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New AT&T Fiber Venture, Mixed Outcomes for Big Tech Bills, Capping Predatory Prison Phone Rates

AT&T’s new Gigapower joint venture will build fiber outside the company’s current footprint.

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel courtesy of the Internet Education Foundation

December 27, 2022 — AT&T and fund manager BlackRock Inc. announced Friday the formation of a joint venture, Gigapower LLC, to operate a fiber platform, Reuters reported.

Gigapower plans to deploy a fiber network to 1.5 million customers located outside of AT&T’s existing 21-state wireline presence using a commercial open access platform. This will contribute to AT&T’s previously announced goal of deploying fiber to more than 30 million locations by the end of 2025.

“Fiber is the lifeblood of digital commerce,” said Bill Hogg, CEO of Gigapower. “We have a proven team of professionals building this scalable, commercial open access wireline fiber network. Our goal is to help local service providers provide fiber connectivity, create the communications infrastructure needed to power the next generation of services and bring multi-gig capabilities to help close the gap for those who currently are without multi-gig service.”

Congress passes antitrust legislation, leaves out bipartisan privacy bills

Congress on Friday passed three Big Tech antitrust measures as part of the year-end omnibus spending bill: the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, the State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act, and the Foreign Merger Subsidy Disclosure Act

“While there is much more that still needs to be done to rein in Big Tech, this legislation gives a much-needed boost to antitrust enforcers to crack down on these companies’ anticompetitive behavior,” said Jon Schweppe, policy director of the American Principles Project.

Two other antitrust measures that more directly targeted Big Tech companies were not included in the final spending bill: the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act aims to prevent tech companies from using their platforms to preference their own products at the expense of competitors. The Open App Markets Act would require app stores run by Apple and Google to stop requiring third-party applications to use its payment systems and stop those stores from preferencing its own apps over competitors in search results.

“This is clearly the beginning of this fight and not the end,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn., on Tuesday. “I will continue to work across the aisle to protect consumers and strengthen competition.”

Despite some predictions to the contrary, the federal privacy legislation the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, and the Kids Online Safety Act also failed to make it into the final bill. The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act would update COPPA to include protections for children aged 12 to 16. The Kids Online Safety Act would require social media platforms to set strict privacy settings as the default for underage users, alongside a variety of other measures under a “duty of care” to mitigate harm to minors.

FCC granted authority to prevent predatory prison phone fees

The Federal Communications Commission will be required to limit predatory and excessive correctional facility phone call costs, following the passage in the House by voice vote of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act on Friday.

The bill, which had already passed the Senate that week, was introduced by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, and Rob Portman, R-OH, to ensure family members could speak with incarcerated loved ones to help lower recidivism.

“The FCC has for years moved aggressively to address this terrible problem, but we have been limited in the extent to which we can address rates for calls made within a state’s borders,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Today, thanks to the leadership of Sens. Duckworth, Portman and their bipartisan coalition, the FCC will be granted the authority to close this glaring, painful, and detrimental loophole in our phones rate rules for incarcerated people,” adding it is a proven way to reduce recidivism.

The FCC voted in 2021 to limit some prison phone rates, but the measure only applied to interstate and international calls. The new legislation clarifies the agency’s authority to regulate intrastate rates.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

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TikTok to Testify Before House Committee, Tech Association Warns on Antitrust, US Telecom Board Adds

It will be the first time TikTok’s CEO will appear for a congressional hearing.

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Photo of Chew Shou Zi, CEO of TikTok by Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary used with permission

January 30, 2023 – The CEO of video sharing app TikTok will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, the chair confirmed Monday.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, said Shou Zi Chew will testify on the Chinese firm’s consumer privacy and data security practices, its impact on kids, and its relationship with the Chinese government.

It is the first time Chew will appear before a congressional hearing, according to a committee press release.

“Big Tech has increasingly become a destructive force in American society,” the committee said in a release. “The Energy and Commerce Committee has been at the forefront of asking Big Tech CEOs – from Facebook to Twitter to Google – to answer for their companies’ actions. These efforts will continue with TikTok.

“ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data,” the statement added. “Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security, as well as what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms. We’ve made our concerns clear with TikTok. It is now time to continue the committee’s efforts to hold Big Tech accountable by bringing TikTok before the committee to provide complete and honest answers for people.”

Industry association warns of patchwork of state antitrust laws

The Computer and Communications Industry Association released a report Thursday warning about the negative impact on businesses of states implementing various antitrust laws.

The association, which counts big tech companies including Google, Amazon and Apple as its members, flagged antitrust laws before state legislatures, including abuse of dominance, price discrimination, mergers and acquisitions reporting requirements, monopoly and monopsony, and regulating app stores.

It warns that problems addressing these issues on a state level could deter pro-competitive business activity. The CCIA said without a clear definition of discrimination, monopoly and monopsony, these laws could harm legitimate business practices and rob consumers of discounts – in the case of price discrimination, where a business provides different prices for similar products.

Excess reporting requirements on M&A could increase compliance costs for businesses because they already report the information to the federal government, it noted. And laws that prohibit app stores from banning alternative payment systems used for third-party apps could present privacy and security risks because payments systems chosen by those stores aim to provide the greatest safety for consumers and compliance on data protection legislation, the CCIA added.

Similar app store legislation and other antitrust legislation have been introduced in Congress.

“For each of these competition areas, if states adopt an increasing patchwork of laws, businesses will face difficulties navigating conflicting disparate requirements, which could ultimately result in barriers to innovation and investment.”

State legislatures with antitrust legislation include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

Last week, the Justice Department sued Google for allegedly abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

USTelecom adds three board members

Industry association USTelecom announced Friday the addition of three new board members.

Joining are Texas’s Totelcom Communications CEO Jennifer Prather, Brightspeed vice president of public policy and government affairs Tom Dailey in Charlotte, North Carolina, and altafiber’s vice president and general counsel Chris Wilson in Cincinnati.

The association also added two members to its leadership committee, including general counsel for Oklahoma-based MBO family of telecom companies Jake Baldwin, and Ryan Johnson, interim CEO of telecom Chariton Valley in Missouri.

“These inspiring leaders represent the full spectrum of USTelecom’s diverse and dedicated members, who are squarely focused on connecting communities and businesses to the power of broadband-enabled innovation,” the association said in a press release.

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Meta Restores Trump’s Accounts, Alaska Uses AI for Mapping, Public Interest Model for Spectrum Policy

Former President Trump will face heightened penalties for future, repeated violations of Facebook’s and Meta’s policies.

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Photo of Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg by Moritz Hager, used with permission

January 26, 2023 — Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will soon be reinstated, just over two years after the platforms suspended him for inciting violence, parent company Meta announced on Wednesday.

The “serious risk to public safety” present during the Capitol riot in January 2021 has “sufficiently receded,” said Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

However, the company said it would put “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses,” including heightened penalties for repeated violations, and would potentially limit the distribution of content that “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon” — even if such content did not explicitly violate Meta’s community standards.

Clegg’s statement also made a nod to the broader content moderation debate playing out across multiple state laws and upcoming Supreme Court cases involving online platforms and speech.

“Many people believe that companies like Meta should remove much more content than we currently do,” he said. “Others argue that our current policies already make us overbearing censors… We believe it is both necessary and possible to draw a line between content that is harmful and should be removed, and content that, however distasteful or inaccurate, is part of the rough and tumble of life in a free society.”

Alaska partners with AI company to create state broadband map

Artificial intelligence-based mapping company Ecopia AI on Tuesday announced a partnership with the State of Alaska and other companies to create a comprehensive, high-definition map of buildings and broadband serviceable locations — data that is essential for securing federal broadband funding.

“Without the data from Ecopia, the State of Alaska was at an immediate disadvantage for receiving funding to expand broadband services,” said Hillary Palmer, geospatial and technology manager at Dewberry Alaska, an engineering company involved in the mapping process. “Now we have a source of truth with which we can identify broadband serviceable locations and secure federal funding for network expansion throughout Alaska.

Prior to the partnership, less than five percent of Alaska’s buildings were mapped, according to Ecopia. The company’s artificial intelligence mapping systems leveraged satellite imagery to extract buildings in areas where reliable GIS data did not exist.

“We believe in using AI for good, and are thrilled to enable the expansion of more equitable broadband access across Alaska,” said Sean Lowery, senior director of product and business development at Ecopia.

Public Knowledge proposes public interest model for spectrum policy

A white paper published by Public Knowledge on Thursday proposes the adoption of a public interest backcasting model to guide future spectrum policy, arguing that its value-based framework will provide policymakers with a path towards universally accessible, affordable and reliable telecommunications services.

“In short, we have a chance to make the wireless future a good one, but it comes down to what we’re willing to work together to achieve – either a digitally divided society where only a privileged few benefit from new technologies, or a world where everyone does,” said Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge and author of the paper, in a statement.

The paper reflects on the Spectrum Policy Task Force created 20 years ago by Michael Powell, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, identifying the problems that may have hindered its success and reframing its suggestions for future spectrum efficiency and access models.

In order for future spectrum policy to succeed, it must overcome the zero-sum game fallacy currently present in the spectrum stakeholder dynamic, Burke wrote. In addition, Burke argued that spectrum policymakers should focus on preventing inequalities from happening rather than attempting to remedy them after the fact — particularly in policies addressing Tribal reservations, which remain among the most underserved areas in the U.S.

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FCC Orders Robocall Traffic Cutoff, Internet Lacking for Civil Society, Comcast Promotion

Some states’ attorneys general are suing a realtor for alleged robocall scheme.

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Ray Roundtree, Comcast's new senior vice president of Comcast's keystone region, via Comcast

January 25, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday ordered telecommunications companies to cut off traffic to a dialing platform that facilitated an illegal robocall scheme targeting homeowners.

MV Realty is accused of using voice service provider Twilio Networks and the PhoneBurner dialing platform to “flood homeowners with robocalls with misleading claims about mortgages,” a press release said.

Attorneys general from Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have filed lawsuits against the real estate firm that allegedly scammed residents into mortgaging their homes in exchange for cash payments, the release said.

“Mortgage scams are some of the most pernicious types of robocalls we see,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the release. “Sending these junk calls to financially-stressed homeowners just to offer them deceptive products and services is unconscionable. That’s why we are shutting down these calls right now.”

The commission has been taking increasingly aggressive action against illegal robocalls and their facilitators. Last month, the commission proposed a “record-breaking” $300 million fine for one robocall scheme.

And late last year, the commission expanded its robocall framework by ruling that straight-to-voicemail robocalls are subject to its regulatory authority.

Survey finds civil society organizations struggle with internet access, speed and reliability

Civil society organizations are being hampered by a lack of internet access, tools, or skills among staff, according to a report Wednesday from advocacy organization Connect Humanity.

The report is based on a survey of over 7,500 of these organizations, representing and serving over 190 million people, and draws on case studies, resources and quotes directly from these organizations.

The report found that the top five concerns for these organizations are a lack of digital skills, followed by speed of the internet, reliability of the internet, affordability of devices and the internet and lack of devices.

The top five concerns for the people these organizations serve are lack of digital skills, affordable internet, availability of the internet, affordability of devices and lack of devices, the report said.

Other concerns include the availability of the internet, fear of being surveilled online or hacked, lack of relevant content, and lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.

The report notes that, over the next five years, 49 percent expect an increase in digital skills funding, 37 percent expect an increase in funding for access to hardware or software, 37 percent expect an increase in digital rights or internet policy, and 33 percent expect an increase in access to the internet.

In addition, 35 percent of these organizations surveyed said they have access to fast internet, while only 9 percent of the people they serve said so. Meanwhile, 42 percent of the organizations said they have reliable internet while only 9 percent of the people they serve said they can claim the same.

Other findings of the report include a majority of said organizations and the people they serve use a mobile provider for internet access and mobile phones are the most common devices used by people to access the internet.

Comcast announced new exec for keystone region

Ray Roundtree has been announced today as the new senior vice president of Comcast’s keystone region, based in Pittsburgh.

Roundtree will oversee the company’s operational, strategic and financial performance across areas in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, easter Ohio, northern West Virginia, and the Maryland panhandle, a press release said.

“With his industry expertise and broad experience running major markets, Ray will be a great leader for the Keystone Region,” Amy Lynch, president of Comcast’s northeast division, which includes 14 northeastern states from Maine through Virginia and the District of Columbia, said in the release. “I know Ray will be successful in continuing to deliver our innovative products and services to area homes and businesses–keeping them connected to what matters most.”

Roundtree has been with Comcast since 2000, as director of business operations for Chester and Lancaster counties and has taken on financial management leadership positions during his tenure at the company.

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