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New Congress Faces Key Decisions About Broadband Funding, Infrastructure Priorities and Privacy Law

Broadband access and privacy policies present opportunities for bipartisan collaboration, Broadband Breakfast panelists agreed.

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WASHINGTON, February 9, 2023 — The 118th Congress will have critical opportunities to impact technology policy by reforming the Universal Service Fund, guiding infrastructure priorities and passing federal privacy legislation, said industry experts at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event last week

Broadband policies present a promising opportunity for bipartisan collaboration, said Marissa Mitrovich, vice president of public policy for the Fiber Broadband Association. “These are the issues that impact every single American, and they’re not a partisan issue — everyone needs access to affordable, reliable broadband.”

The most significant upcoming development to the national connectivity landscape will likely be the infusion of funding from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, expected to be allocated to the states by June 30. Many state entities have raised concerns about the national broadband map that will determine BEAD distribution, with several claiming they lacked the necessary time and resources to adequately challenge the map’s inaccuracies.

“The challenge process is important, but keep in perspective that this first go-around is really for state allocations — it is not the round that will really then determine where it is that’s unserved and underserved,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.

Bloomfield also cautioned against becoming overly distracted by the “shiny new toy” of federal funding, noting the importance of reforming existing programs to ensure that new networks being built can be sustained and will remain affordable.

“If at the end of the day consumers can’t access and afford those networks, I’m not sure how far we’ve moved the ball forward,” she said.

One key program in need of reform is the Universal Service Fund, a multi-billion-dollar fund that subsidizes basic telecommunications services for low-income households and rural communities. The USF will likely run out of money during 2024, with some even predicting that this will happen during the first quarter of the year, said Grant Spellmeyer, president and CEO of ACA Connects.

Panelists at the Broadband Breakfast Live Online session on February 1, 2023.

“That means that we’re 12 months away from a real problem…There are 16 million households, 55 million Americans relying on that program right now,” Spellmeyer added.

With the future of the program — and the connectivity it provides to millions of people — in jeopardy, Congress may have the chance to play a crucial role in extending the program, Bloomfield said. “All Americans, regardless of where they live, should have access to comparable and affordable services.”

Industry experts disagree over whether fiber should be prioritized

The BEAD program’s prioritization of fiber over other broadband technologies has drawn both praise and criticism. Proponents tout fiber’s superior speeds and longevity, while others argue that emerging technologies should be given a chance to develop.

In November, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the Commerce Department agency responsible for administering the BEAD program — came under fire for its stated preference for fiber, which a group of Republican senators said was in “stark contrast to Congress’s tech-neutral intent.”

“Tech neutrality is critical… There are benefits of fiber, fixed wireless, satellite and traditional mobile,” said David Grossman, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, at the Broadband Breakfast event.

“It’s going to take every tool,” Bloomfield agreed, noting that the best technology for any given area would depend on a broad range of factors. However, she emphasized the benefits of deploying fiber when possible. “We have this opportunity, and frankly, shame on us if we don’t actually put in future-proof technology the first time around.”

Fiber infrastructure will also support the rapidly growing demand for symmetrical gigabit speeds, Bloomfield added.

Spellmeyer pointed to a new ACA Connects study making state-by-state predictions for BEAD funding allocation and outlining two national deployment scenarios: a “baseline fiber” approach and a “maximum fiber” approach.

“It’ll be up to governors to decide how they want to approach the allocation of funding, but I think a whole lot of governors can deliver a whole lot of fiber,” Spellmeyer said. “And then there will be opportunities… in very high-cost areas for wireless to play a role as well.”

Mitrovich strongly supported fiber prioritization, noting that “what might be a little bit more investment on the front end is going to really save money in the long run — and create opportunity, whether it’s through jobs, access to healthcare, access to education.”

“We believe fiber is really the most important connectivity technology for consumers and how we’re going to connect America — and the only way this happens is if government and industry work together,” Mitrovich said.

Bipartisan privacy legislation may still have a chance

Although many policy proposals may struggle to gain traction in a politically divided Congress, Grossman was optimistic about the prospect of bipartisan privacy legislation.

“It’s something everybody can relate to, both sides of the aisle, and I think that that was reflected in the fact that we got to a ‘three corners’ bill last year,” he said, referring to the bipartisan House support and Republican Senate support garnered by the American Data Privacy and Protection Act toward the end of 2022.

The primary hurdle that stalled the ADPPA’s passage was its preemption provision, which was fiercely opposed by lawmakers from states with strong preexisting privacy legislation.

Tech associations and industry groups have been generally supportive of state preemption. “It’s very clear that a patchwork of 50 state laws is not workable — it’s burdensome, particularly for startups, [and] confusing for consumers,” Grossman said.

Bloomfield agreed, emphasizing the importance of “a national standard and uniform approach that really treats all online data consistently… so consumers know what their expectations are.”

Another contentious privacy debate at the heart of the ADPPA is whether individuals should be able to sue companies for infractions. The bill’s final version included a narrow private right of action — the product of significant bipartisan compromise.

However, Grossman rejected this agreement, arguing that “private right of action is hugely, hugely detrimental to the industry and to innovation.”

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023, 12 Noon ET – What Will the 118th Congress Do on Broadband and Big Tech?

Hampered by a new partisan divide, what will the 118th Congress be able to accomplish in terms of broadband and technology policy? In particular, what do broadband and technology industry groups see as realistic policy priorities under divided government? Many members of Congress want to sharply curb the power of Big Tech, including through a potential national TikTok ban. Another issue left unresolved from last Congress was the state of information privacy legislation. These developments take place against a backdrop of the largest federal investment in broadband ever. Will Congress have anything new to say about infrastructure investment, wireless communication or network neutrality?

Panelists:

  • Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
  • Grant Spellmeyer, President & CEO, ACA Connects
  • Marissa Mitrovich, Vice President of Public Policy, Fiber Broadband Association
  • David Grossman, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Consumer Technology Association
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources

Shirley Bloomfield is CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, the premier association representing nearly 850 independent telecommunications companies that are leading innovation in rural and small-town America. With more than 30 years of experience representing the country’s smallest telecom operators, Bloomfield is an expert on the role of federal communications policies in sustaining the vitality of rural and remote communities and the benefits rural broadband networks bring to millions of American families, businesses and the national economy. Bloomfield has a strong track record of leadership in aligning strategic partnerships among rural telecom companies, their larger counterparts, other rural utilities and federal agencies, advancing digital equity and economic opportunities for rural Americans.

Grant Spellmeyer oversees the daily operations and affairs of ACA Connects-America’s Communications Association, a 700-member, non-profit advocacy association dedicated to serving smaller- and medium-sized, independent broadband, phone and video businesses that serve more than 10 million broadband customers nationwide. ACA Connects represents its Members and advocates their concerns before Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and other agencies in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining ACAC, Grant was vice president of government affairs for US Cellular where his primary duties included directing the federal and state legislative and regulatory efforts across the company’s 21-state operating territory on all policy matters.

Marissa Mitrovich is the Fiber Broadband Association’s vice president of public policy, leading their efforts before Congress, the White House and regulatory agencies in Washington, D.C. She brings more than two decades of experience in governmental affairs and telecom, including previous roles as the vice president of federal legislative affairs for Frontier and vice president of public policy for Verizon, where she interfaced with the administration and worked on state government affairs issues and corporate responsibility initiatives. Mitrovich also brings experience in workforce development and public-private partnerships from her time as vice president of program development for the Wireless Infrastructure Association.

David Grossman serves as vice president of regulatory affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, where he is responsible for representing the association before the FCC, FTC and other government agencies, with a focus on broadband, spectrum policy, cybersecurity and online competition. David spent nearly a decade in public service, including serving as Chief of Staff to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Legislative Director and Senior Advisor for Technology Policy to Rep. Anna Eshoo of Silicon Valley, and as Technology Counsel to the U.S. House Small Business Committee under the leadership of Rep. Nydia Velázquez.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC. He 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.

Graphic courtesy of Digital Trends Media Group

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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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House of Representatives

Silicon Valley Rep. Anna Eshoo Will Not Seek Reelection

The lawmaker’s Silicon Valley seat will be open for the first time in decades.

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Screenshot of Rep. Eshoo at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on October 19.

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2023 – Representative Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., announced on Tuesday that she will not seek reelection in 2024.

Eshoo’s retirement will leave up for grabs California’s 16th Congressional District, which includes Silicon Valley and parts of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. The San José Spotlight reported that multiple local Democrats are eyeing the solid blue seat

Her departure will also open up a spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose purview includes telecommunications, tech and energy policy, public health, and food and drug safety.

The 80-year-old legislator was the first woman to represent her district and spent over 30 years in Congress. She sponsored bills on tech policy, including Section 230 changes and efforts to accelerate broadband build outs.

Eshoo touted her long legislative career in a video announcing her retirement, including 66 bills signed into law over five presidential administrations. 

“For three decades, you’ve given me your trust,” she said of her constituents. “I’ve given every fiber of my being to live up to that sacred trust.”

The lawmaker joins more than 30 lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have also announced plans to step down after their current terms. She will serve through January 2025.

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Senate

Experts Suggest Measures to Protect Affordable Connectivity Program at Senate Hearing

Under consideration: Opening the Universal Service Fund to contributions from broadband and Big Tech companies.

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WASHINGTON, September 28, 2023 – A broadband association asked Congress last week to open the Universal Service Fund to contributions from broadband and Big Tech revenues to allow the umbrella fund to absorb and support the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The industry is concerned that the $14-billion ACP program, which discounts monthly services for low-income Americans and those on tribal lands, is going to run out of money by early next year. Meanwhile, it is universally agreed that the Universal Service Fund, which includes four high-cost broadband programs, is struggling to maintain its roughly $8-billion annual pace without a diversification of its revenue sources.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, told the Communications and Technology subcommittee studying the future of rural broadband on September 21 that Congress could both support the sustainability of the USF and the ACP by forcing contributions from broadband and Big Tech revenues.

The idea is that the extra revenue would solve the USF sustainability question by allowing the fund to continue to support the existing four programs under its purview, while also allowing it to adopt the ACP program, hence removing that program from reliance on Congress for money.

“We can have Congress give the FCC the authorities that it requires to be able to expand the contribution base, integrating the ACP within USF program, and thereby allowing the potentially out of control contribution factor that will potentially bog down the viability and longevity of the Universal Service Fund mechanisms to go down,” Spalter said.

“And in so doing it can expand the contribution base sufficiently to allow not only broadband but importantly the dominant Big Tech companies to participate so that we would effectively fuse the Affordable Connectivity Program with [high-cost program] Lifeline and do so in a way that would actually not require appropriated dollars from Congress.”

The ACP currently has around 21 million Americans signed up, but the FCC says many more are eligible. The commission has been allocating money to outreach groups to market the subsidy program.

While some have argued that the Federal Communications Commission could unilaterally expand the contribution base of the USF, the commission has elected to wait for Congress to make the requisite legislative reforms to give it that authority.

Forcing Big Tech companies, which rely on the internet to deliver their products, has been an idea tossed around by experts and promoted by Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr. Meanwhile, forcing broadband revenues to contribute to the fund has also received good support.

The concern for the ACP program is that the internet service providers rely on the $14 billion to continue to offer discounts.

“With funding set to be depleted early next year, initial notices of service termination could be out during the height of the holiday season in December – that’s a present none of our constituents deserve to receive,” said Congresswoman Doris Matsui, D-Calif.  

“Poverty is everywhere, but higher in rural America, in our region the reason most people can’t adopt service is due to lack of affordability, this impacts more households than lack of infrastructure alone,” said Sara Nichols, senior planner of the Land of Sky Regional Council of Government.

“It’s a program we simply can’t afford to lose,” added Nichols.

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Rural Utilities Service

White House Nominates Basil Gooden as Rural Development Chief at USDA

Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, an important broadband funding agency.

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Photo of Basil Gooden from Virginia Tech's web site.

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2023 – The White House on Monday announced the nomination of Basil Gooden for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack touted the nomination in a statement, saying that Gooden “is a widely-respected, accomplished champion for affordable housing, community advancement, and economic development. His public service career is informed by a lifelong commitment to agriculture and rural development.”

Gooden is the current director of state operations for rural development at USDA.

If confirmed for the position, Gooden would be responsible for overseeing the activities of the Rural Utilities Services, which encompasses the Water and Environment Programs, the Electric Program, and the Telecommunications Program, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for rural Americans through providing funds to deploy rural telecommunications infrastructure.

The administration may seek additional funding for broadband through the department. RUS Administrator Andy Berke, the former mayor of Chatanooga, Tenn., who also served as a Commerce Department official with the title, “special representative for broadband.”

Running USDA’s Rural Utilities Service Isn’t Andy Berke’s First Act in Broadband

If selected for the position, Gooden would fill the void left behind by Xochitl Torres Small, who resigned from the role and was later confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of agriculture this past July.

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