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At Oversight Hearing, GOP Senators Press NTIA Chief on Rate Regulation, Net Neutrality

Senators on Thursday said NTIA rules set regulated rates and impose net neutrality requirements.

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Photo of Senator John Thune

WASHINGTON, June 10, 2022 – Senators at Thursday’s Oversight Committee of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration expressed concern that the agency’s rules under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act do not meet Congress’s bipartisan wishes regarding regulated rates, net neutrality and wastefulness.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said that some provisions in the notice of funding opportunity issued last month “disregard Congress’s intent with heavily regulated rates,” and said that the rules were in opposition to statutory prohibitions on rate regulation.

Alan Davidson, NTIA administrator and sole witness at the hearing, responded that affordability is a key goal of the rules. “We have looked at different ways to make sure that we are promoting affordability while still giving states the flexibility to approach it in the ways that are appropriate for their state.”

The provisions regarding providing a low-cost broadband option in the regulations  in place to assure affordability for under or unserved communities, said Davidson.

Furthermore, he said, they do not state specific acceptable rates.

Thune further raised concerns that the NOFO prohibits subgrantees to impose “unjust or unreasonable network management practices.” He said that was a law regarding net neutrality practices, and he said that Congress had specifically excluded that from the IIJA.

Davidson replied that the provision is not a net neutrality requirement. Net neutrality is a “much broader concept” than is covered by the provision, he said.

“There are other agencies and organizations, parts of government, that are the right place to approach the net neutrality issue,” said Davidson. “This is not our role.”

Fact-checked maps are essential

The hearing further highlighted the importance of updated Federal Communications Commission maps to achieving IIJA’s goal of reaching all underserved areas while avoiding wasteful overbuilding.

Sens. Thune and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., both urged the NTIA to use completed and challenged-checked FCC maps for grant allocation – rather than preliminary versions of the maps.

“Past NTIA efforts have wasted precious tax dollars overbuilding in existing networks while not reaching the goal of reaching broadband to unserved communities,” said Wicker. “We do not want to make the same mistakes again.”

Funding

Decades-Old Legislation Can Play Supplement to Federal Broadband Infrastructure Money

The Community Reinvestment Act was expanded to include broadband investments in 2016.

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Photo of Jordana Barton-Garcia (far right)

CLEVELAND, June 27, 2022 – A decades-old piece of legislation can play an important and supplemental role to federal grants for broadband infrastructure, said panelists at the Pew Charitable Trust Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977 to address redlining – the practice of denying financial services to individuals or groups based on where they are located, often along racial or soci-economic lines. The law encourages banks to make community development loans and investments in low- and moderate-income communities, rural, and tribal communities.

The legislation expanded to include investments in broadband infrastructure in 2016, after broadband was deemed an essential community service, said Jordana Barton-Garcia, principal of the social enterprise at Barton-Garcia Advisors. That means that it could play a key role in filling some of the broadband gaps, she said, as the federal government moves to distribute billions to the states under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In response to the pandemic, banks can now qualify to receive CRA credit for broadband deployment activities, said Barton-Garcia. Activities include loans, investments, and services that support digital inclusion or affordability programs.

Banks receive CRA credit for investing in community development projects and are reviewed on their CRA performance every three years. Their scores are open to the general public. If the bank receives a negative rating, it may prevent the bank from opening new branches and the bank will be expected to correct the rating.

Currently, the Federal Reserve is seeking comments on a joint agency proposal to strengthen and modernize CRA regulations.

A report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in 2016 laid the groundwork for broadband to be included under the CRA. “Under the CRA, infrastructure investment includes facilitating the construction, expansion, improvement, maintenance or operation of essential infrastructure…  broadband is now a basic infrastructure needed in all communities.”

The CRA also includes workforce development investments, digital literacy projects, and technical assistance for small businesses.

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Funding

Researching the Impact of Digital Equity Funding Starts With Community Collaboration

Understanding the funding impact will ‘begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.’

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CLEVELAND, June 23, 2022 – Formulating research questions and making data readily accessible will contribute to the impact of federal and state digital equity funding, said experts speaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

It is essential to “formulate the research questions with communities” so that researchers will understand what is of interest and importance to the residents and local leaders, said Nicole Marwell from the University of Chicago,

Marwell said it is “critical” for researchers to consider how to “ask questions that bring answers that are more relevant for the community partners and then for [researchers] to try and figure out a way to make that interesting for a research audience.”

“We can demystify research,” said Fallon Wilson of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, speaking on how researchers can effectively work with community members. When data looks friendly to local leaders, they can go directly to their state broadband offices and advocate for their specific needs in specific areas.

“The best advocates are the people who advocate for themselves,” said Wilson.

Our role as researchers can play is to make data digestible for the non-academic, said Hernan Galperin of the University of Southern California.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration requires states to work with community leaders and partners for the funds distributed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Wilson praised this mandate, saying that understanding the funding impact will “begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.”

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Funding

BEAD Program Initiative Should Utilize Analysis of Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment

Analyzing ACP enrollment can help the BEAD program solve the ‘persisting gap between deployment and subscription.’

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WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should utilize adoption data from the Affordable Connectivity Program to maximize the effectiveness of its $42.5-billion infrastructure program, according to a broadband adoption expert.

“If the federal government’s investments in broadband connectivity are to be effective, different programmatic pieces must work together,” said John Horrigan, Benton Senior Fellow and expert on technology adoption and digital inclusion, in a blog post Thursday.

Analyzing the enrollment data of the Federal Communications Commission’s ACP can help the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program — a $42.5 billion fund for infrastructure to be handed to the states — solve the “persisting gap between deployment and subscription” in three ways, said Horrigan.

First, examining ACP enrollment in zip codes can help target which areas within cities are unaware of ACP. Second, understanding where ACP enrollment is over-performing can “launch productive inquiry into models that may be effective – and replicable.” Third, ACP enrollment findings can help structure community outreach initiatives for digital inclusion.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has emphasized that a key goal of BEAD investments in digital equity,” said Horrigan. “State planners will need all the tools they can find to work toward that goal – and analysis of ACP performance is one such tool.”

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