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12 Days of Broadband

Legislators Discuss Banning TikTok Over Growing Security Concerns

The Senate recently passed a measure banning the app from government devices.

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From the 12 Days of Broadband:

Year by year, tensions between the U.S. and China continue to grow. And in this Cold War 2.0, the battle over information technology and policy often appears to be at the heart of the conflict.

Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei has been effectively barred from the U.S. market for well over a year. But the constraints are tightening. And while Huawei has been central to China’s global communications aspirations, disputes over technology are now affecting all sorts of Chinese-owned companies. Even ByteDance’s TikTok, arguably the world’s hottest social media company with more than 100 million U.S. users, now appears in jeopardy.

 Download the complete 12 Days of Broadband report

After two decades in which the countries’ economies and technology industries converged, they are now coming apart. Remember the American perception of China at the time of the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008? China was regarded as a global competitor, but not an adversary.

Contrast that with the near-boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022 by American officials over persecution of the Uyghurs and retrenchment of political freedom in Hong Kong. Just prior to this year’s games, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and declared that “friendship between the two States has no limits,” effectively blessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine that happened later in February.

And now that Xi has entered, in October, his 11th year of rule, he’s broken free of the two-term limit that had governed Chinese leaders in the modern era. Xi’s continuing hold on power seems to highlight divergences between the world’s two economic superpowers.

Take bans on Chinese hardware. In November, the Federal Communications Commission published a modification of certification rules that will bar technologies from the U.S. that are considered threats to national security.

The commission’s latest action will keep Huawei, ZTE and many other companies from gathering data on and surveilling American citizens. The action will also keep the FCC from issuing further authorizations for covered technologies, without which those technologies may not be imported to or marketed in the United States. 

The FCC first took steps against these Chinese manufacturers in 2019 by disallowing the use of Universal Service Funds for their purchase.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Secure Networks Act, requiring the FCC to prohibit the use of moneys it administers for the acquisition of designated communications equipment. The act promoted the removal of existing equipment deemed compromised through a $2 billion reimbursement program designed to “rip and replace” Huawei and other Chinese equipment out of telecommunications networks, particularly those of rural broadband providers.

The latest FCC action aims to stop entities from “re-branding” or “white labeling” equipment by those covered Chinese manufacturers.

And now legislators are going after Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.

On Dec. 14, the Senate unanimously passed a measure to ban TikTok from U.S. government devices, in a move designed to limit perceived information-security risks stemming from the social media app. The measure, by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., follows similar actions by state governments, including Maryland.

The app is itself is in jeopardy of being banned outright in the United States under a bill introduced on Dec. 13 by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. They said the move was warranted by the Chinese potentially using the video sharing platform to spy on Americans.

Speaking at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Dec. 7, Rick Lane, CEO of Iggy Ventures, said that he supported such a ban and predicted that it would happen within six months.

If that were to happen, information policy in the United States might look a lot more like that of China. There, American apps like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube are banned.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

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12 Days of Broadband

State Broadband Offices Face Major Challenges With Limited Resources

State officials are responsible for the disbursal of federal broadband infrastructure funds, but many offices are understaffed.

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From the 12 Days of Broadband:

State broadband officials must administer funding programs, build broadband availability maps, promote digital equity, coordinate with federal agencies, and much more. They have consistently argued that engaging robust staking engagement and diverse partnerships is indispensable to their success.

Although the bulk of the broadband industry’s scrutiny is now directed federal government, the source of what many experts call a “once-in-a-generation” investment in broadband infrastructure, once those grants are issued to the states, state officials must plan and oversee the final disbursal of those funds.

 Download the complete 12 Days of Broadband report

Many states’ broadband offices are young, understaffed, and under-resourced. In a conversation with Broadband Breakfast, Ramon S. Hobdey-Sanchez, the broadband program manager at the Idaho Department of Commerce, explained that his small office faces myriad challenges, both geographic (extensive mountains and rivers) and technical (limited middle-mile infrastructure).

Hobdey-Sanchez said his office seeks to educate Idaho communities. With representatives from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the state recently hosted a local-coordination conference attended by hundreds of Idahoans, he said, adding that his constituents are concerned about navigating the complexities of grant writing and local permitting regimes.

At October’s AnchorNets 2022 conference, Louisiana’s broadband director, Veneeth Iyengar, said extensive and recurring local feedback has illuminated his office’s “blindspots.” 

Glen Howie, broadband director of Arkansas and an alumnus of Louisiana’s broadband office, has said that he, too, encourages ground-up leadership from local officials. “It’s not really about Washington, and it’s not even really about Little Rock, it’s about” local communities, Howie told the audience at Broadband Breakfast’s Digital Infrastructure Investment conference in November.

At Digital Infrastructure Investment, Kenrick Gordon, Maryland’s broadband director, said that his state prioritizes the funding applications of community-backed providers.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development told Broadband Breakfast that the Keystone State has partnered with Penn State Extension assess the accuracy of the FCC’s mapping data and facilitate a forthcoming bulk challenge. The spokesperson emphasized the importance of public participation in the challenge process as well.

Illinois broadband officials have in part credited the successes of the state’s mapping initiative to specialized local knowledge provided by community leaders. Maine Connectivity Authority President Andrew Butcher told Broadband Breakfast that he will rally communities and other stakeholders to correct the Federal Communications Commission’s newly released national broadband map. 

Kansas broadband director, Jade Piros de Carvalho, said her office lacks the resources to submit a fabric challenge, but asked Kansans to submit individual challenges.

Hobdey-Sanchez said he hopes to submit a bulk challenge to the FCC’s map by mid-January. Idaho will soon build a state broadband map, he said, and is likely to announce the award of the mapping contract by the end of December.

There is no shortage of state-mapping models, and existing maps often clash with the FCC’s datasets. Georgia and North Carolina, for instance, which used a fabric-based and a speed-test model, respectively, suggest that Washington has severely overestimated service coverage, according to a report published earlier this year.

In October, Piros de Carvalho and Joshua Breitbart, senior vice president of New York State’s ConnectALL program, told the 2022 INCOMPAS Show that input from private industry helps state officials structure funding programs to be more attractive to private dollars. Kansas “encourage[s] new entrants into markets that have been ignored or are only being served by satellite or DSL,” the Kansas director said.

States must also bolster the broadband workforce, which many experts say is too small and inexperienced. “What we’re focused on in Ohio is building out career pathways so that individuals can understand what the different paths there are for them to move up in the industry,” said Eric Leach, deputy director of Ohio Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation, at a November Broadband Breakfast Live Online event discussing a state partnership with Ohio State University. “It’s really about creating a career ladder,” he added.

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12 Days of Broadband

Will Congress Permanently Extend the Affordable Connectivity Program?

The program is helping low-income households afford internet access, but some experts warn that the fund will soon be depleted.

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From the 12 Days of Broadband:

Some say that people are not enrolling in the Federal Communications Commission’s new subsidy for low-income households, the Affordable Connectivity Program. Others say that at the rate people are subscribing, the fund will soon run out of money.  

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Dec. 13, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance warned that the ACP is at risk of being deplenished. “Unless Congress takes action, this vital program will go away in just a few short years,” said the nonprofit’s executive director Angela Siefer at the hearing.

 Download the complete 12 Days of Broadband report

Jonathan Spalter, head of broadband industry association US Telecom, warned the fund could run out of money by 2024. Both Spalter and the NDIA urged Congress to make the program permanent.

Despite this, more than $10 billion of the $14.2 billion program is still unallocated, according to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. Just over 15 million (224,000 tribal) out of 37 million households are enrolled as of December, show data from the FCC’s program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company.

The program builds off the Emergency Broadband Benefit funded by the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021,  passed on Dec. 30, 2020. The temporary EBB was transformed into the longer-lasting ACP under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of November 2021. The ACP offers a discount of up to $30 per month on a wireline or wireless broadband connection ($75 on tribal lands) and a one-time device discount of $100. Eligible Americans include those on programs including SNAP, Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Lifeline and federal Pell grants.

To close the funding and enrollment gap, this summer the FCC launched the Affordable Connectivity Outreach Grant Program. The $100 million fund will support four separate marketing programs: The $60 million National Competitive Outreach Program, the $10 million Tribal Competitive Outreach Program, the $5 million Your Home, Your Internet Program and the $5 million ACP Navigator Pilot Program. 

Internet service providers have also been emailing subscribers about the program and hosting events in apartment complexes promoting it. Meanwhile, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is allowing applicants for broadband infrastructure planning grants to use money toward promoting the ACP.

The National Lifeline Association, a nonprofit group advocating for these broadband programs, has been urging the continued sustainability of the fund and promoting improvements. In a survey of 60,000 ACP enrollees released Dec. 14, 95 percent said they are consuming mobile broadband beyond their monthly data caps.

With 55 percent of ACP enrollees (about 8 million subscribers) on mobile broadband, according to USAC data, the NLA is urging the FCC to make available more affordable data.

But with the race to sign on as many households as possible, the program has also fallen into predatory hands. The FCC’s Office of Inspector General found in a September report evidence of ACP enrollment fraud, where a service provider would repeatedly sign on dozens or even hundreds of households using the information of a single qualifying person. Similar evidence of fraud was found under the program’s predecessor, where providers were signing up more households than students in schools.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said in October that he sent letters to 13 service providers out of more than 1,300 program participants requesting information on potential “abusive, misleading, fraudulent, or otherwise predatory behaviors” in both ACP and EBB programs. 

The FCC in November ordered annual reports on the ACP to gauge who is involved in the program and how the funds are being used.

Looking forward, the Republicans, who retook the House of Representatives following the November midterm elections, have already promised heightened oversight of the FCC and increased scrutiny of broadband programs specifically. 

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12 Days of Broadband

How Long Will it Take Congress to Revamp the Universal Service Fund?

Critics urged the FCC to expand the fund’s contribution sources, but the agency chose to punt the decision to Congress.

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From the 12 Days of Broadband:

The Federal Communications Commission this summer waived away the issue of revamping the Universal Service Fund, pointing to the need for Congress to give it the authority to make changes to the multi-billion-dollar fund that goes to support basic telecommunications services to low-income Americans and rural communities. 

Up to this point, the agency had a virtual megaphone to its ear with critics saying that it needs to make the changes necessitated by the fact that the nearly $9-billion fund this quarter is supported only by dwindling legacy voice service revenues as more Americans move over to broadband-driven communications services. 

 Download the complete 12 Days of Broadband report

Over the past year, the conversation over what to do with the fund has reached ever-increasingly levels of urgency. The contribution percentage — the tax on voice service providers that is often passed down to consumers — climbs with the demands of the fund. In other words, there is an inverse relationship with taxed revenues and the contribution percentage — the lower the voice revenues to draw from, the higher the percentage demanded from fund, which is adjusted by the Universal Service Administrative Company every quarter. 

Critics have urged the FCC to make significant expansions to the contribution sources of the fund, including taxing broadband revenues and forcing Big Tech to pay because they benefit from internet infrastructure. 

Still others — including AT&T — have recommended that Congress step in and have the funds come from general taxation, which was met with concern that the fund’s pot of money would fluctuate with constantly changing political personnel. 

Meanwhile, a bill that would require the FCC to study and report on the feasibility of having Big Tech pay into the fund made its way out of the Senate Commerce Committee in May. But nothing since. 

Hence the concern as to what the FCC did when it temporarily handed the hot potato over to Congress — how long will it take? 

Congress must move legislation forward, which takes months as it has other business to deal with. Even after the many months of bill passage, the FCC must draft its own proposal that must go through a public comment process. 

This was the concern of critics who said the FCC already has the legal authority to act unilaterally, without the intervention of Congress to get the process started. One of those critics includes Carol Mattey, former deputy chief of the FCC, who last year published a report saying the agency must expand the contribution base to include broadband revenues. 

Following the report’s publishing, Mattey and advocate Public Knowledge argued that the FCC has the legal authority to expand the base on its own. 

But in the FCC report to Congress on the USF this summer, the agency wasn’t so sure. 

“On review, there is significant ambiguity in the record regarding the scope of the Commission’s existing authority to broaden the base of contributors,” the report said.

“As such, we recommend Congress provide the Commission with the legislative tools needed to make changes to the contributions methodology and base in order to reduce the financial burden on consumers, to provide additional certainty for entities that will be required to make contributions, and to sustain the Fund and its programs over the long term.”

The deference to Congress pleased the two Republicans on the commission, Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington, both of whom — no less interested in the sustainability of the fund — preferred the legislative body make the determination.

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