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Pandemic Possible Inflection Point in States’ Move Away from Restrictions on Community Networks

The number of states restricting municipal broadband networks has dropped during the pandemic.

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Photo of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee from June 2019 by Gage Skidmore used with permission

In years past, states have implemented preemptive laws that make it more difficult or impossible for communities to build their own Internet networks.

These state barriers were often enacted at the behest of large telecom monopolies to limit competition, and include everything from outright bans on municipal broadband networks to oppressive restrictions and requirements which create legal uncertainty for communities attempting to offer telecommunications and Internet services, including via partnerships.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, there were 19 states maintaining significant restrictions on municipal networks. Today, the number of states upholding these barriers has been reduced to 17. The pandemic served as a turning point in the fight for local authority, and in the past year, Arkansas and Washington adopted legislation significantly rolling back legislative barriers on publicly owned broadband networks.

In February of 2021, both chambers of the Republican-dominated Arkansas State Legislature voted unanimously to send Senate Bill 74 to State Governor Asa Hutchinson, who signed the bill into law. The legislation grants government entities the authority to provide broadband services and expands the financing options available to municipalities to fund municipal broadband projects.

In May of 2021, Washington State Governor and Democrat Jay Inslee signed two bills expanding municipal authority to provide retail internet services to end-users, House Bill 1336 and Senate Bill 5383. Both bills reduce barriers to municipal networks, but House Bill 1336, which completely removes all previously-held restrictions on public broadband in the state of Washington, is expected to take legal precedence.

The recent progress made by Arkansas and Washington is extremely timely as more federal, state, and local funding is available to improve broadband infrastructure than ever before. Momentum for municipal broadband is mounting, but there is still a long road to travel to overturn the legal barriers which remain in 17 states.

Advancing, stalling and nearly retreating

Every year, bills aiming to expand the authority of local governments and municipal electric cooperatives to construct broadband networks are introduced in state legislatures. And every year, these bills stall, are withdrawn, and die as a result of the immense lobbying power of the private monopolies. In 2021, state legislators in IdahoMontanaMissouriTennesseeNebraska, and North Carolina, all introduced legislation to lessen state-held barriers against municipal broadband. Many of these bills died in committee after action on the legislation was indefinitely postponed.

To give an example, legislation (H.B. 422) introduced early on in Montana’s 2021 Legislative Session – which would have allowed the state’s local governments to own and operate community broadband networks – underwent a dramatic twist of fate when dozens of legislators who previously supported the proposal suddenly turned against it, causing the bill to die in a final House vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Kelly Kortumtold the Daily Montanan that he attributes its failure to 11th-hour lobbying efforts of incumbent telecommunications companies in Montana, which he believes were caught off guard by the vast support the bill initially received.  “I expected it to fail on the House floor. It didn’t, and then the lobbying really began,” Kortum said.

Next door, in Idaho, it has been a cable monopoly and local telephone companies that have pushed hard against municipal open access approaches that would create robust competition. In largely rural states, some local telephone companies are deeply afraid of competing in an actual marketplace.

Many states preserved previously-established barriers throughout 2021, but one state, Ohio, nearly became the first state in a decade to erect new barriers to the establishment and expansion of municipal broadband networks.

In June, the Ohio Senate included an amendment that effectively banned the creation of municipal broadband networks in its two-year, $75-billion budget bill. Thankfully, after local officials, community broadband advocates, and angry residents and businesses from across the state spoke out against it, the anonymously-added amendment was removed from the budget. The governor and lieutenant governor, both Republicans, spoke out against these limits on municipal broadband.

While some state legislators are working tirelessly to reduce barriers to municipal broadband, the largest ISPs are able to use their outsized influence and cash reserves to block legislation that would undermine their control over the broadband marketplace. “In the 116th Congress alone, these corporations spent an astounding $234 million on lobbying and federal elections,” reports Common Cause and the Communications Workers of America, in a recent study, Broadband Gatekeepers: How ISP Lobbying and Political Influence Shapes the Digital Divide.

A partisan issue on the federal level

The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan centered on bolstering nonprofit, municipal, and cooperative models to develop high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide. Unfortunately, in the sausage-making, the focus on community broadband networks was dropped and outspoken federal support for municipal networks largely quieted as the monopoly lobbyists descended on Congress and the White House.

This is representative of a disconnect that exists between congressional Republicans and Republican officials on the local and state level. While expanding local internet choice is an overwhelmingly bipartisan issue at the local level, it is a highly partisan issue in Congress.

For example, in the same month that the Republican-dominated Arkansas State Legislature removed restrictions on municipal broadband, Congressional Republicans introduced a bill package attempting to ban communities from constructing their own networks and engaging in public-private partnerships nationwide.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have pushed to preempt states from enacting or enforcing laws that restrict municipalities from building and operating broadband networks. In March, congressional Democrats introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would prohibit banning or limiting the ability of any state, regional, or local governments to build broadband networks and provide Internet services. However, the Democrats were ultimately not united in pushing that language into the infrastructure bill.

A web of legal barriers

Common approaches to preempting municipal broadband networks range from straightforward bans to confusing financial restrictions and complicated legal requirements. While some states have established one main barrier to community broadband, many more have adopted a web of regulations that kill any possibility of municipal connectivity, if only because of the legal uncertainty created by complex and vague laws.

Out of the 17 states with restrictions on municipal networks, a few explicitly ban local governments from providing communications services to their citizens. In Nevada, only municipalities with less than 25,000 people and counties with less than 55,000 people can offer telecommunications services. Tennessee bars municipalities without electric utilities from providing Internet access in most situations. Local governments in Missouri and Texas are limited to offering Internet access and no other telecommunications services. Montana and Pennsylvania state laws permit municipal networks, but only in unserved communities, with vague definitions of what that means.

In states that don’t expressly forbid municipal networks, state legislatures can still establish legal roadblocks that deter investment in community broadband networks. One of the strongest examples of this is North Carolina, where an array of burdensome restrictions and requirements “collectively have the practical effect of impairing public communications initiatives,” according to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice [pdf].

Other states, including Virginia, Florida, and South Carolina, require that municipal networks impute private sector costs, pay additional taxes, set excessively high prices, and/or refrain from subsidizing affordable service, in the name of protecting private “competition.” In other states, legislators have established stringent procedural requirements, including a prescribed bidding process in Michigan and community referenda in Alabama and Minnesota.

To learn more

To learn more about the legislative bans states maintain, check out this resource [pdf], maintained by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), which summarizes state barriers to public broadband as of July 2021.

CLIC’s list is focused on a more legalistic look at state barriers and still includes Washington and Arkansas, while they see how the law settles. The Institute for Local Self Reliance focuses on the 17 states where state limits significantly restrain municipal broadband networks and partnerships, while agreeing with CLIC that additional states have barriers that can also discourage investment.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on September 15, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

5G

David Flower: 5G and Hyper-Personalization: Too Much of a Good Thing?

5G, IoT and edge computing are giving companies the opportunity to make hyper-personalization even more ‘hyper’.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is David Flower, CEO of Volt Active Data

It’s very easy for personalization to backfire and subtract value instead of add it.

Consider the troubling fact that we may be arriving at a moment in hyper-personalization’s journey where the most hyper-personalized offer is no offer at all. Nobody likes to be constantly bombarded by content, personalized or not.

And that’s the paradox of hyper-personalization: if everyone’s doing it, then, in a sense, nobody is.

5G and related technologies such as IoT and edge computing are giving companies the opportunity to make hyper-personalization even more “hyper” via broader bandwidths and the faster processing of higher volumes of data.

This means we’re at a very interesting inflection point: where do we stop? If the promise of 5G is more data, better data, and faster data, and the result is knowing our customers even better to bug them even more, albeit in a “personal” way, when, where, and why do we say, “hold on—maybe this is going too far.”?

How do you do hyper-personalization well in a world where everyone else is doing it and where customers are becoming increasingly jaded about it and worried about how companies are using their data?

Let’s first look at what’s going wrong.

Hyper-personalization and bad data

Hyper-personalization is very easy to mess up, and when you do mess it up it has the exact opposite of its intended effect: it drives customers away instead of keeping them there.

Consider an online ad for a product that pops up for you on a website a couple days after you already bought the thing being advertised for. This is what I call “noise”. It’s simply a nuisance, and the company placing that ad—or rather, the data platform they’re using to generate the algorithms for the ads—should already know that the person has already bought this item and hence present not a “repeat offer” but an upsell or cross-sell offer.

This sounds rudimentary in the year 2022 but it’s still all too common, and you’re probably nodding your head right now because you’ve experienced this issue.

Noise usually comes from what’s known as bad data, or dirty data. Whatever you want to call it—it pretty much ruins the customer experience.

Hyper-personalization and slow data

The second major issue is slow data, which is any data being used way too slowly to be valuable, which usually includes data that has to the trip to the data warehouse before it can be incorporated into any decisions.

Slow data is one of the main reasons edge computing was invented: to be able to process data as closely to where it’s ingested as possible in order to use it before it loses any value.

Slow data produces not-so-fun customer experiences such as walking half a mile to your departure gate at the airport, only to find that the gate has been changed, and then, after you’ve walked the half mile back to where you came from, getting a text message on your phone from the airline saying your gate has been changed.

Again, whatever you want to call it—latency, slow data, annoying—the end result is a bad customer experience.

How to fix the hyper-personalization paradox

I have no doubt that the people who invented hyper-personalization had great intentions: make things as personal as possible so that your customers pay attention, stay happy, and stay loyal.

And for a lot of companies, for a long time, it worked. Then came the data deluge. And the regulations. And the jaded customers. We’re now at a stage where we need to rethink how we do personalization because the old ways are no longer effective.

It’s easy—and correct—to blame legacy technology for all of this. But the solution goes deeper than just ripping and replacing. Companies need to think holistically about all sides of their tech stacks to figure out the simplest way to get as much data as possible from A to B.

The faster you can process your data the better. But it’s not all just about speed. You also need to be able to provide quick contextual intelligence to your data so that every packet is informed by all of the packets that came before it. In this sense, your tech stack should be a little like a great storyteller: someone who knows what the customer needs and is feeling at any given moment, because it knows what’s happened up to this point and how it will affect customer decisions moving forward.

Let’s start thinking of our customer experiences as stories and our tech stacks as the storytellers—or maybe, story generators. Maybe then our personalization efforts will become truly ‘hyper-personal’— i.e., relevant, in-the-moment experiences that are a source of delight instead of annoyance.

David Flower brings more than 28 years of experience within the IT industry to the role of CEO of Volt Active Data. Flower has a track record of building significant shareholder value across multiple software sectors on a global scale through the development and execution of focused strategic plans, organizational development and product leadership. 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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Funding

FCC Denies Funding for Two of the Biggest Winners of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Money

‘We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps,’ LTD said.

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Photo of Corey Hauer from the StarTribune provided by LTD

WASHINGTON, August 10, 2022 – LTD Broadband’s prolonged effort to get certification status in several states and Starlink’s still nascent and pricey satellite broadband project have proven enough for the Federal Communications Commission to deny them funding from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the agency announced Wednesday.

The reverse auction process for the $9.2-billion fund culminated in December 2020 to awards of $1.3 billion for LTD Broadband – the largest winner in the auction – and $885 million for SpaceX’s Starlink project. But since the winners were announced, a new-look commission emerged under the leadership of Jessica Rosenworcel to weed out projects that did not align with the goals of the program – including bids in areas with adequate coverage or areas that don’t need the services pitched.

In a decision on Wednesday, the commission said that the limited number of dollars available cannot go to support Starlink’s still developing technology. “Starlink’s technology has real promise,” Rosenworcel said in a press release.  “But the question before us was whether to publicly subsidize its still developing technology for consumer broadband—which requires that users purchase a $600 dish—with nearly $900 million in universal service funds until 2032.”

For LTD, the commission ruled that it “failed to timely receive eligible telecommunications carrier status in seven states,” adding the “relatively small fixed wireless provider…was not reasonably capable of deploying a network of the scope, scale, and size required by LTD’s extensive winning bids.

“We must put scarce universal service dollars to their best possible use as we move into a digital future that demands ever more powerful and faster networks,” Rosenworcel said. “We cannot afford to subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements.”

In a statement to Broadband Breakfast, LTD CEO Corey Hauer said, “We are extremely disappointed in the FCC staff decision.  I don’t believe the FCC fully appreciated the benefits LTD Broadband would bring to hundreds of thousands of rural Americans. We are continuing to review the letter and are evaluating our next steps.”

In the same release on Wednesday, the FCC announced it has authorized $21 million in funding to three companies to deploy gigabit service to nearly 15,000 locations in Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. The commission has so far authorized more than $5 billion to bring fiber gigabit to over three million locations in 47 states, it said.

The FCC had provided winning bidders an opportunity last year to review the areas in which they won bids and to relinquish those areas they find are not in need of services. The aftermath included several defaults in areas, some of which were attributed to updated broadband maps from the commission. The commission said that it may waive penalties for the defaults, but last month proposed fines of $4.3 million against 73 RDOF applicants for violations related to those defaults.

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FCC

FCC Encouraged to Limit Data Collection on Affordable Connectivity Program, Others Want More

One trade group warns about providers leaving the program if data collection too onerous.

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Photo of Jonathan Spalter, CEO of US Telecom, from ISE

WASHINGTON, August 9, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is being warned not to overly burden internet service providers with its Congress-mandated order to collect pricing and subscription rates data from participants in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is required by November 15 to adopt rules to collect annual data relating to the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering by a provider participating in the broadband subsidy program, which offers up to $30 per month for low-income households (up to $75 per month on tribal lands) and a one-time $100 off a device.

But a number of submissions are warning the FCC against rules that require any additional data collection efforts beyond the scope of the law so as not to unduly burden providers and, at least one other trade group said, push providers away from participating in the program.

Telecommunications company Lumen, for example, recommended the commission limit the scope of the annual reporting to monthly pricing and to exempt “excessively granular” requirements, such as promotional rates, grandfathered plans, or subscriber-level data, which the commission is proposing to collect.

Communications companies and industry groups want to limit data collection

T-Mobile said in its submission that Congress told the FCC to rely on the broadband consumer labels, which are due this November, for pricing. The commission asked for comment on the interpretation of the IIJA requiring a reliance on price information displayed on the consumer labels.

For subscription information, T-Mobile urges the commission to look at data collection from the Universal Service Administrative Company – which administers high-cost broadband programs for the Universal Service Fund – to avoid “adopting a largely redundant collection that would impose additional burdens” on all parties.

“The IIJA leaves the Commission no discretion to collect any additional price information, and the statute does not require collection of data on other service plan and network characteristics,” such as speed and latency and data allowances, the submission said.

“Collection of this additional data would create additional burdens and is unnecessary,” the submission added.

Similar limitations were also proposed by telecom Starry Inc., which pushed for privacy protection by collecting data at a higher level (such as the state) and working with information collected in other transparency efforts, such as the consumer labels.

Industry association IMCOMPAS, which represents internet and competitive communications networks, told the FCC in a submission that data collection should be limited to the state level to protect consumer privacy and proprietary information of the providers; streamline other data collection, including the consumer labels; and provide instruction on how to providers to better understand the data collection rules.

Concurring with this position is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which said data collection must be simple and should not go to a level of detail that goes beyond what the IIJA calls for. The trade group, which represents small providers, said such data collection beyond that required in the law could burden companies with small teams.

The included data, WISPA said, should be an annual aggregate of items including broadband plans subscribed to by ACP customers, number of subscribers for each plan, and pricing minus promotional rates, taxes, discounts or pricing breakdowns for bundled services. Any additional onerous collection could see providers leave the program, it added.

Industry groups US Telecom and NCTA – Internet and Television Association similarly urged a simple annual report that captured undiscounted monthly pricing of each broadband service offering and the number of customers subscribed. The Competitive Carriers Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also recommended a limited data collection approach.

ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized independent operators, said the FCC should direct providers to report numbers of ACP households “that are applying their benefit to each speed tier along with the standard price of each tier on a state-by-state basis” – rather than the FCC-proposed continuous collection of subscriber-level data via the National Lifeline Accountability Database, it said, adding the commission should be mindful of the time it takes for completion, as smaller providers have limited resources.

Others pushing for subscriber-level, more data

The cities of New York and Seattle, in their submissions, said the FCC should collect subscriber-level information to assess different service adoption rates on different plans over time – publishing categories based on price, plan and performance by the zip code. It added it is not seeking information about the households itself, and said this would not be a privacy concern as others have pointed out.

Similarly, the Connecticut Office of State Broadband said the commission should go beyond the IIJA requirements by mandating information including performance of the plans and whether a device is offered.

For the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, data collection on the ACP should include data beyond what’s included in the consumer labels, and should include other items such as installation, equipment, service, miscellaneous, data and usage fees, and state and local taxes.

In a joint submission, non-profit media group Common Sense and internet advocacy group Public Knowledge recommended data collection that is necessary to monitor the ACP, which include promotional rates, taxes, overage costs and device and equipment costs. This way, they say, the FCC can get a better idea of how much is going toward internet access after applying the subsidy. They are also asking for the commission to collect information on whether the subsidy is being used to upgrade or discount current service, and how customers are becoming aware of the program.

The commission is currently trying to get more Americans on the program, which has over 13 million households signed up. That number, the commission said last week, should be much higher. As such, it ordered the development of an outreach program to market the subsidy.

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