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TPI President Wallsten Defends Reverse Auction, Points to Mapping Flaws in Light of RDOF Defaults

In an interview with Broadband Breakfast, Technology Policy Institute President Scott Wallsten blamed bad mapping for RDOF mess.

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Photo of Scott Wallsten delivering his opening remarks for TPI's 2021 Aspen Conference.

ASPEN, Colorado, August 19, 2021—Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow of the Technology Policy Institute, on Monday defended the reverse auction process used to divvy up funds from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in light of winners having to default on territory that new mapping shows are adequately connected.

In an interview with Broadband Breakfast at the 2021 Aspen Conference that his organization was hosting, Wallsten said the issue with the growing number of defaults is not the process by which money was awarded, but the mapping that led to a recently increasing number of companies approaching the Federal Communications Commission with admissions the areas they promised to serve are already served. (More companies have filed defaults in recent days.)

“The FCC is taking the wrong approach to mapping,” argued Wallsten, who had a recent op-ed about his views published in The Hill. In his view, the FCC is “going too micro,” that is, trying to establish the precise coverage of exact addresses rather than simply getting accurate broadband data for an entire region or census level. He explained that this fixation on microdata contributed to areas being mapped incorrectly during the RDOF process.

Though Wallsten defended the reverse auction – which awards money to those promising to build with the least amount of subsidy – component of RDOF, he was not without his criticisms. Wallsten pointed to some of the surprising bids brought about by small companies or those using emerging technologies, such as SpaceX’s low earth orbit constellation, Starlink.

“Who ought to assume the risk?” He explained how because companies secure payment before completing the project, some argue that smaller companies bite off more than they can chew during the bidding process.

“It’s hard to say [how changing this would impact bidding strategies].”

Though Wallsten does not want to discourage innovation and the use of new technologies, he does not want taxpayers to be the party left holding the bag.

“We want new technologies—just not on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said. “If [Elon] Musk believes in Starlink, let him front the money.”

Internet speeds standards

Another topic Wallsten addressed was the recent movement for faster internet standards and symmetrical speeds.

Wallsten is calling the push for 100 Megabits per second symmetrical speeds “nonsense,” arguing that the only reason that there has been this push for symmetrical 100 Mbps, and even Gigabit speeds, is to push fiber on consumers. “There is no other reason.”

Wallsten clarified that he believes that fiber plays a critical role in networks around the country, but that nobody needs gigabit speeds. In response to the criticism that fiber will be necessary to create and maintain future-proof networks, he refuted the premise of the problem, stating that the term “future-proof” itself is loaded, and assumes that spending a lot now is inherently better than spending a lot in the future, which he argues may not be the case.

Wallsten pointed out that speed is only one aspect of a network—an aspect that, he said, receives an undo amount of attention. He stated that there are myriad other factors that may supersede speed in terms of what customers value in future networks—such as super low latency. Though he acknowledged that everyone enjoys faster internet speeds, he cautioned against diminishing returns as the speed increases.

“The difference between 1 Mbps and 5 Mbps is extraordinary—the difference between five and 25 is noticeable, but less so,” he said. “In terms of practical usage, there is very little difference between 100 Mbps and a gig.”

On the infrastructure bill

On the bipartisan infrastructure framework, Wallsten voiced his concerns that the federal government is beginning to distance itself from the reverse auction process in favor of simply giving money to the states and allowing them to distribute it as they see fit.

He reiterated that RDOF’s failings were due to inadequacies in mapping, and not the auctions process, but that politicians want to be seen as bestowing money on their constituents.

“Politicians love to give away money,” Wallsten mused.

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.

Rural

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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Infrastructure

Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021: The Future of Shared Infrastructure

Topic 4 explores the past and future of the shared infrastructure model with more smart city deployments.

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Panelists for Topic 4 at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021

September 23, 2021 – In four days, Broadband Breakfast will kick off Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 at the Broadband Communities Summit on Monday, September 27, 2021.

This pathbreaking event brings the broadband infrastructure and financial services communities together to focus on the digital infrastructure and investment asset profile, including fiber, small cells, towers and data center assets required to support a 21st Century information economy.

This fourth session at Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 – Topic 4 — is about the future of shared infrastructure. What will best practices look like for ownership models? How will the landscape shift as we continue to deploy 5G technologies across the country?

In particular, this session will consider how cellular towers were once proprietary, before carriers partnered with infrastructure owners. Will future wired and wireless deployments, including smart city projects, have any bearing upon the shared infrastructure model?

The conference will kick off at 1 p.m. ET / 12 Noon CT, and this fourth panel is scheduled to begin at 5:15 p.m. ET / 4:15 p.m. CT. Unlike other aspects of the Broadband Communities Summit, Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will be available both IN PERSON and LIVE ONLINE.

The session will moderated by Mari Silbey, Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, and includes, as panelists, Jonathan Adelstein, President & CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association; C. Earl Peek, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC; and Deborah Simpier, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks.

Visit Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 to register, and for the most up-to-date information about the mini-conference.

Panelists for Topic 4:

  • Jonathan Adelstein, President and CEO, Wireless Industry Association
  • C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC
  • Deborah Simpler, Co-founder and CEO, Althea Networks
  • Mari Silbey (moderator),  Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach, US Ignite

Jonathan Adelstein has headed the Wireless Industry Association since 2012, representing the businesses that build, develop, own, and operate the nation’s wireless infrastructure. He is a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and Administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. He previously served 15 years on the U.S. Senate staff, culminating as a senior legislative advisor to Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

C. Earl Peek, CPA, Founder and Managing Partner, Diamond Ventures and Peek, LLC, is a graduate from Wilberforce University in Ohio with a B.S, in Accounting, Summa Cum Laude and has an extensive background in public accounting, banking, commercial lending, and venture capital formation.  As an entrepreneur he ran his own business for eight years.  He founded and was greenlighted to be a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC). As Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Treasury he was a key voting member for deploying capital to ethnic minorities, minority depository institutions, community banks, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and other U.S. entities deploying nearly $6B in all states, cities, and more than 400 community banks. Mr. Peek, was an Assistant Vice-President /Director of the Bank Commercial Business Development with Industrial Bank and later he was Vice President in Commercial Banking with BB&T- both   in Washington, D.C.

Deborah Simpier is a small business veteran and has been active in the Pacific Northwest mesh networking and net neutrality scene for several years. Before she became co-founder and CEO, she was Althea’s first user.

Mari Silbey (moderator) is Senior Director of Partnerships and Outreach for US Ignite, and Program Director for the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, a $100 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of more than 30 wireless companies and associations. Mari has 20 years of experience in communications and technology. She has worked previously as a writer, analyst and consultant in the private sector, and as a journalist covering broadband and wireless infrastructure.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 will take place at the Broadband Communities Summit, and online, on Monday, September 27, 2021. 

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for the LIVE ONLINE version of Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the Member’s Rate of $149. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

The Broadband Communities Summit is ​the ​leading ​conference ​on ​broadband ​technologies ​for ​communities. It will take place in Houston, Texas, from September 27 – September 30, 2021.

The Summit ​attracts ​broadband ​system ​operators, ​network ​builders ​and ​deployers ​of ​all ​kinds. ​Many ​of ​the ​country’s ​major ​property ​owners ​and ​real ​estate ​developers ​attend ​the ​Summit ​each ​year, ​along ​with ​independent ​telcos ​and ​cable ​companies, ​municipal ​and ​state ​officials, ​community ​leaders ​and ​economic ​development ​professionals. ​

For more information on the Summit, visit Broadband Communities, as well as 2021 Travel & Hotel Information.

Broadband Breakfast Club Members receive discount pricing on both the Broadband Communities Summit and Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021.

Join the Broadband Breakfast Club and Register for BOTH the Broadband Communities Summit and the IN-PERSON Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 for the  Member’s Rate of $349. First month of Broadband Breakfast Club Membership included.

REGISTER NOW

 

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021 Sponsors:

Platinum Sponsors

Lit partners with municipal, county and other governmental entities, as well as a variety of private partners to deploy last-mile fiber optic network infrastructure. Residents and businesses connected to our networks will receive service from a local internet service provider that delivers a local brand and promise of great service and customer support.

 

Broadband.money makes finding and winning broadband grants easy. Sign up at today at broadband.money to line up for your share of $42 billion worth of broadband grant funding with a single application that unlocks grants in multiple states. Find underserved and unserved areas in your territory. Need match funding? No problem. Get on the fast track to funded with many sources of private money to choose from. Discover, apply, get match funding, and win grants. It’s really that simple. www.broadband.money

Gold Sponsors

BroadbandNow is a data aggregation company helping millions of consumers find and compare local internet options. BroadbandNow’s database of providers, the largest in the U.S., delivers the highest-value guides consisting of comprehensive plans, prices and ratings for thousands of internet service providers.

 

Render Networks provides an entirely new approach to fiber deployment. Utilizing innovative geographic information systems (GIS), mobile and automation technology, Render’s platform and data management enable network operators, engineers and builders to deliver quality networks without the need for manual, paper-based construction packs. Render uses real-time geospatial data to provide increased control and visibility, resulting in significant resource productivity across the delivery lifecycle.

Silver Sponsors

SiFi funds, builds and owns FiberCity™ networks for use by Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties as well as connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications.

 

Created by a group of Utah cities, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) is a community-owned fiber optic network that uses the Open Access model to promote competition by giving customers the freedom to choose which telecommunication services they want.

 

Positron Access specializes in carrier-grade telecommunications products that increase bandwidth delivered and the distance covered within both core access networks and residential buildings using existing wiring infrastructure. These include line powered digital subscriber line amplifiers/extenders that double the customer serving areas and increase the bandwidth, G.hn Gigabit Access Mulitplexors (GAM) that provide managed non-blocking symmetrical gigabit bandwidth to subscribers in multiple-dwelling units/multi-tenant units over copper pairs or coaxial cables; and bonded copper solutions for mobile backhaul, core transport, access and edge aggregation.

 

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has been on a mission over the last decade to forge partnerships and foster public policy to close the Digital Divide. This work has been strategically-focused, results-oriented, and people-centered. CETF is a leading proponent of the Digital Equity Bill of Rights

 

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

To inquire about Digital Infrastructure Investment 2021, contact drew@breakfast.media.

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020

Digital Infrastructure Investment 2020 took place online on August 10, 2020, from 1 p.m. ET to 5:30 p.m. ET. It was broadcast at the Broadband Communities Virtual Summit on Tuesday, September 22, 2020.

See Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Archives for a complete list of prior DII events, including DII 2020

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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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