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Broadband's Impact

Debra Berlyn: In the World Series of Broadband, Everyone Needs to Step Up to the Plate

Bringing broadband to those who need it the most requires more than just government funding for network expansion.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, Executive Director of Project GOAL

Getting everyone connected to broadband is feeling like the World Series – and we are in the seventh inning stretch. For our most vulnerable consumers with the greatest needs, we need to hit a home run.

Getting everyone connected is about more than network buildout and increased federal subsidy dollars. Getting everyone online also requires expanding provider low cost offers and addressing the human side of this challenge through digital literacy programs and promoting the value and relevancy of broadband.

Advocacy organizations and industry providers have collaborated to develop a concept around how to best assist those in need with a combination of federal funds and industry discount programs. Access to federal subsidy dollars has increased since the pandemic began, including the Emergency Broadband Benefits program, which has provided a $50 subsidy for broadband services – and a set of other benefits – and, to date, over 6.6 million qualified low income households have enrolled in the EBB program.

This temporary program was designed with a near term end, when either the total funding is depleted, or the pandemic is determined to be over. The EBB has been a substantial increase over the Lifeline program, which offers a monthly benefit of $9.25 to help subsidize wireline or wireless voice service and broadband service. The Lifeline benefit is clearly a drop in the bucket, and the EBB has demonstrated a significant improvement in providing consumers assistance for broadband costs.

The 2021 infrastructure bill, that has been backed up in the House for quite some time, includes the Affordable Connectivity Fund. This fund will replace the EBB and provide a $30 discount for broadband service for qualifying households.

Advocates of the underserved are relieved to know there will be a continuation of support at a higher dollar level, with broader eligibility requirements that could enable more to enroll.  There’s also a requirement to run public awareness campaigns to help get the word out about the discount to those in need.

With this new subsidy program in place, several ISPs and wireless companies have established discount broadband offers for low income customers, with programs such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials, AT&T’s Access Program, Charter’s Spectrum Internet Assist and T-Mobile’s Project 10Million. These programs continue to offer great discounts for high speed broadband services. It would be great to have more industry partners step up to the plate and provide consumers more choice when selecting a broadband service.

The programs clearly make a difference. A recent study from a team of seasoned researchers reveals that increases in broadband adoption in underserved areas are clearly linked to federal and industry discount programs.

The infrastructure bill also addresses the human side of the challenges with the inclusion of funds for digital literacy training programs, a particularly important resource for older adults confronting technology for the first time.

While spending more time at home during the past year and a half, broadband has demonstrated it is a lifeline for education for kids, and a connection to better health for older adults. It’s our entertainment and information source, and it provides the all-important link to family and friends.

We recognize that broadband is essential, and everyone needs to get connected. First, we need to get the infrastructure bill implemented and institute the Affordable Connectivity Fund. Second, let’s get more companies in the game to offer high-speed broadband discount programs to low income households. Third, we need to continue support for programs that address adoption challenges such as digital literacy and that demonstrate the value of broadband for unconnected consumers, to educate them on the many benefits of getting online.

As the song goes, “Let me root … for the home team. If they don’t win it’s a shame.” Consumers need to win this one; it will just take some great players working together to get everyone connected to broadband.

Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), and president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace. 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 reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

Debra Berlyn serves as the Executive Director of The Project to Get Older Adults onLine (GOAL), and she is also the President of Consumer Policy Solutions. Ms. Berlyn is a seasoned veteran of telecommunications and consumer policy issues and an advocate for consumers of technology services. She represented AARP on the digital television transition and has worked closely with national aging organizations on several Internet issues, including online safety and privacy concerns.

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Broadband's Impact

House Bill to Make Broadband Grants Non-Taxable Introduced

Sen. Mark Warner said last month he is working to pass a companion bill by year’s end.

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Photo of Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Penn.

WASHINGTON, December 7, 2022 – Reps. Mike Kelly, R-Penn., and Jimmy Panetta, D-Ca., on Wednesday introduced the Broadband Grant Tax Treatment Act, the companion of a Senate bill of the same name, which would make non-taxable broadband funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

The bill’s supporters say it will increase the impact of Washington’s broadband-funding initiatives, the largest of which is the IIJA’s $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program. The IIJA allocated a total of $65 billion toward broadband-related projects.

Kelly said the proposal “ensures federal grant dollars, especially those made available to local governments through pandemic relief funding, will give constituents the best return on their investment.”

“This legislation allows for existing grant funding to be spent as effectively as possible,” Kelly added.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., sponsored Senate’s version of the bill in September and said last month he is working to push it through by year’s end.

“Representative Panetta’s and Kelly’s bill to eliminate the counter-productive tax on broadband grants is right on the money,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of trade group US Telecom. “Closing the digital divide in America – especially in our hardest-to-reach rural communities – will require every cent of the $65 billion Congress has dedicated for that critical purpose.”

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband is Affordable for Middle Class, NCTA Claims

According to analysis, the middle class spends on average $69 per month on internet service.

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Photo of Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at NCTA

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Even as policymakers push initiatives to make broadband less expensive, primarily for low-income Americans, broadband is already generally affordable for the middle class, argued Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at industry group NCTA, the internet and television association. 

Availability of broadband is not enough, many politicians and experts argue, if other barriers – e.g., price – prevent widespread adoption. Much focus has been directed toward boosting adoption among low-income Americans through subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program, but legally, middle-class adoption must also be considered. In its notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration required each state to submit a “middle-class affordability plan.”

During a webinar held earlier this month, Cimerman, who works for an organization that represents cable operators, defined the middle class as those who earn $45,300–$76,200, basing these boundaries on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2020. And based on the text of an Federal Communications Commission action from 2016, he set the threshold of affordability for broadband service at two percent of monthly household income.

According to his analysis, the middle class, thus defined, spends on average $69 per month on internet service. $69 is about 1.8 percent of monthly income for those at the bottom of Cimerman’s middle class and about 1.1 percent of monthly income for those at the top. Both figures fall within the 2-percent standard, and Cimerman stated that lower earners tended to spend slightly less on internet than the $69-per-month average.

Citing US Telecom’s analysis of the FCC’s Urban Rate Survey, Cimerman presented data that show internet prices dropped substantially from 2015 to 2021 – decreasing about 23 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent for “entry-level,” “most popular” and “highest-speed” residential plans, respectively. And despite recent price hikes on products such as gas, food, and vehicles, Cimerman said, broadband prices had shrunk 0.1 percent year-over-year as of September 2022.

Widespread adoption is important from a financial as well as an equity perspective, experts say. Speaking at the AnchorNets 2022 conference, Matt Kalmus, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, argued that providers rely on high subscription rates to generate badly needed network revenues.

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Broadband's Impact

Federal Communications Commission Mandates Broadband ‘Nutrition’ Labels

The FCC also mandated that internet service provider labels be machine-readable.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday afternoon ordered internet providers to display broadband “nutrition” labels at points of sale that include internet plans’ performance metrics, monthly rates, and other information that may inform consumers’ purchasing decisions.

The agency released the requirement less than 24 hours before it released the first draft of its updated broadband map.

The FCC mandated that labels be machine-readable, which is designed to facilitate third-party data-gathering and analysis. The commission also requires that the labels to be made available in customers’ online portals with the provide the and “accessible” to non-English speakers.

In addition to the broadband speeds promised by the providers, the new labels must also display typical latency, time-of-purchase fees, discount information, data limits, and provider-contact information.

“Broadband is an essential service, for everyone, everywhere. Because of this, consumers need to know what they are paying for, and how it compares with other service offerings,”  FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. 

“For over 25 years, consumers have enjoyed the convenience of nutrition labels on food products.  We’re now requiring internet service providers to display broadband labels for both wireless and wired services.  Consumers deserve to get accurate information about price, speed, data allowances, and other terms of service up front.”

Industry players robustly debated the proper parameters for broadband labels in a flurry of filings with the FCC. Free Press, an advocacy group, argued for machine-readable labels and accommodations for non-English speakers, measures which were largely opposed by trade groups. Free Press also advocated a requirement that labels to be included on monthly internet bills, without which the FCC “risks merely replicating the status quo wherein consumers must navigate fine print, poorly designed websites, and byzantine hyperlinks,” group wrote.

“The failure to require the label’s display on a customer’s monthly bill is a disappointing concession to monopolist ISPs like AT&T and Comcast and a big loss for consumers,” Joshua Stager, policy director of Free Press, said Friday.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association clashed with Free Press in its FCC filing and supported the point-of-sale requirement.

“WISPA welcomes today’s release of the FCC’s new broadband label,” said Vice President of Policy Louis Peraertz. “It will help consumers better understand their internet access purchases, enabling them to quickly see ‘under the hood,’ and allow for an effective apples-to-apples comparison tool when shopping for services in the marketplace.”

Image of the FCC’s sample broadband nutrition label

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