Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed Internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate yesterday. The full text of the bill, posted on U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema’s (D-Arizona) website, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.
For those of us who favor local Internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Let’s start with …
Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the states to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the FCC for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.
In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”
And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”
As the Biden Administration is working with Senate Republicans and Democrats on a proposed infrastructure deal which now includes a $65 billion federal investment to expand broadband access, the details of how that money should be spent and where those investments should be targeted have yet to be decided.
In a new policy brief, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance looks to provide clarity for policy-makers by exploring the real challenges of America’s connectivity crisis. The brief aims to clear up a common misunderstanding of exactly where the digital divide is located.
Digital Divide is Not Urban Vs. Rural, It’s Both
It does so by explaining why high-speed Internet access is not a challenge confined primarily within rural America. A lack of fast, reliable, and affordable broadband is also a major problem in urban and suburban America.
As the brief details, millions of citizens could subscribe for service right now, if only they could afford it — but they cannot. In fact, most recent municipal broadband systems were built to resolve problems with monopoly excess, not the absence of broadband. Many of the places that appear from the DC as though they have gigabit services actually have unreliable networks that are not getting the job done.
The Case for Prioritizing Local Community Efforts
Michigan broadband package repeals law prohibiting state grants from going to government entities
Montana Legislature duplicates federal limitations against schools and library self-constructing networks
U.S. House Republicans bill would give USDA authority over rural broadband, in place of FCC
The State Scene
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive directive on Wednesday establishing the Michigan High-Speed Internet (MIHI) Office, a new state office tasked with developing a strategy to make high-speed Internet more accessible to Michiganders.
Gov. Whitmer has argued that more than $2.5 billion in potential economic benefit is left unrealized each year due to a lack of Internet access across the state. MIHI will be housed inside the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO). Speaking of the new office, LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin said, “We need to make major investments to support digital inclusion and this office will be focused on leveraging every dollar available through the American Recovery Plan and other federal programs,” reports WILX.
Michigan lawmakers are moving to answer Corbin’s call and recently proposed a $400 million one-time allocation of incoming federal relief funds to the newly created MIHI to work toward expanding access to broadband. With the funds, LEO would be tasked with maintaining a statewide broadband grant program, the Connecting Michigan Communities Broadband Grant.
Closing the homework gap has been a top priority for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. She has a long track record advocating for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, lamenting viral images of school children completing homework in fast food parking lots, and making the case that no child should be left offline. At the onset of the pandemic, she pledged to use her influence at the agency to fight to increase the flexibility of the E-Rate program, saying “every option needs to be on the table.”
When the American Rescue Plan Act established the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in March, a $7 billion program to connect students and library patrons to the Internet at off-campus locations, Rosenworcel had an opportunity to follow through on those promises. She could have seized the moment to steer the program in the direction of allowing schools and libraries to build, own, and operate their own school and community networks (what the federal government refers to as self-provisioned networks). Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students already do this, but without much help from the E-rate program.
But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the FCC’s Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets. The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.
As the Biden administration fleshes out the details on the President’s proposed American Jobs Plan, which includes as much as $100 billion to fund expanded high-speed Internet connectivity and bring much needed competition to the broadband market, opponents (mostly Congressional Republicans and lobbyists for the big telecom companies) are tossing the word “overbuilding” around, ostensibly as a warning against wasteful government spending.
Case in point: U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee recently told Bloomberg News, “The president’s broadband proposal opens the door for duplication and overbuilding.”
Meanwhile, many of his constituents in his home state point to how broadband infrastructure has actually been underbuilt by incumbent providers, leaving the Magnolia State and its broadband hungry residents in the digital dust.
Ideology vs. Reality
“For a poor state like Mississippi, being left behind by a 21st century economy is tantamount to economic death. Senator Wicker's concern about overbuilding and duplication is certainly not the case for the families and small businesses he represents across broad areas of this rural state in economic distress,” is how Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, Children's Defense Fund Southern Regional Director and head of the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative, responded to Wicker’s assessment.
To put it mildly, she doesn’t feel that the state has adequate Internet access networks today.
Welcome to In Our View, a new series here at MuniNetworks. From time to time, we'll use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.
Special thank you to ILSR Data and Visualization Researcher Michelle Andrews for noticing the Michigan discrepancy, and for her contributions to this piece.
Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) released updated Form 477 data, the primary source of information used for the FCC’s broadband coverage maps and the basis upon which federal agencies and states make major funding decisions.
With new interim leadership from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel – who has been well-aware of the FCC’s dubious track record of publishing imprecise, insufficient, and often inaccurate broadband coverage data – you will be disappointed if you were expecting any improvements in the newest data set.
Filers had until March 26, 2021 to make revisions to data that was submitted by September 1, 2020 for service they provided as of June 30, 2020. When the updated data was first released on April 7, it indicated that nearly the entire state of Michigan had access to 10 Gbps (Gigabit per second) broadband, thanks to Form 477 data provided by Strategic Alliance CDC (see map below, or a high-resolution version here).
Historical Error Repeats Itself
Federal Government Devotes Billions to Internet Access: A Community Guide to Current Broadband Funding
In the American Rescue Plan Act, Congress and the Biden Administration included a multi-billion dollar appropriation to help expand high-speed Internet access. This guide offers an overview of the different funding opportunities for communities interested in expanding broadband services. As application deadlines vary in some cases and other money must be spent within certain time frames, it is critical for states, municipalities, community organizations, and Tribal governments to start planning initiatives now.
It’s also worth emphasizing that 18 states still put localities at a disadvantage when it comes to spending anticipated funding effectively by preserving laws that interfere with community investment in broadband infrastructure. Much of this money could also be funneled for other purposes due to a lack of good plans and community engagement.
The amount of funding flowing into communities is unprecedented. Localities should prepare to spend funds on needed, futureproof infrastructure. This is an historic, once-in-a-lifetime investment in Internet infrastructure and communities who develop a clear, actionable plan and are as ready as possible once the money starts flowing will prosper.
If you’re a homeowner looking for assistance paying your Internet bill…look to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program or Homeowner’s Assistance Fund.
If you’re an HBCU or Minority-serving institution looking to expand Internet access to your students, or if you’re a minority business enterprise or nonprofit organization in the surrounding community...look to the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program.
if you’re a Tribal government, Tribal organization, or Tribal college or university, including native Hawaiian organizations, education programs and native corporations…look to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
If you’re a city interested in partaking in a public-private partnership…look to the Promote Broadband Expansion Grant Program.
If you’re a school or library whose main concern is obtaining remote Internet access devices...look to the Emergency Connectivity Fund.
Federal Aid Directly To States, Counties, Localities and Territories
With all the buzz around the prioritization of municipal and cooperative broadband networks in the American Jobs Plan unveiled by President Biden last week, let’s not forget about one leading voice in Congress calling for broadband for all.
Last year, with assistance from the House Rural Broadband Task Force he created, Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, introduced the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All (AAIA) Act, a bold bill that proposed a $100 billion investment to build high-speed Internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved parts of the country.
Although the legislation stalled in the Mitch McConnell-led U.S. Senate prior to the 2020 election, it did set the Democratic agenda on broadband moving forward. Now, as the Biden Administration has settled into the White House and with Democrats in control of Congress, Clyburn has reintroduced a slightly slimmed down $94 billion AAIA, alongside companion legislation in the U.S. Senate sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN.
If it passes, the bill would be a game changer, as it goes beyond funding high-speed Internet infrastructure to attack the digital divide from essentially every angle. The bill includes funding and dedicated support to address barriers that prevent millions of Americans from having access to affordable, high-speed Internet connectivity. It backs measures that would encourage pricing transparency, promote Internet adoption and digital literacy initiatives, guarantee affordability, and protect the rights of workers who would build the networks.
While all of these measures are critical, one of the most important requirements included in the revamped legislation is for input from local, state and Tribal governments to be taken into account when determining what projects AAIA will fund.
This week’s community broadband state legislative roundup revisits and provides updates on important bills moving through the state legislatures in Washington, Oklahoma, and California.
The State Scene
We’ve been closely covering S.B. 5383 and H.B. 1336, two bills in Washington state that would give Public Utilities Districts (PUDs) and port districts the authority to offer retail telecommunications services.
Our initial coverage pointed out shortcomings in S.B. 5383. The bill originally contained a preemption clause that gave private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the power to reject PUDs’ and ports’ project proposals in areas where incumbent ISPs claim they plan to expand service within six months.
Since our last reporting on this piece of legislation, the bill was amended by the State House Community and Economic Development Committee, removing the veto authority initially given to existing ISPs. However, a new provision favoring incumbent cable ISPs was also added, which would prohibit a PUD or port from providing retail Internet services in an area where an existing provider offers service at a minimum of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed. The minimum speed requirements of this provision would be increased to stay consistent with Washington’s state definition of broadband.
The Committee also amended the bill to allow PUDs and ports to provide retail services in served areas, but only when building to reach an unserved region.
Charter Spectrum Pushes Florida Law That Would Preempt Local Authority and Increase Burden on Municipal Electric Ratepayers
A pair of bills making the rounds through Florida’s state legislature are an attack on the state’s urban municipal electric utility ratepayers to the financial benefit of big cable monopolies, under the guise of expanding rural broadband.
H.B. 1239 and S.B. 1592 read like regulatory wishlists for Florida’s big Internet service providers. Word around the capitol is that the bills are heavily influenced by Charter Spectrum, the major incumbent cable Internet provider in the region (insiders also noted in an interview that it was sponsored by the Florida Internet and Television Association, of which Charter and Comcast are members).
H.B. 1239/S.B. 1592 would require municipal electric utilities to provide private companies with access to their poles at a capped rate, though the cost of attaching new telecommunications infrastructure differs based on size, shape, and weight. Florida’s municipal electric utilities, and their ratepayers, would be burdened with any additional costs that surpass the capped rate.
The bills would further require electric utilities to reengineer utility poles to accommodate broadband providers’ attachment requests within 90 days of receiving them. In some instances, municipal electric utilities would be forced to cover the full costs of pole replacements, rather than the new attacher.
At ILSR, we are concerned that make-ready policies do discourage competition and we have encouraged streamlined access and consistent, fair rates to ensure Internet service providers can pursue efficient deployment. However, this bill would force electric ratepayers, including residents and local businesses, to shoulder more of the burden for private firms like Charter Spectrum and AT&T with the latter avoiding paying their fair share of attachment costs.