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"You Can't Use an Old Map To Explore a New World": Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act - Part 3
Without good information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the federal government is essentially shooting in the dark when it comes to determining how to best target the allocation of resources for underserved and unserved communities. Even private sector investments are less efficient because of the lack of good data about broadband availability and pricing. That’s why the second major section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA), currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, aims to address the nebulous nature of broadband data at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In this third installment of our series on the AAIA, we explore the ”Title II – Broadband Transparency” section of the Act, which requires the FCC to adopt rules to gather accurate and up-to-date information from ISPs about broadband service plan prices and subscription rates. It also requires the FCC to collect data that will allow the federal government to assess the resiliency of the nation’s broadband network in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
Better Data is Needed
Anyone who closely follows FCC news is already familiar with the problems associated with the agency’s broadband coverage maps, which most experts agree overstate actual broadband coverage. Though recent studies indicate there may be as many as 41 million people who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps), the FCC claims that number is closer to 18 million. It’s a big discrepancy with big dollar implications, as the coverage maps are the basis upon which agencies and states make major funding decisions.
Building a Bridge over the Digital Divide: Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act - Part 2
Last week we began our broad overview of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, sweeping legislation that calls for a $100 billion investment in broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved parts of the country, as well as federal funding and coordinated support to meet the myriad of barriers that prevent tens of millions of Americans from having access to affordable and reliable Internet connectivity.
The bill (H.R. 7302) has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. The Senate version of the bill (S. 4131), which was filed by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, has stalled, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has “has buried the legislation in his graveyard,” in the words of Rep. Clyburn.
In this second-installment of a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation, we look at the “Title I – Digital Equity” portion of the bill.
New Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth (OICG)
Connect This! Episode 5 on YouTube Live Next Monday - Where to Next From the Federal Government on Broadband?
Join us for the next episode of Connect This! on Monday, December 14th, at 5:00 pm ET, where Christopher will be joined by Travis Carter (CEO, US Internet), Sarah Morris (Director, New America's Open Technology Institute), and Doug Dawson (President, CCG Consulting) to discuss what we might expect from the federal government on broadband next year.
Watch on YouTube Live or below or listen to audio below below.
States have gotten creative over the last half year in making use of CARES Act funding to improve connectivity for families and students, but one project in Mississippi shows that oftentimes a good old Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) build is best. The West Jasper School District (enrollment 1,700), sixty miles southeast of Jackson, partnered with telephone and network operator TEC to do just that with a project aimed at bringing Internet access to 125 families that do not have it in the area.
Reaching the Unconnected
The effort is funded by $390,000 in CARES funding via the Mississippi Pandemic Response Broadband Availability Act managed by the Mississippi Department of Education. The initiative was established by HB 1788, which aimed at “providing payments to eligible Mississippi public school districts, independent schools and Native American tribal school districts . . . as equitably and efficiently as possible after determining the unserved areas of the state . . . to increase or gain broadband access.” It passed both chambers unanimously in July, allocating $50 million for the effort.
Ten miles of new fiber were installed along County Road 12 to bring 135 previous unconnected homes online to TEC’s (a regional telephone and broadband company which offers services in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi) network at the end of November. Current users connected to its fiber infrastructure can choose between symmetrical 250 Mbps, 500 Mbps, and gigabit tiers for $55/month, $65/month, and $80/month respectively.
School District Superintendent Warren Woodrow said of the project:
We felt like the best use of it would be to put fiber in the ground and to serve our students and our community.
As House GOP leaders ask the Government Accountability Office to audit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program because of concerns federal funds are being used to “overbuild,” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have filed legislation that aims to build broadband infrastructure on a national-scale.
The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act is a bill that harkens back to when the federal government – through FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, established in 1935, and the Rural Electrification Act, passed by Congress in 1936 – invested in local cooperatives and brought electricity to the abundance of Americans still living in candle-lit homes without electrically-powered refrigerators.
The proposed legislation may well frame the Democratic agenda on broadband moving forward, as the Biden administration enters the White House in January. It’s a bold bill that has garnered the support of a who’s-who of broadband experts and advocacy organizations from Public Knowledge, the National Consumer Law Center and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Breaking it Down
There’s a lot to unpack in this bill, which is why we are publishing a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation. This first installment is the 30,000-foot view. Forthcoming posts will examine the legislative details where the devil – or the better angels – can be found.
A pair of broadband bills in Pennsylvania (one of which has been signed into law by the governor, and the other having passed one chamber) represent a collective step forward for broadband by updating regulations and establishing a broadband grant program so as to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania.
Fewer Restrictions, More Money
The first is House Bill 2438 [pdf], which allows electric cooperatives to use existing easements for an affiliate to deliver broadband service without re-negotiating with property owners. The bill also allows cable companies to use cooperative-owned poles with permission and in accordance with existing rates and regulations. It’s designed to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to bring Internet access to rural parts of the state.
Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said of the legislation:
Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play.
Chad Carrick, President and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative, likewise welcomed the legislation while emphasizing the role electric co-ops will play in the state:
It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband Internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership.
2438 passed the state House in June, the Senate at the end of October, and was signed into law by the governor at the end of last month.
As the nation’s eyes are riveted on the political divide in Georgia and the implications it has for the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, many state residents are also keeping an eye on the digital divide in the Peach State with an aim to expand broadband service to rural residents.
Georgia’s not-for-profit, member-owned electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) are promoting a new “Georgia Solution” to bring more broadband connectivity to the state’s rural regions.
That’s what the statewide trade association representing Georgia’s 41 electric cooperatives is calling its unique “roll out the red carpet” initiative as they hope to lure private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to expand broadband service now that state lawmakers passed the Georgia Broadband Opportunity Act during the 2020 Georgia General Assembly.
The law, signed by Governor Brian Kemp in August, authorizes the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) to set “rates, terms, and conditions for pole attachments between communications service providers and electric membership corporations and their broadband affiliates.”
Filed on October 23 with the state’s PSC to consider for approval, the “Georgia Solution,” aims to entice private ISPs with two “generous and unprecedented offers” -- the “One Buck Deal” and the “Georgia One-Touch-Make-Ready Program.”
Two-Part “Georgia Solution”
Choptank Electric to Bring Broadband to Maryland's Eastern Shore Following New Law and Membership Vote
Almost 54,000 electric cooperative residents will see the benefits of a statewide law change in Maryland after a summer filled with changes. After a state vote to allow deregulation, Choptank Electric, which serves member owners across nine counties in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, voted in August to become member-regulated so that the cooperative can pursue broadband projects in a part of the state that has long suffered from poor or no connectivity options.
A State Law and a Membership Vote
The process unfolded earlier this year, when representatives for the co-op spoke with the legislature in Annapolis about offering broadband to its members. State law at the time meant that electric utilities were regulated by the Public Service Commission, which prevented them from entering the broadband space.
The Eastern Shore sits across Chesapeake Bay, with 450,000 people living across its nine counties. Driven by a lack of connectivity options and a desire for economic development, area legislators submitted HB 999, which drew support from dozens of businesses, 1,200 current Choptank customers, and a number of local governments. The “Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020” [pdf] passed the state legislature on May 8th, 2020, and freed the co-op from regulation by the Public Service Commission. Talbot County resident Pamela Keeton testified to the Senate Finance Committee:
The bottom line is, no one wants to pay taxes and no one wants to spend money, so we’re left with no Internet service.
Last December we wrote about Connecticut’s long-awaited victory by court affirmation in the fight to let its cities attach to utility poles at no cost in pursuit of spurring municipal broadband efforts. A similar effort seems to have stalled in its neighbor to the north, with HD 4492 languishing in the Massachusetts Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.
The bill, “An Act To Establish Municipal Access To Utility Poles Located In Municipal Rights-Of-Way,” is simple. It modifies Chapter 166, Section 22a of the state’s General Laws to eliminate pole attachment fees for cities working to build broadband networks to reach “unserved or underserved areas” (as defined by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)), shifting the expense instead to the current pole owner(s). John Barrett introduced the bill and two dozen fellow legislators co-signed it. It calls for:
Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, for the purpose of safeguarding access to infrastructure essential to public health, safety and welfare, an owner of a shared-use pole and each entity attaching to that pole is responsible for that owner's or entity's own expenses for make-ready work to accommodate a municipality's attaching its facilities to that shared-use pole: a) For a governmental purpose consistent with the police power of the municipality; or b) For the purpose of providing broadband service to an unserved or underserved area.
Up in the Air
Over the summer, Oregon took a second swing at revising its state Universal Service Fund program by passing SB 1603, a bill which will create a larger rural broadband development fund by including retail wireless and VoIP service (in addition to traditional telephone service) in the fees it collects to bring basic connectivity services to unconnected parts of the state. The new law lowers the current tax rate on telecommunications service provider's gross revenue (from 8.5% to 6%) but dramatically broadens the collection base, which will bring in needed dollars to expand broadband access to state residents without it in coming years. The move comes on the heels of the state’s move to establish a Broadband Office in 2018 to “to promote access to broadband services for all Oregonians in order to improve the economy and quality of life.”
Nuts and Bolts
SB 1603, which passed the state legislature on June 26 and was signed into law on July 7, directs the Oregon Business Development Department (OBDD) to transfer up to $5 million of the funds collected each year to a broadband fund for rural development projects, administered by the OBDD. While the amount that will be collected remains unknown at the moment, it will no doubt represent a significant boost: the current mechanism for funding rural information infrastructure projects — the Rural Broadband Capacity Pilot Program — received 25 applications for almost $5 million in requested funding, but was only able to grant $500,000, or 10%. SB 1603 caps the money to be collected by the Oregon Universal Service Fund at $28 million annually.
As a result of SB1603, Oregonians can expect the average cell phone bill would go up by about $4 a year, and those with landline telephone service will see an annual decrease of $12 a year. Some VoIP providers had contributed willingly prior to the bill — that voluntary opt-in is removed.