive, and fresh look at our policies for fighting unwanted robo texts.”

In August, the FCC’s Robocall Response Team reported an increase of consumer complaints about unwanted text messages, which have risen steadily in recent years from approximately 5,700 in 2019 to 8,500 this year.

The FCC’s STIR/SHAKEN robocall regime – which requires providers to authenticate phone calls – went into force in late July.

Broadband data collectors flag early problems with FCC mapping data

Telecompetitor is reporting Monday that organizations are already flagging problems with the FCC’s broadband mapping fabric, including missing locations.

The database is designed to provide address and geolocation information for every broadband serviceable location in the country.

Telecompetitor is reporting that Mike Romano, executive vice president of rural broadband trade association National Telephone Cooperative Association, said 90 percent of its members saw missing locations on the FCC database maps.

According to the story, one complained that coordinates for a broadband serviceable location actually pointed to a swamp; another talked of a location that pointed to a boulder.

“NTIA realized the maps won’t be done until the challenge process is completed,” Romano said, referring to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is handling $42.5 billion for broadband infrastructure contingent on those FCC maps.

The next FCC-issued broadband maps are set to be released in November, and the challenge process is ongoing for state agencies, community organizations, and consulting firms to correct potential inaccuracies.

TikTok reaches preliminary deal with White House on security concerns

The Biden administration and video-sharing app TikTok have drafted a preliminary agreement to make changes to its data security and governance without requiring its Chinese-based owner to sell the company, the New York Times reported on Monday.

The drafted terms, according to the Times, state that TikTok would store its American data solely on servers in the United States – rather than on its own servers. Cloud company Oracle is then expected to monitor TikTok’s algorithms that determine the content that the app recommends. TikTok is also expected to create an oversight board made up of security experts that will report to the government, according to anonymous sources cited by the Times.

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, is not convinced of the measures. “Anything short of a complete separation” [of TikTok from ByteDance] “will likely leave significant national security issues regarding operations, data and algorithms unresolved,” he said, according to the story.

Former President Donald Trump, who wanted to ban TikTok, attempted to bridge a deal with ByteDance for a portion of TikTok to be sold to Oracle, which did not materialize.

Concerns have swirled around ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the popular app, and its alleged surveillance and privacy policies that require data from any Chinese applications to be shared with Chinese authorities. TikTok US has repeatedly denied breaching US data privacy regulations.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has been an outspoken critic of the app, said on Twitter that the preliminary deal “is very concerning” in that the terms “fall short of securing our [national security].”

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NTCA Smart Rural Communities, International Telecommunications Union Conference, Carr on TikTok

‘How do we make sure that you can keep that home grown talent?’

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Photo of Shirley Bloomfield, NTCA Rural Broadband Association CEO, at Monday's Fall Conference

September 26, 2022 –Rural Broadband Association CEO Shirley Bloomfield on Monday announced a partnership with the National Rural Education Association to promote educational opportunities for rural children.

Speaking at the launch of the NTCA trade show in San Francisco on Monday, Bloomfield said that the program will help educate kids about the value of rural broadband services.

Bloomfield said it will help address a common lament in rural areas: “How do we make sure that you can keep that home grown talent?”

The pilot program with the rural education group will help promote the importance of broadband jobs in rural areas.

Telecom officials to be in Hungary for ITU election

Key telecom agency officials are expected this week to attend the International Telecommunications Union conference, where the election of the new head of the United Nation’s telecom regulator will be selected.

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Alan Davidson, and deputy secretary of the Commerce Don Graves are expected in Bucharest, Romania, where American Doreen Bogdan-Martin is in the running against Russian challenger Rashid Ismailov.

Last week, President Joe Biden said he strongly supports the candidacy of Bogdan-Martin.

The ITU develops international connectivity standards in communications networks and improving access to information and communication technologies for underserved communities worldwide.

The conference is being held from September 25 – 29.

The FCC expressed concerns over TikTok security and big tech contributions

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in a statement Monday that he spoke with European Union officials in Brussels about the need for Big Tech to contribute to the development of broadband networks and about the alleged security risks of the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok.

Carr has previously said that big technology companies should contribute to the Universal Service Fund, a roughly $10-billion pot of money that goes to support basic telecommunications builds across the nation. Money for the fund comes from voice service providers, but critics have said that the fund’s base of contributors needs to be broadened for its sustainability.

Carr also reiterated his position that TikTok poses a security and privacy threat to Americans.

“TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data,” he said in the statement. “And recent reporting indicates that there is no check on this sensitive data being accessed from inside China.”

The security of TikTok has been an ongoing issue, with American Senators saying that TikTok may be collecting biometric data and storing it in an unknown database.

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Kenosha Gets Fiber, Judiciary Committee Advances Journalism Bill, Rosenworcel Touts Women in Tech

SiFi Networks will construct an all-fiber network for 40,000 households in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, obtained from Kenosha.org

September 23, 2022 – The city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and SiFi Networks on Thursday announced the start of construction of an all-fiber network that is advertised to bring high-speed broadband to all 40,000 households, businesses, and other locations in the city.

The $100-million, privately funded project is scheduled to be completed in approximately three years and will provide speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps), SiFi Networks said. The project has been announced to be open access: Many service providers will simultaneously lease sections of the network. SiFi says this model will enhance competition and bring “the fastest speeds at the most competitive prices to the consumer.”

“Kenosha is a special city with wonderful residents who are ready for modern-day connectivity,” said Marcus Bowman, community relations manager at SiFi Networks. “SiFi Networks is delighted to make the long-term investment in Kenosha because we see how fiber networks transform communities into hubs of innovation, remote work, better healthcare, and smart city services.”

 “Kenosha residents and businesses will see a great benefit from the Kenosha FiberCity project, ensuring that affordable, high-speed internet service is available throughout the entire city,” Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said.

Cruz and Klobuchar find agreement on Journalism bill

A bipartisan bill that would alter existing antitrust law to create a safe harbor for news outlets engaged in collective bargaining with big-tech platforms was approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act say it would give news outlets the influence necessary to obtain fair compensation for their work from large platforms such as Facebook and Google.

The bill was scheduled to advance out of the Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Its passage was delayed by sponsor Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., after the committee adopted an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, that would limit platforms’ ability to moderate content.

Cruz’s amendment would have outright removed the antitrust exemption if outlet–platform negotiations included content-moderation policies, which Klobuchar called the amendment a “get out of jail free card” for platforms. Instead, the version of the bill advanced Thursday states that bargaining shall be conducted “solely to reach an agreement regarding the pricing, terms and conditions.”

“This is a major win for free speech and it strikes a blow against the virtual monopoly that Big Tech has to limit the information that Americans see online,” said Cruz’s official statement on Thursday. “The bottom line is Big Tech hated this bill from the start and now they hate it even more.”

Rosenworcel speaks to Grace Hopper Celebration 

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel touted the importance of women in technology at the Grace Hopper Celebration networking event on Thursday. 

“The Grace Hopper Celebration is known for being the world’s premier networking event for women in technology,” Rosenworcel said. “It is great to see it and just be here.  Because in my two decades of working on technology policy, I have not been in a lot of rooms like this.  In fact, I have lost count of the times that I have been the only woman in the room.”

The FCC’s chairwoman called on colleagues to “pull up a chair” for other women in tech as well as struggling community members. Speaking of her time as a commissioner at the FCC, Rosenworcel said she was one of only a few officials working to close the “homework gap” before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

She also committed to advance “issues that affect women in technology,” promising to promote telehealth solutions for maternity care, extend basic phone services to victims of domestic abuse, and scrutinize the privacy standards of mobile providers to ensure the privacy of women’s medical history.

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