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Christopher Ali: Is Broadband Like Getting Bran Flakes to the Home?

Christopher Ali discusses his solutions to bridge the rural-urban digital divide in his most recent book, “Farm Fresh Broadband.”

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By Christopher Ali

During my rural broadband road trip, one provider recalled a story of trying to convince his community to adopt fiber-to-the-home. In response, someone said, “You mean like bran flakes at my house every morning? What do you mean fiber to my home?”

In today’s connected world, broadband is as essential as bran flakes—one item in a nutritional toolkit of rural community development. Current policies do not encourage us to eat our digital fiber. Instead, money, markets, politics, and profits will define the forthcoming pages in this book. We will delve deep into the market failures of rural communication; we will learn how federal policies prioritize large telecommunications companies at the expense of small ISPs and co-ops.

We will see how many of these companies deliver only the legally required minimum speeds rather than treat these minimums as a floor to build on.

As much as rural broadband policy is a story of failure, it is also one of ingenuity and innovation in America’s heartland. It is here where we find some of the successes of rural broadband—like Luverne, Minnesota, seat of Rock County, whose leaders risked a $1 million bond to bring fiber-optic broadband to the county, or the PRTC (originally the People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative), which brought fiber-optic broadband to McKee, Kentucky, one of the poorest communities in the state.

These are the local companies and cooperatives more interested in serving their members and communities with a public service than earning a short-term return on investment. And there are many who are in need of these providers, like farmers and growers, who are all too often left out of the conversation, but for whom broadband to the farm would mean a new era of agriculture.

The story of rural broadband in the United States is equally one of failure and one of promise. “Farm Fresh Broadband” captures both, all the while reminding the reader that as much as technology policy is enacted in Washington, D.C., it is lived throughout the country.

Rural broadband policy, like all public policy, is a living, breathing, and changing creature, which means that, with the right attention and coaxing, we can make it work for the people who need it most.

Also see Broadband Breakfast’s interview with Christopher Ali

Christopher Ali is 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. He is 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.” This piece is excerpted by Ali from his latest work, “Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity,” which is available at the MIT Press.

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.

Expert Opinion

Johnny Kampis: Democrats Needlessly Push Another Round of Net Neutrality Legislation

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

It ain’t broke, but Democrats keep trying to “fix” it.

July 28 saw the introduction of a bill to reimplement Title II regulations on broadband providers, paving the way for a second attempt at “net neutrality” rules for the internet.

Led by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., along with co-sponsors Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., the comically named Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act would classify ISPs as common carriers and give the Federal Communications Commission significant power to regulate internet issues such as pricing, competition, and consumer privacy.

Markey claims that the deregulation of the internet under former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai left broadband consumers unprotected. But as data has shown, and Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s own investigation highlighted, no widespread throttling, blocking or other consumer harm occurred after the Title II rules were repealed.

Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, noted after Markey’s bill was released that nearly all service providers’ terms of service contain legally enforceable commitments to not block or throttle the access of their subscribers to lawful content.

Markey said his legislation, which would codify broadband access as an essential service, will equip the FCC with the tools it needs to increase broadband accessibility.

The country already has the tools it needs to close the digital divide, with billions in taxpayer dollars flowing to every state to boost broadband access. For example, less than $10 billion in federal funding was dedicated to broadband in 2019, but an incredible $127 billion-plus in taxpayer dollars will be dedicated to closing the digital divide in the coming years. That doesn’t even count the nearly $800 billion in COVID-19 relief and stimulus funding that could be used for multiple issues, including broadband growth.

The bill’s proponents say that the FCC can foster a more competitive market with the passage of the legislation. FCC’s data already indicate the market is extremely competitive, with 99 percent of the U.S. population able to choose between at least two broadband providers. That doesn’t even account for wireless carriers and their rapid development of 5G.

The Net Neutrality and Broadband Justice Act may instead harm the ability of broadband infrastructure to grow without funneling even more taxpayer money toward the cause. Studies have shown that private provider investment increased after the regulatory uncertainty of Title II rules were removed. Prior to the reversal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, broadband network investment dropped more than 5.6 percent, the first decline outside of a recession, the FCC reported.

US Telecom reported that capital expenditures by ISPs totalled $79.4 billion in 2020 and grew to $86.1 billion in 2021.

Michael Powell, president and CEO of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, called the issue of net neutrality “an increasingly stale debate” with justifications for it that “seem increasingly limp.”

“In the wake of the once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill, we need to be focused collectively on closing the digital divide and not taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason,” he said. “Building broadband to unserved parts of this country is a massive, complex, and expensive undertaking. Slapping an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks surely will damage the mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected.”

Again, the specter of Title II regulations rears its ugly head for no discernible reason other than the government’s insatiable need for control. The broadband market has proven itself as a market that functions better with a light-touch approach, so we hope that Congress says not to this misguided bill.

Johnny Kampis is director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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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Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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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Expert Opinion

Craig Settles: If You Can’t Give Away Free Internet, Consider Telehealth

Settles suggests tactics for communities to effectively deploy telehealth services while marketing the Affordable Connectivity Program.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Craig Settles, who unites community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth-broadband integration initiatives.

Vice President Kamala Harris personally rallied the state governors – “it’s all hands on deck” to sign up more households to the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). This Friday, the FCC likely will authorize a $100-million grant program to help boost the numbers. The White House went online nationwide to energize community stakeholders and activists.

What’s up? ACP is a free monthly internet program with a $100 subsidy for a computing device. So far, about 12 million households have signed up for ACP. However, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s “Internet For All” website estimates there are more than 51 millions ACP-eligible homes. Thirty-nine million homes can be a significant reach.

“ACP adoption has been difficult because there is no money to help those of us who are managing the process and who have the connections to the community,’ says Deb Socia, president and CEO of The Enterprise Center, a local Chattanooga economic development partner. “I have a full-time person just to help get folks signed up, but I had to raise money to do so.”

Hopefully this Friday the FCC will “green light” what they’re calling “Your Home, Your Internet.” Socia and many others can hire more people who know the communities and neighborhoods well. However, the key to increasing participation in the ACP is not more money! Rather, the key is more money spent more wisely.

The great thing about marketing is…it works!

Before community broadband, I did marketing and PR consulting for industry giants such as Lotus Development, Microsoft, and AT&T and a bunch of high-tech startups. These companies knew that a successful marketing tactic was (and still is) to let prospects demo products in a real-world environment. Whether a game or a business technology, demo it.

ACP’s markets are heavily low-income homes. Communities text, back-pack flyers, and bus stop-ads must compete for attention with 6,000 – 10,000 marketing messages per person per day, kids crying, adults whining, racing off to the third job, etc. Parents worrying about where the family’s next meal is coming from, kids worrying about getting shot. What’s more, sizeable portions of the left-leaning residents fear government or incumbent net intrusion, surveillance, or bait-and-switch scams, conservatives seem to distrust anything Democrat-sponsored.

A winning demo? Telehealth. Because everybody gets sick sometimes – low-income folks, a hell of a lot more than everybody else. Often, they’re also responsible for others who are sick. So let “Telehealth and convenient healthcare delivery” be the marketing message that drives ACP.

The Enterprise Center is planning a pilot project involving 1000 free telehealth appointment targeted to one of Chattanooga’s lowest income neighborhoods. They have high incidences of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. The pilot includes training, a new Chromebook, and home internet access that residents’ their needs.

Six tactics for communities to deploy telehealth and market the ACP

Here are six tactics that communities can use to deploy telehealth while putting some order, shape, and priority to ACP adoption. Develop statewide media campaigns that build marketing awareness and excitement for community needs assessments for NITA’s BEAD and DEA grant programs.

1. Reinventing the doctor office visit for various healthcare practices, including doctor consults, medical observation, screening, and data gathering and exchange. For example, recruit barbershops, hair salons, churches, and laundromats in African-American neighborhoods where hypertension screening services are delivered, and customers, parishioners, patrons and others then can sign up for ACP and telehealth.

2. Use telehealth to deliver chronic healthcare and home care so the constant appointments and treatments can be made less intrusively at home, or possibly at work. Hospitals, doctor practices, and clinics can prescribe telehealth solutions and give patients material for signing up for ACP and computing devices from an ISP. Some hospitals are giving they are chronic illness patients computing devices.

3. Enhance emergency response to save more lives. Perhaps some of the facilities can treat non-serious patients (those who treat the ER as their primary care physician), and then give them ACP and telehealth paperwork so an ISP can sign up patients.

4. Expand efficiency of mental healthcare delivery. Now might be a good opportunity to pilot program that gives police officers several emergency URLs so they can get mental health professionals on the line to deescalate situations, and direct people with mental health crisis into the ACP when possible. It may not produce huge numbers of ACP sign ups, but it’s great publicity for the ACP and telehealth.

5. Improve senior care and facilitating aging in place. Enabling several senior citizens centers and libraries to deliver a series of appropriate screenings for seniors, followed by demonstrations of telehealth, digital literacy, and ACP sign-ups could be awesome.

6. Reimagining what hospital care can be. Various cities may want to consider equipping two or three public housing units so they can become mobile telehealth clinics.

Next time I will address setting up a campaign to recruit, coordinate, and motivate unofficial community leaders in the implementation of these various tactics. These unofficial leaders carry significant clout in their respective communities – barbershops, hairdressers, local grocery store owners, pastors, libraries etc.

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses, planning, and grant assessments with community stakeholders who want broadband networks and telehealth to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. 

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. This Expert Opinion was lightly edited to conform with Broadband Breakfast style. 

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