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Federal Agencies

National Broadband Plan Legislation Introduced in Senate

The strategy would identify gaps and limitations that would hinder coordination across federal broadband programs.

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Photo of Roger Wicker, Senator, R-Miss.

WASHINGTON, August 4, 2022 – Senators and representatives on both sides of aisle introduced legislation Thursday that would require the president to develop a national strategy and a plan to implement that strategy to close the digital divide.

Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Ben Lujan, D-N.M., partnered with Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., to introduce the bipartisan and bicameral Proper Leadership to Align Networks for Broadband Act to the Senate Thursday.

The national broadband strategy would list all federal broadband programs and identify gaps and limitations that would hinder coordination across those programs.

The bill would also synchronize interagency coordination among covered agencies for federal broadband programs by appropriating committees of Congress to manage federal broadband programs. The intention is to reduce barriers, lower costs, and ease administrative burdens for states, local and tribal governments participating in federal broadband programs.

“Closing the digital divide is one of Congress’ top priorities, but we cannot achieve that goal if our programs are mismanaged and lack coordination,” Wicker said in a press release. “A national broadband strategy will ensure our agencies are synchronized and manage these programs effectively to make sure that more Americans gain access to high-speed broadband.”

“Developing a detailed roadmap that improves the efficiency and coordination of federal broadband programs is a commonsense step we can take to accelerate deployment to the rural communities that need it most,” added Walberg.

The bill comes in response to a Government Accountability Office report that found federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping.

Federal Communications Commissioner Brenden Carr applauded the bill in a press release, saying that it was a “vital bill that would fill a key gap in the federal government’s approach to broadband infrastructure spending.”

The bill’s introduction follows the FCC’s public notice last month inviting comment on updating the interagency agreement between the FCC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration on coordinating broadband efforts.

The agreement currently requires that agencies provide information about project areas, entities that provide broadband services, levels of broadband service provided, and each entity that has or will receive funds to provide service in that area upon request from another agency.

Commenters called for the agreement to include efforts to ensure that all federal agencies avoid awarding funds to locations that have already been funded, eliminating overbuilding and inefficient use of taxpayer resources.

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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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Federal Agencies

FCC Urged to Address Overbuilding and Broadband Tech Neutrality in Agency Coordination

The FCC should incorporate the mapping data from local governments to avoid overbuilding, ensure technology neutrality.

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Photo of Tom Vilsack, secretary for the Department of Agriculture

WASHINGTON, August 3, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission should incorporate the mapping data from local governments to avoid overbuilding, assure a technology neutrality position, and make more transparent the coordination process with other federal agencies, according to responses to the FCC proceeding on interagency coordination.

Last month, the FCC issued a public notice inviting comment on the interagency agreement between the FCC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and National Telecommunications and Information Administration on coordinating broadband efforts, known as the Broadband Interagency Coordination Act. The comments received will be reported to Congress as findings and potential improvements to the agreement.

BICA currently outlines that agencies must provide information about project areas, entities that provide broadband services, levels of broadband service provided, and each entity that has or will receive funds to provide service in that area upon request from another agency.

In its submission Monday, NCTA, the Internet and Television Association, called for the agreement to include efforts to ensure that all federal agencies avoid awarding funds to locations that have already been funded, eliminating overbuilding and inefficient use of taxpayer resources.

For example, the USDA’s ReConnect program currently permits funding in areas where a provider has already committed to build out using funds from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

To ensure agencies have a picture of existing funds, the NCTA suggests that the agreement facilitate the development of a comprehensive map of funded locations using local data. It further suggests that the agreement be amended to require the use of both the FCC’s Broadband DATA Act maps and challenge process – which is currently in development – as well as the Deployment Locations Map, which is required through the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

USTelecom, a trade association representing telecom-related businesses, added its support to avoid overbuilding . “A key policy objective of any federal government support program is that money is not spent twice on the same project… the federal agencies can improve BICA coordination by requiring these state agencies to report where they are making awards once the award is made,” it wrote.

USTelecom has denounced the idea of using funds from federal grant programs to create broadband access to areas that have already been provided access through other federal funds. Other experts, however, suggest that overbuilding may be good so long as funds subsidize newer, better networks, not older technologies.

USTelecom further suggests in its submission that federal agencies can improve coordination by requiring state agencies to report where they are making awards once they are made. Currently, none of the rules for federal programs that support broadband builds require states to report where service will be provided with the funds until after the project is complete. The comment indicated that early reporting will advance the FCC’s ability to access and move forward with critical decisions and avoid overbuilding.

Other submitters want technology neutrality, transparency of information

SpaceX, a low earth orbit satellite service provider, said in its own submission that the agreement should “adopt uniform technology neutrality” in considering broadband services. This would reduce inconsistencies regarding which deployment technologies are funding-eligible under various programs and help avoid exclusive funding toward one type of service, read the comment.

Technology neutral standards would allow states, territories and tribes to compare broadband services and providers to help them determine which is the best option for their needs, the comment added.

The NCTA also suggested Congress release information on coordination between agencies, including issues that are resolved, and how often the agencies meet. “Greater transparency will enable interested parties to better assess the effectiveness of the interagency coordination,” the comment reads.

The submissions come as the FCC and the NTIA agreed on a memorandum of understanding, released Monday, that outlines how often and when they will coordinate on spectrum-related issues.

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Federal Agencies

FCC and NTIA Release Updated Coordination Memorandum

The document includes information about how often the agencies will meet and when they’ll get involved in proposed actions.

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Photo of Alan Davidson of the NTIA

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2022 – The heads of the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Monday the updated memorandum of understanding to coordinate spectrum policy uses, which includes how often they will meet and when they can get involved in proposed actions.

The FCC and NTIA announced in February that they would update the MOU from 2003 as the two agencies worked to coordinate on spectrum policy uses for federal and private users. The updated MOU outlines the agreement between the two agencies to promote the efficient use of the radio spectrum for the public interest.

The memorandum specifies that the assistant secretary for communications and information at the NTIA and the chair of the FCC are to meet, at least quarterly, to conduct joint spectrum planning with respect to management policies, requirements, licenses, and other spectrum related matters.

Furthermore, the staff at the FCC and NTIA will meet monthly to exchange information of mutual interest. The FCC will cooperate with the NTIA on all proposed actions that could potentially interfere with federal operations and the NTIA will cooperate with the FCC for actions that will affect non-federal operations.

Harold Feld, senior vice president at non-profit advocacy group Public Knowledge, commended this step, saying in a statement that, “this agreement will make it possible for the United States to move forward on future wireless technologies, such as 6G and Wi-Fi 7, while protecting public safety and critical federal operations.”

Public Knowledge said in press release that the agreement addresses the root cause of growing tension between the FCC and federal agencies.

The memorandum comes after the industry and the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year butt heads over whether 5G deployments could be turned on around airports. The FAA said that such a decision would jeopardize plane’s navigational instruments, and large carriers agreed to freeze the deployments until further study can be done. Some observers said the crisis was a result of a lack of federal coordination.

The two agencies that signed the memorandum have a long history of cooperation to ensure spectrum decisions encourage economic growth and national security. The FCC has authority to regulate non-federal government use of spectrum. The NTIA has authority to regulate federal government use of spectrum and advises the president on telecommunications policies.

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