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Observers Wrangle with Whether Bipartisanship on Broadband Infrastructure Will Last

Concern that pandemic only temporarily heightened broadband awareness in Washington.

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Ross Lieberman of ACA Connects.

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – Ross Lieberman, senior vice president of government affairs for ACA Connects, said Wednesday on The Independent Show he is concerned that the bipartisan agreement on the importance of connectivity will fade and that now is the opportune time to take advantage of this moment in time.

The pandemic has brought about a greater unity and understanding by both parties that there is a need for government leadership in internet infrastructure, Lieberman said, adding he is worried that this wave of pandemic-fueled-bipartisanship won’t last, and old divisions between parties will surface with greater strength than ever.

Lieberman said the partisan divide as it affects telecommunications has lessened due to the greater attention on Big Tech, with several bills in Congress and the head of the Federal Trade Commission focused on taking that industry to task; the few hearings around telecom in Congress; the Federal Communications Commission still without a fifth commissioner; and the bipartisan focus on infrastructure generally.

This year’s dip in partisan attention to broadband, he said, is part of a broader trend of increasing partisanship, and Lieberman said he believes that next year when the FCC is fully staffed – with the remaining seat breaking the party divide in the Democrats’ favor — partisan attention will return to telecommunications with an increased fervor.

Broadband’s moment as infrastructure a ‘shift’

The great shift, according to Rhod Shaw, chairman of consulting firm Alpine Group, is that broadband is now viewed as infrastructure.

Boring conversations about cable two years ago have turned into essential questions over infrastructure today, he said. “Broadband is now catnip for both Democrats and Republicans,” said Shaw, noting that digital inequity affects both urban and rural constituencies. And because of the broadly popular notion of funding broadband infrastructure, Shaw said he doesn’t believe that congressional funding will end at this infrastructure bill.

The bill, which passed the Senate in August and is still awaiting a vote in the House, includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure, which observers have called a “once-in-a-generation” amount of money for that cause.

Shaw said he believes the government will become return patrons, offering billions regularly to this vital sector, which will have the additional effect of drawing in additional oversight. He observed that partisanship within parties has become a defining characteristic of this legislature and conversation, said Shaw.

Reporter Riley Steward is a writer from Denton, Texas, who graduated from The University of Texas' Business Honors Program. He has written for various publications including The Recording Academy Grammy.com. He currently lives and writes in New York City.

FCC

FCC Announces New RDOF Accountability and Transparency Measures, Additional Funding

Results of verifications, audits and speed and latency testing for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be made public.

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Photo of reels of cabling in Hinsdale, Mont., in August 2016 by Tony Webster used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Friday said that it will implement new accountability and transparency measures, and make public the results of verifications, audits and speed and latency testing for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

The measures are part of a new known as the Rural Broadband Accountability Fund that monitors several universal service high-cost programs.

Additionally announced in a press release, the Rural Broadband Accountability Fund will speed up the FCC’s audit and verification processes.

Audits and verifications are projected to double in 2022 as compared to 2021 and include on-site audits, and a particular focus will be placed on auditing and verifying the largest-dollar and highest-risk RDOF recipients.

The agency also announced that it would commit more than $1.2 billion more to RDOF, the largest funding round for the program to date.

The new funding will bring broadband service to more than 1 million locations through deployments in 32 states, with 23 broadband providers assisting the effort.

Going forward, the commission will deny waivers, it said, “for winning bidders that have not made appropriate efforts to secure state approvals or prosecute their applications.”

All winning bidders will undergo “an exhaustive technical, financial, and legal review.”

Finally, the commission says a list of areas will be published which details where providers have defaulted, “making those places available for other broadband funding opportunities.”

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Broadband Data

Federal Communications Commission Approves New Provider Transparency Requirements

Broadband providers must now create “broadband nutrition labels” which list pricing and speed information.

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel from January 2015 by the Internet Education Foundation used with permission

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require that broadband providers create “broadband nutrition labels” that list information on the pricing and speed of internet service they provide.

The labels mimic food nutrition labels in format and aim to increase transparency of providers in their marketing to consumers.

With their approval at the commission’s monthly open meeting Thursday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the new rules are crucial to consumers being able to find the best deals on broadband service for their personal needs.

Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel praised the label format, saying that it allows consumers to “easily compare” information and that it is “black and white, simple to read, and easy to understand.”

The long-simmering idea was enacted by Congress in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by the president on November 15. It directed the FCC to revive the project by one year from the law’s passage.

On Thursday, Joshua Stager, New America’s deputy director for broadband and competition policy at its Open Technology Institute, called the vote “a welcome step forward and a win for consumers.” The think tank began promoting the idea last decade, and it had been endorsed by the Obama administration before being canned by the Trump administration.

Industry group Wireless Internet Service Providers Association said the transparency afforded by the new policy “provides consumers with important tools to make informed choices.”

Additionally in Thursday’s meeting, when the agency tentatively revoked telecom operator China Unicom Americas’ operating authority in the United States, the agency said they had reached out to the Department of Justice for assistance in responding to what they say are potential threats from the China-based company. This inter-agency review is routinely part of determinations involving foreign-owned telecommunications companies.

The agency also updated its definition of “library” to make clear that Tribal libraries are eligible to receive funds under the Universal Service Fund’s E-rate program.

Starks emphasized that the commission’s action represented progress on digital inclusion efforts, but that unfamiliarity of Tribal libraries with the E-rate program remains a problem.

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Fiber

Yellowstone Fiber Launches $65M Fiber Project with UTOPIA in Gallatin County, Montana

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Bozeman’s director of economic development.

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Screenshot of Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham in 2018

BOZEMAN, MONTANA, January 27, 2022 – Non-profit Yellowstone Fiber, in partnership with telecom Utopia Fiber, launched Thursday a $65-million high-speed fiber internet project in Gallatin County, Montana.

The open access model, which allows other telecoms to ride on the infrastructure to encourage competition, will mean “affordable access and service provider choice,” Brit Fontenot, Bozeman’s director of economic development and community relations, said during a Thursday press conference announcing the launch. Bozeman is a city in Gallatin County.

Yellowstone and Utopia, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, partnered back in September on the build, which is expected to bring speeds of 100 Gigabits per second download for businesses and 10 Gbps download for all 22,000 homes, businesses and government buildings in Bozeman, a Thursday press release said, adding the three-year construction project will begin this spring.

This will be the “first true gigabit city in the state of Montana,” said Fontenot.

The choice of Bozeman and Gallatin County was a deliberate one, said Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham. Gallatin County has created “25 percent of all new jobs in Montana in the past decade,” in addition to being responsible for “30 percent of all population growth” of Montana, said Cunningham, adding there are “clean, data-driven companies…coming to Bozeman.”

The project is also expected to go beyond the initial $65 million. Utopia Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said at the press conference that some phases can start sooner as additional grants and funds are made available. The project proponents noted that the funds will come from private, not taxpayer, sources.

The announcement comes just days after the state hired location analytics company Lightbox to build a statewide broadband map. The state is listed on data platform BroadbandNow as the worst state for broadband coverage and access, despite Federal Communications Commission mapping data that report 99 percent of Gallatin County having broadband access, the Thursday press release noted.

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