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ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative Director Christopher Mitchell recently joined Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, for a live discussion centered on the “Investment Implications of a Federal Broadband Infrastructure Bill.”
During the discussion, Christopher breaks down the various pots of money the federal government has dedicated to expanding Internet infrastructure and access to date. He points to the shortcomings of current federal programs, among which are provisions that set aside funds in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the Emergency Broadband Benefit and the Emergency Connectivity Fund going to short-term, incumbent-friendly solutions.
Christopher noted that while the Emergency Broadband Benefit has helped income eligible households by providing $50 to $75 a month subsidies for home Internet subscriptions, it leaves uncertain what the future holds for these communities when the funds run out. Similarly, he points to restrictions placed on the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which limit the ability of schools and libraries to use the funds to build their own networks. Throughout the discussion, Chris maintains that public dollars should be spent on more sustainable, long-term solutions.
News outlets in Ohio have begun to pick up on something we first reported (here and here, thanks to our local allies), sounding the alarm on an Ohio Senate budget amendment that, if passed, would effectively kill municipal broadband networks and other publicly owned and operated broadband projects in the Buckeye State.
In the days following the unveiling of the budget amendment, the law firm IceMiller released an analysis of the overarching consequences if this language makes it into the final budget, outlining the problems not only for cities, but schools, port authorities, and intergovernmental agreements. The analysis suggests that not only would it discourage future investment, but also require many existing operations to cease altogether, to the detriment of Ohio residents and businesses.
‘Set Ohio Back Decades’
This past Sunday, the Akron Beacon Journal published a story on how the proposed amendment has Summit County officials concerned that it could put the region’s celebrated municipal network FairLawnGig out of business with Fairlawn Mayor William Roth saying the proposed legislation “would set Ohio back decades and make the state less attractive for businesses and economic development.”
The Beacon Journal goes on to report that both Mayor Roth and Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro are reaching out to state lawmakers and the governor's office asking that the anti-municipal network language be removed from the proposed budget and are encouraging residents to register their opposition to the amendment with their legislators as well.
‘Vigorous’ Opposition From Local Community Advocates
“Pushed Through in the Dark of Night:” Ohio Senate Aims to Ban Municipal Broadband - Episode 463 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast Christopher is joined by Douglas Adams, the CMO of Think Marketing (the firm which handles the marketing operations for the municipal network FairlawnGig in Ohio), Ernie Staten, Director of Public Service for the city of Fairlawn, and Angela Siefer, Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
The topic of the day is the amendment attached to the upcoming budget for the state of Ohio which, if included in the final version, would make Ohio the first state in a decade to erect barriers to the establishment, expansion, and continuing operation of publicly owned and operation broadband networks.
Douglas, Ernie, and Angela talk about the wide-ranging consequences of this amendment, which was pushed through without any meaningful public debate, and how it would ban the continued operation of existing municipal networks like those run by the cities of Fairlawn, Dublin, Springboro, Wadsworth, and Hudson. At the same time, it would preclude the establishment of new networks, as well as stymie efforts by counties and other public entities to use existing and build new Internet infrastructure to save local governments money or deploy low-cost options to families stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
See our previous coverage here and here. Click here to read a new fact sheet on the benefits that municipal broadband has brought to the state of Ohio, and the widespread impact if the amendment is adopted as-is.
Read our earlier coverage of the amendement here.
Read our new fact sheet [pdf] on all the ways Ohio's community networks have brought value to the state.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
The day after the U.S. Treasury published the Interim Final Rules on how Coronavirus relief funds in the American Rescue Plan Act can be spent, we sounded the alarm because it appears the rules, if finalized as is, would significantly limit local communities’ ability to invest in needed broadband infrastructure.
Last week, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and eight other members of Congress joined the growing number of community broadband advocates who share those concerns.
On Tuesday, May 25, Sen. Wyden sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging her “to ensure any community with service that falls below (the Treasury’s) own standard of 100 (Megabits per second) Mbps upload and download speeds is eligible for funding.”
Two days later, U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-California) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) penned a similar letter that was also signed by Wyden and six other members of Congress (U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, Mike Thompson, Jerry McNerney, Lori Trahan, Peter Welch, and Debbie Dingell). Eshoo and Booker have long led efforts to support local initiatives to expand Internet access with community solutions.
25/3 Not Sufficient
Even as the Treasury acknowledges that families really need 100/100 Mbps service, as the Interim Rules are currently written it suggests communities are expected to focus on areas that do not have 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) wireline service “reliably available.” About 90 percent of Americans have 25/3 “available” to them by flawed federal estimates, although millions lack service because it is unaffordable or effectively unreliable. And there is no standard for reliability that communities can measure against.
The Eshoo/Booker letter is particularly salient on this point:
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.
Every week we write about the municipalities and the cooperatives that come together to bring high-quality, affordable, locally accountable Internet access to those who need it most. And it seems as if we're at a watershed moment as a nation: community solutions to broadband are poised to have their big day.
One of the big questions that remains is who Congress and the White House will listen to in the coming weeks and months as national legislation moves through the D.C. crucible: their constituents, many of whom have spent the past year struggling to work and live on too-expensive, too-slow, or nonexistent broadband connections forged by a broken marketplace, or the monopoly ISPs gearing up for the fight of their lives to snuff out even the specter of competition so they can continue to extract profits from cities and towns large and small across the country.
ILSR's Sean Gonsalves and Christopher Mitchell have an essay out in The American Prospect which outlines both the upcoming fight and the future at stake, as the Biden Administration's American Jobs Plan positions itself to return a level of parity to local solutions in expanding broadband access and promote competition.
Read an excerpt below, but check out the whole piece here:
28 million households have only one Internet service provider offering at least the minimum broadband speed. Many of the supposed competitors are phantoms. And the number of households in areas with more than one ISP offering gigabit speed service is paltry. Only two million households have that choice, or maybe many fewer—the FCC doesn’t really know at any granular level.
Today, Internet access has been largely monopolized by a few big cable companies, even as voice and television services have become more competitive. Government officials have generally responded by seeking to remove barriers to competition, rather than embracing more deliberate pro-competition policies to better shape the markets. But that may be coming to an end.