Some people can’t get FCC subsidy because “Street” isn’t the same as “St.”

A rubber stamp stamping the word,

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | acilo)

Some broadband users who qualify for the government’s new $50-per-month subsidies haven’t been able to obtain the discounts because of technical problems in the Federal Communications Commission’s rollout of the program.

The problems stem from the FCC’s National Verifier and how the broadband providers’ systems interact with the FCC database, as detailed in an article published by Protocol today. Small mismatches between entries in databases—such as having an address recorded as Elm St. in an ISP’s system and Elm Street in the FCC’s—can cause people’s applications to be rejected.

ISPs may be partly to blame as some collected information in the wrong format despite having received training on how to use the system from the FCC. In hindsight, though, the FCC could have allowed ISPs to use the program without requiring such strict data matching. The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) was rolled out quickly relative to other government programs because of the pressing need to get subsidies to consumers, and the FCC hasn’t been able to fully stamp out this problem in the month since the program began.

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#charter, #comcast, #emergency-broadband-benefit, #fcc, #policy

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Verizon forces users onto pricier plans to get $50-per-month gov’t subsidy

Illustration with a Verizon logo on a smartphone screen and a stock market graphic in the background.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | SOPA Images )

Verizon and other Internet service providers are preventing some low-income customers from getting new $50-per-month government subsidies unless they switch to different plans that are sometimes more expensive.

Over 825 ISPs nationwide are selling plans eligible for the new subsidies that the US government made available to people who have low incomes or who lost income during the pandemic. Verizon stands out among big ISPs in its use of the subsidy to “upsell” customers to pricier plans, according to a story yesterday by Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler.

“Soon after the EBB [Emergency broadband Benefit program] launched, I started hearing from Washington Post readers about their frustrations signing up with certain ISPs,” he wrote. “Verizon elicited the most ire from readers.”

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#att, #charter, #comcast, #fcc, #policy, #t-mobile, #verizon

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$50 monthly broadband discounts available starting today via 825 ISPs

A man sitting on the floor and using a laptop.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Oscar Wong)

The Federal Communications Commission today opened enrollment for $50-per-month broadband subsidies for US residents who have low incomes or who lost income during the pandemic. Over 825 Internet service providers across the US are participating in the program, with the full list of ISPs in each state and territory available here. All the biggest ISPs and hundreds of smaller ones are participating, so the subsidies should be available in most areas with home Internet access.

Cable, fiber-to-the-home, DSL, and fixed wireless ISPs are among the home-Internet services included in the program. The subsidies aren’t just for home Internet, as many mobile providers are participating in the program as well. To enroll, go to getemergencybroadband.org and click on “Apply Now.” I received error messages when clicking the link today, but other people said it was working, so hopefully everyone who needs it will be able to get through without much trouble.

Congress approved the subsidy program in December, providing $3.2 billion. “This pandemic-related program will continue until the $3.2 billion in federal funding runs out or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic,” the FCC said today. “Eligible households will be able to receive on their broadband bill a discount of up to $50 per month, or $75 on qualifying Tribal lands. They will also be eligible for a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.”

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#emergency-broadband-subsidies, #fcc, #policy

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FCC begins rollout of $10B in connectivity aid through emergency funds

After months of deliberations, the FCC is ready to start helping people cover the cost of broadband and connected devices through two emergency funds amounting to more than $10 billion. If your household has trouble paying for internet access or shares a single computer, or your wallet has just had a rough year, you probably qualify for help.

The two distinct programs are the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. They sound similar, and in a general sense they do similar things, but they’re distinct programs intended to help close the connectivity gap in America, especially for those most adversely affected by the pandemic.

The first, which we’ll just call the Connectivity Fund, is not something you as an ordinary consumer necessarily need to worry about, but your household may still benefit from it. It’s intended, as FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has explained, to close the “homework gap” specifically, meaning kids who lack the ability to take part in online schoolwork because they lack a suitable device or connection.

The fund will work with schools and libraries to cover the cost of things like portable wi-fi hot spots, tablets, laptops, or other connectivity-related items. Basically, those institutions will do their own work to identify the kids and families that need help, provide what they think is needed, and then send the bill to the FCC.

As a parent, you may have to respond to a survey or talk to your kid’s teacher about what would help most, but you probably won’t have to do much in the way of paperwork. That said, you might ask an administrator whether they’re aware of and participating in the program — it goes through the FCC’s E-rate program, which might be a more familiar term to them.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is the one that ordinary users will need to do a little legwork to take advantage of. This $3B fund is a one-time thing, available only while the money lasts, and the FCC in a call with media wasn’t really able to estimate exactly how long that is likely to be, since it depends on how many people sign up in the first place.

The program subsidizes $50 (or $75 in tribal lands) in broadband costs and provides a one-time $100 discount for hardware, provided you meet the eligibility requirements. The short version is if you qualify for any other federal assistance, like Pell grants, free and reduced-price lunch, Medicaid, etc, you almost certainly qualify here. And if you earn less than $99K and “experienced a substantial loss of income” in the last year, you also qualify — which covers a whole lot more people.

You can apply online or via mail starting tomorrow, May 12, but the easiest thing to do might be to check if your current broadband provider is participating and just ask them to enroll you in the program. They may have their own form you have to fill out, but the result is $50 off your internet for as long as there’s money in the FCC’s $3B bag.

When I asked an FCC representative whether the two programs could complement or interfere with one another in a single household, they said there will probably be some limitations but that specifics will come later. Basically there are provisions to prevent a single internet connection or device from receiving discounts from both programs, but because they’re administered differently you shouldn’t have to worry about that. Just ask the school what they’ve got for you and sign up for the broadband benefit, and you should be good. (Likewise for Lifeline and other benefits — should be fine.)

Incidentally, the two measures were both passed unanimously by the FCC, and the comments of the individual commissioners show that they are pleased to get this out the door — this really is a $10B giveaway to those who need it most, and though it took some time to achieve, it should be helpful to quite a lot of people.

#broadband, #fcc, #government

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Baltimore chief prosecutor asks FCC to stop negative news coverage about her

Baltimore chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby standing outside and talking to a reporter as a person holding a camera films.

Enlarge / Baltimore chief prosecutor Marilyn Mosby being interviewed by NBC News in August 2016, in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested shortly before his death from a spinal cord injury. (credit: Getty Images | Larry French )

Baltimore’s chief prosecutor has asked the Federal Communications Commission to stop a local Fox News affiliate’s negative coverage about her, claiming that the “tone of the coverage” violates FCC rules.

The office of Marilyn Mosby, the Maryland State’s Attorney (SA) for Baltimore, filed the formal complaint last week against “FCC-licensed station WBFF, a Baltimore City-based Fox News-affiliated network.” The complaint asked acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and the rest of the commission “to enlist the full investigative and enforcement powers granted to you by the federal government to take action against the WBFF as soon as possible.” Mosby is a Democrat and WBFF is part of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The closest the complaint comes to alleging a factual error is in reference to a guest on one segment who said that Mosby is “a follower of the George Soros playbook, who’s… bought and paid for these elected DAs.” The complaint said that “State’s Attorney Mosby has never received a penny from George Soros or any of his political groups.” However, that segment was made by one of Sinclair’s national shows that runs on many stations and was not produced by WBFF.

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80% of the 22 million comments on net neutrality rollback were fake, investigation finds

Of the 22 million comments submitted to the FCC regarding 2017’s controversial rollback of net neutrality, some 18 million were fake, an investigation by the New York Attorney General’s office has found. The broadband industry funded the fraudulent creation of about 8.5 million of those, while a 19-year-old college student submitted 7.7 million, and the remainder came from unknown but spurious sources.

The damning report, issued today, is the result of years of work; it set up a tip line early on so people could report fraudulent comments, and no doubt received plenty, as people were already independently finding themselves, dead relatives, and other obviously fake submissions among the record.

It turns out that a huge number of these comments were paid for by a consortium of broadband companies called Broadband for America, which laid out about $4.2 million for the purpose. They contracted with several “lead generator” companies, the kind of shady operations that offer you free trials of “male enhancement pills” or the like if you fill out a form — in this case, asking the person to write an anti-net-neutrality comment.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the lead generation companies didn’t even bother plying their shady trade in what passes for an honest way; instead they fabricated the lists and comments with years-old data and in one case with identities stolen in a major data breach. The practice was near universal:

In all, six lead generators funded by the broadband industry engaged in fraud. As a result, nearly every comment and message the broadband industry submitted to the FCC and Congress was fake, signed using the names and addresses of millions of individuals without their knowledge or consent.

The broadband companies are off the hook on a technicality, since they were careful to firewall themselves from the practices of those they were contracting with, even though the record shows it was plain that the information being collected and used was fraudulent. But because the actions were, ostensibly, independently taken by the enterprising lead generators, the buck stops there.

Notably, these scams were also involved in more than a hundred other advocacy campaigns, including submitting over a million fake comments for an EPA proceeding and millions of other letters and digital comments.

The wholesale undermining of the processes of government earned fines of $3.7M, $550K, and $150K for Fluent Inc, React2Media, and Opt-Intelligence respectively. There are also “comprehensive reforms” imposed on them, though it may be best not to expect much from those.

Internet rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future issued a king-size “I told you so” noting that they had flagged this process at the time and helped bring it to the attention of both government officials and ordinary folks.

Another 7.7 million fake comments were submitted by a single person, a California college student who simply combined a fake name generation site with disposable email service to provide plausible identities. The person automated an individual comment submission process, and somehow the FCC’s systems didn’t flag it. Another unknown person used similar means to submit another 1.6 million fake comments.

Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that “Today’s report demonstrates how the record informing the FCC’s net neutrality repeal was flooded with fraud. This was troubling at the time because even then the widespread problems with the record were apparent. We have to learn from these lessons and improve because the public deserves an open and fair opportunity to tell Washington what they think about the policies that affect their lives.”

Indeed at the time Rosenworcel suggested delaying the vote, joining many in the country who felt the scale of the shenanigans warranted further investigation — but then-Chairman Ajit Pai brushed aside their concerns, one of many decisions that have considerably tarnished his legacy.

Altogether it’s a pretty sad situation, and the broadband companies and their lobbyists get off without so much as a slap on the wrist. The NY AG report has a variety of recommendations, some of which no doubt have already been implemented or suggested as the FCC’s comment debacle became clear, but the bad guys definitely won this time.

#fcc, #government, #net-neutrality, #net-neutrality-repeal, #net-neutrality-vote

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Biggest ISPs paid for 8.5 million fake FCC comments opposing net neutrality

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai talking while standing in front of an FCC seal.

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on December 14, 2017, in Washington, DC, the day of the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality rules. (credit: Getty Images | Alex Wong )

The largest Internet providers in the US funded a campaign that generated “8.5 million fake comments” to the Federal Communications Commission as part of the ISPs’ fight against net neutrality rules during the Trump administration, according to a report issued today by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.

Nearly 18 million out of 22 million comments were fabricated, including both pro- and anti-net neutrality submissions, the report said. One 19-year-old submitted 7.7 million pro-net neutrality comments under fake, randomly generated names. But the astroturfing effort funded by the broadband industry stood out because it used real people’s names without their consent, with third-party firms hired by the industry faking consent records, the report said.

The NY AG’s office began its investigation in 2017 and said it faced stonewalling from then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who refused requests for evidence. But after a years-long process of obtaining and analyzing “tens of thousands of internal emails, planning documents, bank records, invoices, and data comprising hundreds of millions of records,” the NY AG said it “found that millions of fake comments were submitted through a secret campaign, funded by the country’s largest broadband companies, to manufacture support for the repeal of existing net neutrality rules using lead generators.”

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#ajit-pai, #fcc, #net-neutrality, #policy

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Ajit Pai joins American Enterprise Institute and a firm that invests in ISPs

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wearing a mask at a Senate hearing.

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says goodbye to members of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee afters testifying during a hearing on June 16, 2020, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla)

After four years of running the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai is now working for a conservative think tank and a private-equity firm.

The American Enterprise Institute on Friday announced that the ex-FCC chairman “is joining AEI as a visiting fellow” and “will work on issues pertaining to technology and innovation, telecommunications regulation, and market-based incentives for investment in broadband deployment.”

Earlier last week, Searchlight Capital Partners announced the appointment of Pai “as a partner and a prospective board member of a number of Searchlight’s existing investments in the technology, media, and telecommunications sectors.” Searchlight’s current investments include two Internet service providers in the US, Consolidated Communications and Ziply Fiber, and several ISPs overseas.

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#ajit-pai, #fcc, #policy

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FCC reveals sign-up date and website for $50-per-month broadband subsidies

A $50 bill in US currency.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Douglas Sacha)

Enrollment for $50-per-month broadband subsidies for US residents with low incomes or those who lost income during the pandemic will begin on May 12, the Federal Communications Commission announced today. The FCC also set up a new website at which people can sign up for the subsidies.

“As of May 12, 2021, eligible households will be able to enroll in the program to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service from an approved provider. Eligible households can enroll through an approved provider or by visiting https://getemergencybroadband.org,” the FCC said.

The subsidies were approved by Congress in December, but it took a few months for the FCC to set up the program. The FCC had previously said enrollment would begin at the end of April. Check out this list of providers to determine whether your ISP is participating in the discount program. There’s also a “Companies Near Me” tool that will become active closer to the May 12 start date.

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#broadband-subsidy, #fcc, #policy

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FCC lets SpaceX cut satellite altitude to improve Starlink speed and latency

A SpaceX Starlink user terminal, also known as a satellite dish, seen against a city's skyline.

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX today was granted permission to use a lower orbit for Starlink satellites, as regulators agreed with SpaceX that the change will improve broadband speed and latency while making it easier to minimize orbital debris. In granting SpaceX’s request, the Federal Communications Commission dismissed opposition from Viasat, Hughes, Dish Network, OneWeb, the Amazon subsidiary known as Kuiper, and other satellite companies that claimed the change would cause too much interference with other systems.

In 2018, SpaceX received FCC approval to launch 4,425 broadband satellites at orbits of 1,110 km to 1,325 km. Today’s FCC order granting SpaceX’s license-change request lowers the altitude for 2,814 of the satellites, letting them orbit in the 540-570 km range. Today’s FCC order will also let SpaceX use a lower elevation angle for antennas on user terminals and gateway Earth stations.

“Based on our review, we agree with SpaceX that the modification will improve the experience for users of the SpaceX service, including in often-underserved polar regions,” the FCC order said. “We conclude that the lower elevation angle of its earth station antennas and lower altitude of its satellites enables a better user experience by improving speeds and latency.”

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#biz-it, #fcc, #policy, #satellite-broadband, #spacex, #starlink

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100,000 people ask Biden, will ya break that 2-2 FCC deadlock already?

President Joe Biden speaking at a podium, with American flags in the background.

Enlarge / President Joe Biden speaks during an event on gun control in the Rose Garden at the White House April 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Alex Wong )

Over 105,000 people have signed a petition urging President Biden to quickly break the Federal Communications Commission’s 2-2 deadlock between Democrats and Republicans.

Senate Republicans created the 2-2 deadlock in December 2020 by confirming a Trump nominee during the lame-duck session before Democrats took control of the White House and Senate. If not for that confirmation, the FCC would have had a 2-1 Democratic majority heading into Biden’s presidency. But with the FCC stuck in partisan deadlock, consumer advocates say that Biden must act quickly to add a Democratic commissioner.

The petition is on the Battle for the Net website operated by advocacy groups Fight for the Future and Demand Progress. The groups said:

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#biden, #fcc, #jessica-rosenworcel, #policy

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FCC wants to hear from Americans who’ve been ignored by broadband industry

FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel sitting at a table and speaking during a Senate committee hearing.

Enlarge / FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel speaks during a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing on June 24, 2020, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Jonathan Newton)

The Federal Communications Commission wants to hear from Internet users about their experiences trying to find good broadband service. The FCC announced yesterday that it is seeking “first-hand accounts on broadband availability and service quality directly from consumers” as part of a new data collection effort. People who live in areas where ISPs either haven’t deployed service or have failed to upgrade old networks may be especially interested in participating.

“Far too many Americans are left behind in access to jobs, education, and healthcare if they do not have access to broadband,” acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. “Collecting data from consumers who are directly affected by the lack of access to broadband will help inform the FCC’s mapping efforts and future decisions about where service is needed.” Rosenworcel shared those sentiments on Twitter as well:

Anyone who wants to participate can fill out the “Share Your Broadband Experience” form at this webpage. While the FCC is trying to find unserved areas, people with broadband access can also tell the FCC about the quality of their current ISPs. “Your experience with the availability and quality of broadband services at your location will help to inform the FCC’s efforts to close the digital divide,” the FCC said.

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#broadband-maps, #fcc, #jessica-rosenworcel, #policy

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Proposed law could force ISPs to stop hiding true size of monthly bills

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | McCaig)

Internet service providers could be required to release “broadband nutrition labels” with detailed information about prices, speeds, and data caps under legislation introduced by US Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.).

Craig’s “Broadband Consumer Transparency Act” would bring back expanded transparency requirements that were eliminated when then-Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality rules and deregulated the broadband industry in December 2017.

The bill “would require straightforward disclosures in an easily understandable format to help consumers better understand the services they are purchasing and protect against hidden fees and sub-standard Internet performance,” Craig said in a press release yesterday. The press release said the bill “would require sellers of broadband services to provide the following information to all consumers”:

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#broadband, #broadband-nutrition-label, #data-caps, #fcc, #policy

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100Mbps uploads and downloads should be US broadband standard, senators say

Illustration of fiber-optic cables.

Enlarge / Illustration of fiber-optic cables. (credit: Getty Images | Tetra Images)

Four US senators called on the Biden administration Thursday to establish a “21st century definition of high-speed broadband” of 100Mbps both upstream and downstream. This would be a big upgrade over the Federal Communications Commission broadband standard of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream, which was established in 2015 and never updated by former President Trump’s FCC chair, Ajit Pai.

Today’s letter was sent to FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and other federal officials by two Democrats, one independent who caucuses with Democrats, and one Republican. Noting that “the pandemic has reinforced the importance of high-speed broadband and underscored the cost of the persistent digital divide in our country,” they wrote:

Going forward, we should make every effort to spend limited federal dollars on broadband networks capable of providing sufficient download and upload speeds and quality, including low latency, high reliability, and low network jitter, for modern and emerging uses, like two-way videoconferencing, telehealth, remote learning, health IoT, and smart grid applications. Our goal for new deployment should be symmetrical speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), allowing for limited variation when dictated by geography, topography, or unreasonable cost.

“We should also insist that new networks supported with federal funds meet this higher standard, with limited exceptions for truly hard-to-reach locations,” the senators wrote later in the letter. “For years, we have seen billions in taxpayer dollars subsidize network deployments that are outdated as soon as they are complete, lacking in capacity and failing to replace inadequate broadband infrastructure.”

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#broadband, #fcc, #policy, #upload-speed

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Verizon and AT&T dominate spectrum auction, spending combined $69 billion

A US map with lines representing communications networks.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | metamorworks)

Verizon and AT&T dominated the US government’s latest spectrum auction, spending a combined $68.9 billion on licenses in the upper 3GHz band.

Verizon’s winning bids totaled $45.45 billion, while AT&T’s came in at $23.41 billion. T-Mobile was third with $9.34 billion as the three biggest wireless carriers accounted for the vast majority of the $81.17 billion in winning bids, the Federal Communications Commission said in results released yesterday. US Cellular, a regional carrier, was a distant fourth in spending, at $1.28 billion, but came in third, ahead of T-Mobile, in the number of licenses won.

The auction distributed 280MHz worth of spectrum in the “C-Band” between 3.7GHz and 3.98GHz. This spectrum will help carriers boost network capacity with mid-band frequencies that cover large geographic areas and penetrate walls more effectively than the higher millimeter-wave frequencies that provide the fastest 5G speeds to very limited geographic areas.

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#5g, #att, #biz-it, #fcc, #policy, #spectrum-auction, #t-mobile, #verizon

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FCC proposes rules for emergency broadband program to keep struggling families online

The FCC has taken a major step towards offering financial support for people struggling to pay broadband bills during the pandemic. If approved, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program could provide $50 per month to millions of households, and more in tribal lands.

The EBBP was created in the budget passed by Congress earlier this year, which earmarked $3.2 billion to offset the cost of broadband in households already struggling to make ends meet.

“From work to healthcare to education, this crisis has made it clear that without an internet connection too many households are locked out of modern life,” said acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “It’s more apparent than ever that broadband is no longer nice-to-have. It’s need-to-have. But too many of us are struggling to afford this critical service.”

The general shape of the EBBP was already known, but since Congress first proposed it last year it has been up to the FCC to decide what it would actually look like. The rules for the program Rosenworcel circulated at the agency today are an important step in taking it from idea to reality.

The important bit is spelling out exactly who qualifies for the benefit — to wit, anyone who:

  • Qualifies for the FCC’s existing Lifeline connectivity subsidy program
  • Receives free and reduce-price school lunch or breakfast benefits
  • Received a Pell Grant
  • Meets other eligibility requirements for internet providers’ existing low-income or pandemic-related programs
  • “Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020”

That last one is a bit vague, and I’ve asked the FCC for more details (the proposed rules are not yet public). It may involve something like qualifying for unemployment benefits or showing a given percentage reduction in income. Depending on exactly what is specified it could greatly increase the scope of the program. I’ve asked the FCC for more details.

Most qualifying households would get $50 per month, and those living on tribal lands would get $75 per month. There’s also the possibility of a one-time $100 to help cover the cost of a device purchased from certain providers.

Unfortunately there are plenty more steps before anyone is likely to get these discounts. The FCC will have to approve and vote on the rules, which even at the fastest pace may take a couple months. And then there is a period of considering requests from providers, which could take up further time. All told it could take as few as three months if everything goes at maximum speed, or much more than that if they get bogged down in red tape.

Now that the rules are at least set down, though, it is likely only a matter of time — a small comfort to those having trouble making ends meet, but it’s something to look forward to.

#fcc, #government

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Huawei files suit over security threat designation

Earlier this week, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei spoke rather diplomatically about the company’s hopes of holding talks with the new U.S. administration. The hardware giant is also taking a less conciliatory route, challenging its FCC designation as a national security threat.

The company this week filed a suit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, calling the FCC ruling, “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion and not supported by substantial evidence.”

Questions have swirled around the smartphone maker’s ties to the Chinese government for years, but the U.S. greatly ramped up actions against Huawei during the Trump years. The federal government has taken a number of routes to essentially kneecap the company, including, notably, its addition to the Department of Commerce’s “entity list,” which effectively barred it from working with U.S. companies.

Huawei likely sees a change in U.S. governance as an opportunity to be reevaluated by the powers that be. The company has long denied spying and other security charges. “I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” Ren earlier this week told the media that he was eager to speak with Biden. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”

In a statement offered to The Wall Street Journal, however, an FCC spokesperson stayed firm to the 2020 decision, stating, “Last year the FCC issued a final designation identifying Huawei as a national security threat based on a substantial body of evidence developed by the FCC and numerous U.S. national security agencies. We will continue to defend that decision.”

Thus far, the Biden administration hasn’t indicated any plans to soften restrictions on Huawei. Facing opposition from Republican lawmakers, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo noted, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”

The Biden administration does appear to be reviewing other actions against Chinese companies taken during the Trump administration. Notably, a planned forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. wing has been put on hold while the White House reassesses security concerns.

#biden, #fcc, #hardware, #huawei, #policy

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ISPs step up fight against SpaceX, tell FCC that Starlink will be too slow

A US map with lines and dots representing broadband access.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | imaginima)

More broadband-industry groups are lining up against SpaceX’s bid to get nearly $900 million in Federal Communications Commission funding. Two groups representing fiber and rural Internet providers yesterday submitted a report to the FCC claiming that Starlink will hit a capacity shortfall in 2028, when the satellite service may be required to hit a major FCC deployment deadline.

The study was commissioned by the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. They are urging the FCC to carefully examine whether SpaceX’s Starlink broadband service should receive money from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which recently awarded SpaceX $885.51 million over 10 years to bring Starlink to 642,925 homes and businesses in 35 states. The funding for SpaceX and other ISPs won’t be finalized until the FCC reviews their long-form applications, which were submitted after the reverse auction.

In a filing accompanying the study they commissioned, the FBA and NTCA told the FCC:

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#biz-it, #fcc, #policy, #spacex, #starlink

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SpaceX Starlink passes 10,000 users and fights opposition to FCC funding

A SpaceX Starlink user terminal, also known as a satellite dish, seen against a city's skyline.

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish. (credit: SpaceX)

Lobby groups for small ISPs are urging the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether SpaceX can deliver on its broadband promises and to consider blocking the satellite provider’s rural-broadband funding. Meanwhile, SpaceX says the Starlink beta is now serving high-speed broadband to 10,000 users.

SpaceX was one of the biggest winners in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), winning $885.51 million over 10 years to bring Starlink broadband to 642,925 homes and businesses in 35 states. Overall, the reverse auction awarded $9.2 billion ($920 million per year) in funding for 180 entities nationwide to expand networks to 5.2 million homes and businesses that currently don’t have access to modern broadband speeds.

But funding winners still had to submit “long-form applications” by January 29 to provide “additional information about qualifications, funding, and the network that they intend to use to meet their obligations.” The FCC will review those applications to determine whether any funding should be revoked.

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#biz-it, #fcc, #policy, #spacex, #starlink

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CenturyLink, Frontier missed FCC broadband deadlines in dozens of states

A CenturyLink service van seen from behind, with several CenturyLink logos visible.

Enlarge / A CenturyLink service van parked in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on May 2, 2019. (credit: Getty Images | Robert Alexander )

CenturyLink and Frontier Communications have again failed to meet broadband-deployment deadlines in dozens of states after taking money from the Federal Communications Commission.

When the FCC awarded Connect America Fund Phase II grants in 2015, CenturyLink accepted $505.7 million in annual support over six years in exchange for deploying broadband with 10Mbps download speeds and 1Mbps upload speeds to 1.17 million homes and businesses in 33 states. Frontier accepted $283.4 million in annual support over six years to deploy service to 659,587 homes and business in 28 states.

The deadline to hit 100 percent of the required deployments passed on December 31, 2020. Both CenturyLink and Frontier informed the FCC that they missed the deadline to finish deployment in numerous states.

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#centurylink, #fcc, #frontier, #policy

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Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel replaces Ajit Pai, is now acting FCC chairwoman

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel speaking at a Senate committee hearing in June 2020.

Enlarge / Jessica Rosenworcel answers a question during a Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing to examine the Federal Communications Commission on June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Jonathan Newton)

President Joe Biden today appointed Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to be the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. Rosenworcel became an FCC commissioner in 2012 and served in a Democratic majority during the Obama years and in a Democratic minority during the Trump years.

“I am honored to be designated as the Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age.”

With ex-Chairman Ajit Pai having left the FCC yesterday, there is a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans. To form a 3-2 Democratic majority, Biden will have to nominate a new commissioner and secure confirmation from the Senate—which shouldn’t be too difficult now that Democrats control the chamber. Biden’s decision to promote Rosenworcel from commissioner to acting chairwoman does not require Senate approval.

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#biden, #fcc, #jessica-rosenworcel, #policy

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The FCC has its first Chairwoman in Jessica Rosenworcel

The Biden administration has officially appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel acting FCC Chairwoman, making her the first woman to hold the position, and she will likely be nominated to fill the position formally later in the year. With her record of standing for equal access, industry accountability, and net neutrality, Rosenworcel’s FCC will be very different from her predecessor’s.

“I am honored to be designated as the Acting Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden.  I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff.  It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” she said in a statement.

While Rosenworcel’s agenda will be made clear over the coming weeks and months, it is likely we will see the return of net neutrality from the shallow grave dug for it by Ajit Pai, and probably a new effort to better understand where in the country actually needs help getting broadband to those who need it, and how to do so quickly and equitably. Her first items of business, however, will likely pertain to getting internet access to those most affected by the pandemic.

(Disclosure: The FCC regulates TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, but this has no effect on our coverage.)

Rosenworcel first started at the FCC in 2003, and filled other federal communications regulation roles over the years. She was nominated for Commissioner by President Obama in 2011 (confirmed in 2012), and was in the running for Chair in 2013, though Tom Wheeler ended up taking the spot. Her second term as Commissioner began in 2017.

Throughout her tenure at the FCC Rosenworcel has pushed for net neutrality and improved broadband access for schools and economically disadvantaged areas. During Ajit Pai’s tumultuous term as Chairman she offered implacable resistance to what she saw as an unjustified hands-off approach to regulating telecoms, and a fierce indictment of the FCC’s failure to act in the best interest of the people it serves. Here are a few examples.

At the 2017 vote killing net neutrality, Rosenworcel was unsparing in voicing her fury at the shadiness of the entire rulemaking process:

I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public.

In 2018, with an epidemic of robocalling growing by the month, she contradicted Pai’s claim that a $120M fine (almost certainly never collected) for one offender proved there was a “cop on the beat”:

Today the FCC adopts a forfeiture order to impose a penalty on one operation that made tens of millions of robocalls two years ago.  I support it.  But let’s be honest: Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon—and right now we’re all wet.

That the industry still has not widely adopted the framework that would nip robocalls in the bud is testament to this, though they should soon after the FCC finally got in gear. (This year she also contributed a piece to TechCrunch to call for immediate action on the rollout of 5G.)

In 2019, Rosenworcel called out the agency’s seeming lack of concern about a major loophole in telecoms regulation that allowed every mobile service vendor to essentially sell real-time location data to anyone willing to pay for it:

The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable.

Her office released letters to the agency from the major carriers as a stopgap measure to inform people. When the FCC finally formally moved against the practice, she noted “It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”

In 2020, Rosenworcel raised for the nth time the FCC’s lack of good data concerning broadband deployment in the country. The problem had rankled for years but was highlighted by a spectacular failure to vet industry data provided more or less on the honor system, which ended up throwing off numbers nationally:

This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC. In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.

An embarrassing demonstration of how poor the current system is. Of the broadband report itself she had written earlier:

This report deserves a failing grade. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.

After all, if the FCC doesn’t know who actually is getting decent broadband and who isn’t, how can they direct funds to help bridge that gap?

Lastly, late in 2020 when Pai caved to administration pressure to reevaluate the hugely important Section 230, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, Rosenworcel once again summed up the situation simply and honestly:

The timing of this effort is absurd. The FCC has no business being the president’s speech police.

This abortive attempt to weaken Section 230 never had legs to begin with and will not be pursued further, according to an FCC source.

These are only a handful of the more high-profile moments of Rosenworcel’s latest term, and in fact it is something of a disservice to list just them. The work of an FCC Commissioner, their staff, and the bureaus they rely on, is largely obscure and technical, with moments like those listed above more the exception than the rule.

With the last-minute confirmation of Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington, the FCC is currently at a 2-2 in its normally 3-2 partisan makeup in favor of the presiding administration. Since Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia, a fifth Commissioner will likely be nominated and confirmed in short order so that work can begin. We’ll know more about Rosenworcel’s priorities and agenda soon.

#fcc, #government, #jessica-rosenworcel, #tc

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3Mbps uploads still fast enough for US homes, Ajit Pai says in final report

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wearing a mask at a Senate hearing.

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says goodbye to members of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee afters testifying during a hearing on June 16, 2020, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla)

In one of his last acts as Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai decided to stick with the FCC’s 6-year-old broadband standard of 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload speeds.

The decision was announced yesterday in the FCC’s annual broadband-deployment report, released one day before Pai’s departure from the FCC. As in all previous years of Pai’s chairmanship, the report concludes that the telecom industry is doing enough to extend broadband access to all Americans—despite FCC Democrats saying the facts don’t support that conclusion.

Pai’s report said:

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#ajit-pai, #fcc, #policy

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As Ajit Pai exits FCC, Charter admits defeat on petition to impose data caps

Illustration of Internet data, symbolized by ones and zeroes moving through a pipe.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Andrzej Wojcicki)

Charter Communications has withdrawn a petition seeking government permission to impose data caps on broadband users this year.

Unlike other ISPs, Charter is subject to the prohibition on data caps and overage fees until May 2023 because of seven-year conditions applied to its 2016 purchase of Time Warner Cable. In June 2020, Charter petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to let the condition expire two years early, on May 18, 2021.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sought public comment on the petition but never took final action, even though he had opposed the merger conditions when they were imposed by the Obama-era FCC. With Pai leaving the FCC upon President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, Charter submitted a brief filing stating that it “respectfully withdraws its petition.”

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#charter-communications, #data-caps, #fcc, #policy, #spectrum

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Senator tries to block Frontier’s FCC funding, citing ISP’s various failures

A Frontier Communications service van parked in a snowy area.

Enlarge / A Frontier Communications service van. (credit: Mike Mozart / Flickr)

A Republican US senator from West Virginia has asked the government to block broadband funding earmarked for Frontier Communications, saying that the ISP is not capable of delivering gigabit-speed Internet service to all required locations.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) outlined her concerns in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai last week. Capito told Pai that Frontier has mismanaged previous government funding and seems to lack both the technological capabilities and financial ability to deliver on its new obligations.

Frontier, which filed for bankruptcy in April, is one of 180 ISPs that won funding in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse-auction results announced last week. Frontier is due to receive $370.9 million over 10 years to bring broadband to 127,188 homes and businesses in eight states. Frontier’s biggest payout is in West Virginia, where it is due to receive $247.6 million over 10 years to expand its broadband network to 79,391 locations.

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#fcc, #frontier-communications, #policy, #shelley-moore-capito, #west-virginia

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SpaceX won “rural” FCC funding in surprising places, like major airports

A man holding a briefcase full of money.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | aluxum)

The Federal Communications Commission last week awarded $9.2 billion to 180 broadband providers, saying the money will bring Internet access to 5.2 million “unserved” homes and businesses in rural areas across the United States. But consumer advocates say they’ve found major problems in the FCC’s funding choices, such as sending money to wealthy urban areas that are adjacent to high-speed networks. SpaceX is among the biggest beneficiaries of the funding decisions that have drawn criticism.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is “subsidiz[ing] broadband for the rich,” according to the title of an analysis last week by Derek Turner, research director at advocacy group Free Press. Turner has a strong track record analyzing FCC broadband data, and last year found major errors in Pai’s broadband-deployment claims.

Pai’s priority seems to be “closing the golf-course and parking-lot digital divide,” Turner wrote. The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund—despite its name—is devoting a significant portion of its money to urban and suburban areas, he wrote. While there are broadband shortages in urban areas, Turner argues that some of the FCC money is going to urban areas that existing cable or fiber ISPs could serve with just minor extensions of their existing networks.

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#charter, #fcc, #policy, #spacex

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Senate confirms Nathan Simington as FCC Commissioner, potentially setting up years of stonewalling

The Senate today confirmed the appointment of Nathan Simington to the FCC, which with the imminent departure of Chairman Ajit Pai sets up the agency for years of deadlock unless Democrats take the Senate. The last-minute appointment breaks with political norms, and the vote was entirely on party lines after Democrats objected to the nomination.

Simington has been a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where recently he helped craft the public-relations effort there around Trump’s attacks on Section 230, the law that prevents companies like Twitter and Amazon from being liable for things posted on them by users. (The outgoing President primarily objects to the frequent labeling of his tweets as misleading or outright false.)

The rush to confirm a new Commissioner follows the unceremonious dumping of Mike O’Rielly, a Republican Commissioner who has generally fallen in line with this administration’s policies but made the fatal error of speaking out against the effort to change Section 230. Due to be nominated for another term, he was instead dropped in favor of Simington, who has demonstrated no scruple about using the FCC as a muzzle for social media.

Numerous Democratic Senators objected to Simington, questioning his qualifications for the job. Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) noted that “during his confirmation hearing even the most basic questions about FCC issues seemed to trip [him] up,” while Sen. Marie Hirono (D-HI) said his “only qualification is his eagerness to defend the President’s attacks on the First Amendment and Sec. 230.”

Indeed, considering his lack of experience, it seems to be purely for political purposes that Simington has been nominated and confirmed for a five-year term in such short order.

Traditionally what would happen at this point would be that O’Rielly would continue on until the new administration nominated and confirmed him along with its pick for a new chair and Democratic Commissioner (the FCC is balanced 3-2 in favor of the administration’s party, but is technically independent).

However, with Republicans as likely as not to control the Senate come January — depending entirely on the outcome of the run-off in Georgia — there is an opportunity here for the party to obstruct the FCC’s work by rushing a single nomination and confirmation, establishing a 2-2 tie that could be maintained by declining to confirm any nomination by the Biden administration.

In such a situation, the FCC would essentially be frozen. Without a majority, neither side would be able to pass rules and regulations, since it’s nearly certain that the opposing two Commissioners would vote against them. While some work could occur at the bureau level, and ordinary business like collecting fees and so on could happen, there would be no big moves like reestablishing net neutrality or establishing consumer protections from broadband companies. If desired, this deadlock could potentially last for years.

That’s not the only possible outcome, of course. Should the Democrats win the day in Georgia, the 50-50 split in the Senate, with ties broken by Vice President-Elect Harris, would allow for them to confirm a full slate at this and other agencies. It’s also conceivable that even with control of the Senate, the Republicans could allow a nomination through in return for various concessions, like sympathetic appointees at other independent agencies.

#fcc, #government, #nathan-simington

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GOP clinches 2-2 deadlock for Biden FCC as Senate approves Trump nominee

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr stand next to each other in a Senate hearing room.

Enlarge / Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, two of the FCC’s three Republicans, talk before the start of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on August 16, 2018. (credit: Getty Images | Bill Clark )

The Republican-controlled US Senate today confirmed a Trump nominee to the Federal Communications Commission, ensuring that President-elect Joe Biden’s FCC will be deadlocked at 2-2 upon his inauguration.

The Senate voted along party lines to confirm Nathan Simington, a Trump administration official who helped draft a petition asking the FCC to make it easier to sue social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Democrats say he is unqualified for the position.

“During his confirmation hearing even the most basic questions about FCC issues seemed to trip up Nathan Simington. It’s clear he is wholly unqualified to help lead this agency,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter today.

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#fcc, #nathan-simington, #policy, #senate

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SpaceX snags $885M from FCC to serve rural areas with Starlink

The FCC has just published the results of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, which sounds rather stiff but involves distributing billions to broadband providers that bring solid internet connections to under-served rural areas “on the wrong side of the digital divide.” $885 million is earmarked for SpaceX, whose Starlink satellite service could be a game-changer for places where laying fiber isn’t an option.

Only three other companies garnered more funds: Charter with $1.22 billion; Minnesota and Iowa provider LTD Broadband with $1.32B; and utility collective Rural Electric Cooperate Consortium with $1.1B. Those are all traditional wireline based broadband, and a quick perusal of the list of grantees suggests no other satellite broadband provider made the cut. 180 bidders were awarded support in total.

The $9.2B auction (though the specifics of the process itself are not relevant) essentially asks for bids on how much a company can provide service  to a given area for, ideally with a 100 megabit downstream and 20 up. Local companies can collect the hundred grand necessary to fund a fiber line where there’s now copper, and big multi-state concerns may promise to undertake major development projects for hundreds of millions of dollars.

SpaceX’s Starlink has the advantage of not requiring any major construction projects to reach people out in the boonies. All that’s needed is a dish and for their home to be in the area currently covered by the rapidly expanding network of satellites in low-Earth orbit. That means the company can undercut many of its competitors — in theory anyway.

Starlink has not had any major rollout yet, only small test deployments, which according to SpaceX have gone extremely well. The first wave of beta testers for the service will be expected to pay $99 per month plus a one-time $500 installation fee, but what the cost of the commercial service would be is anyone’s guess (probably a bit lower).

In order to secure the $885B in the FCC’s auction, SpaceX would need to demonstrate that it can provide solid service to the areas it claims to for a reasonable price, so we can expect the costs to be in line with terrestrial broadband offerings. No other satellite broadband provider operates in that price range (Swarm offers IoT connection for $5/month, but that’s a totally different category).

The FCC doesn’t just knock on Elon Musk’s door with a big check, though. The company must demonstrate “periodic buildout requirements” at the locations it’s promised, at which point funds will be disbursed. This continues for a period of several years, and should help the fledgling internet provider stay alive while undergoing the rigors and uncertainties of launch. By the time the FCC cash dries up the company will ideally have several million subscribers propping it up.

This is “Phase I” of the auction, targeting the areas most in need of new internet service; Phase II will cover “partially-served” areas that perhaps have one good provider but no competition. Whether SpaceX will be able (or want) to make a push there is unclear, though the confidence with which the company has been approaching the market suggests it may make a limited play for these somewhat more hardened target markets.

The push for expanding rural broadband has been a particular focus for outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who had this to say about its success so far:

We structured this innovative and groundbreaking auction to be technologically neutral and to prioritize bids for high-speed, low-latency offerings.  We aimed for maximum leverage of taxpayer dollars and for networks that would meet consumers’ increasing broadband needs, and the results show that our strategy worked. This auction was the single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide and is another key success for the Commission in its ongoing commitment to universal service. I thank our staff for working so hard and so long to get this auction done on time, particularly during the pandemic.

You can read the full list of auction winners at the FCC’s press release here.

#broadband, #fcc, #gadgets, #hardware, #satellite-internet, #space, #spacex, #starlink

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SpaceX gets $886 million from FCC to subsidize Starlink in 35 states

A SpaceX Starlink satellite dish placed on the ground in a forest clearing.

Enlarge / Starlink satellite dish and equipment in the Idaho panhandle’s Coeur d’Alene National Forest. (credit: Wandering-coder)

SpaceX has been awarded $885.51 million by the Federal Communications Commission to provide Starlink broadband to 642,925 rural homes and businesses in 35 states. The satellite provider was one of the biggest winners in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, the results of which were released today. Funding is distributed over 10 years, so SpaceX’s haul will amount to a little over $88.5 million per year.

Charter Communications, the second-largest US cable company after Comcast, did even better. Charter is set to receive $1.22 billion over 10 years to bring service to 1.06 million homes and businesses in 24 states.

FCC funding can be used in different ways depending on the type of broadband service. Cable companies like Charter and other wireline providers generally use the money to expand their networks into new areas that don’t already have broadband. But with Starlink, SpaceX could theoretically provide service to all of rural America once it has launched enough satellites, even without FCC funding.

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#biz-it, #charter, #fcc, #policy, #rdof, #spacex

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Senate may confirm Trump FCC nominee next week, cementing 2-2 deadlock

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointing his finger at a news conference.

Enlarge / Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell conducts a news conference in the US Capitol on Tuesday, December 1, 2020. (credit: Getty Images | Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has moved to end debate over a Trump nomination that would deadlock the Federal Communications Commission, setting up a vote that could happen as soon as next week.

McConnell yesterday filed a cloture motion on Trump’s nomination of Republican Nathan Simington to the FCC. McConnell’s motion came one day after the Senate Commerce Committee voted 14-12 along party lines to advance the nomination to the full Senate.

“If Simington is confirmed, the FCC could initially be deadlocked 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans when Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month. Some officials think the Senate might not confirm [a Biden] appointee to the commission for months, if not longer,” Reuters wrote yesterday.

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#biden, #fcc, #mitch-mcconnell, #nathan-simington, #policy

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Senate rushes to confirm Trump FCC nominee in order to hinder Biden admin

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) speaking at a Senate hearing.

Enlarge / Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) at an FCC oversight hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee on June 24, 2020. (credit: Getty Images | Washington Post)

Senate Republicans are rushing to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Communications Commission in order to create a 2-2 deadlock for the Biden FCC.

In a 14-12 party-line vote today, the Senate Commerce Committee approved Trump’s nomination of Nathan Simington. If Simington is confirmed by the full Senate, the FCC would be deadlocked at two Republicans and two Democrats after the upcoming departures of Chairman Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly. To get a 3-2 majority on the FCC, President-elect Joe Biden would have to nominate a Democrat after taking office and hope that the Senate confirms the nomination.

Senate Democrats said today that Simington is not qualified to be an FCC commissioner and that he misrepresented his work in the Trump administration during the committee’s confirmation process.

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#biden, #fcc, #nathan-simington, #policy, #trump

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will step down to make way for the Biden administration

The Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has announced he will leave his position on January 20 as President-elect Biden is sworn in. Pai’s tenure has been a controversial one, and while he would almost certainly like to be remembered for his efforts to “bridge the digital divide,” as he was fond of saying, it is the dismantling of net neutrality that will be his legacy.

It is traditional at the FCC for the Chairman to leave when the administration changes parties. Pai took over when Tom Wheeler, who chaired the Commission at the end of the Obama years, resigned upon Trump’s election. The Biden administration has not announced its pick for the new leader of the communications agency.

In an official FCC memo, Pai thanked his colleagues and summarized the accomplishments of his four years at the helm (as, it must also be said, the first Commissioner of Asian descent):

Together, we’ve delivered for the American people over the past four years: closing the digital divide; promoting innovation and competition, from 5G on the ground to broadband from space; protecting consumers; and advancing public safety.

I am proud of how productive this Commission has been, from commencing five spectrum auctions and two rural broadband reverse auctions in four years, to opening 1,245 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for unlicensed use, to adopting more than 25 orders through our Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative, to aggressively protecting our communications networks from national security threats at home and abroad, to designating 988 as the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and much, much more.

Notably absent from that list is Pai’s unfortunate magnum opus and arguably the effort that got him the job: the elimination of 2015’s net neutrality rules. The tremendously dishonest and partisan campaign to overturn these popular and important curbs on broadband companies put a stink on Pai’s tenure at the outset that no amount of good work could wash out.

For as always, the bulk of the FCC’s duties fly under the public’s radar, and a great deal of work was done under Pai, as under any other administration, invisibly and thanklessly. (Though in some cases less invisibly than before — Pai’s FCC did make improvements to transparency, in some ways anyhow.)

Surely Pai’s greatest priority was, as indeed he often stated, ameliorating the “digital divide” that prevents millions of Americans from enjoying affordable, fast internet. Numerous new programs and funds were created to improve this situation, but Pai was hampered by bad information — essentially provided on the honor system by ISPs themselves — and the seemingly endless rollout of 5G, which we’re all still waiting on.

His final effort, alas, will not much improve the opinion of him at large. As Trump raged impotently about Section 230, a law that shields internet companies from liability for the actions of their users, Pai took up that flag and announced his intention to revisit and perhaps change the interpretation of it — a month before the election. The simpering, plainly political nature of the effort, almost certain now to be aborted entirely, attracted considerable criticism, makes for a poor final chapter in an already troubling story.

The next step for the FCC is the nomination and confirmation of a new Chairman and replacement Commissioners, and though several names have been floated by political insiders, no one has emerged yet as the heir apparent.

#ajit-pai, #fcc, #government

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Ajit Pai announces departure from FCC after four-year deregulatory blitz

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaking at a press conference on October 1, 2018, in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Mark Wilson )

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced today that he will leave the FCC on January 20, 2021, the day Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president. In his four years as FCC chief, Pai deregulated the broadband industry, eliminated net neutrality rules, and justified his deregulatory agenda by using faulty data and taking credit for broadband deployments that were planned before he became chairman.

Pai called being chairman “the honor of a lifetime.”

“I am grateful to President Trump for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency in 2017, to President Obama for appointing me as a Commissioner in 2012, and to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and the Senate for twice confirming me. To be the first Asian-American to chair the FCC has been a particular privilege. As I often say: only in America,” Pai said in his statement today.

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#ajit-pai, #fcc, #jessica-rosenworcel, #joe-biden, #policy, #trump

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The FCC rejects ZTE’s petition to stop designating it a “national security threat”

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected ZTE’s petition to remove its designation as a “national security threat.” This means that American companies will continue to be barred from using the FCC’s $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund to buy equipment and services from ZTE .

The Universal Service Fund includes subsidies to build telecommunication infrastructure across the United States, especially for low-income or high-cost areas, rural telehealth services, and schools and libraries. The FCC issued an order on June 30 banning U.S. companies from using the fund to buy technology from Huawei and ZTE, claiming that both companies have close ties with the Chinese Communist Party and military.

Many smaller carriers rely on Huawei and ZTE, two of the world’s biggest telecom equipment providers, for cost-efficient technology. After surveying carriers, the FCC estimated in September that replacing Huawei and ZTE equipment would cost more than $1.8 billion.

Under the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, passed by Congress this year, most of that amount would be eligible for reimbursements under a program referred to as “rip and replace.” But the program has not been funded by Congress yet, despite bipartisan support.

In today’s announcement about ZTE, chairman Ajit Pai also said the FCC will vote on rules to implement the reimbursement program at its next Open Meeting, scheduled to take place on December 10.

The FCC passed its order barring companies deemed national security threats from receiving money from the Universal Service Fund in November 2019. Huawei fought back by suing the FCC over the ban, claiming it exceeded the agency’s authority and violated the Constitution.

TechCrunch has contacted ZTE for comment.

#asia, #china, #fcc, #federal-communications-commission, #huawei, #tc, #u-s-government, #zte

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FCC takes spectrum from auto industry in plan to “supersize” Wi-Fi

A wireless router seen near a woman using a laptop.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Kittichai Boonpong | EyeEm)

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to add 45MHz of spectrum to Wi-Fi in a slightly controversial decision that takes the spectrum away from a little-used automobile-safety technology.

The spectrum from 5.850GHz to 5.925GHz has, for about 20 years, been set aside for Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), a vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications service that’s supposed to warn drivers of dangers on the road. But as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today said, “99.9943 percent of the 274 million registered vehicles on the road in the United States still don’t have DSRC on-board units.” Only 15,506 vehicles have been equipped with the technology, he said.

In today’s decision, the FCC split the spectrum band and reallocated part of it to Wi-Fi and part of it to a newer vehicle technology. The lower 45MHz from 5.850GHz to 5.895GHz will be allocated to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed services.

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#biz-it, #dsrc, #fcc, #policy, #wi-fi

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Ajit Pai urged to accept Trump loss and stop controversial rulemakings

All five FCC commissioners sitting at a table in front of microphones at a congressional hearing.

Enlarge / From left to right, Federal Communication Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr, Jessica Rosenworcel, and Geoffrey Starks testify before the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee on December 05, 2019 in Washington, DC. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla)

Congressional Democrats yesterday called on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to “immediately stop work on all partisan, controversial items” in recognition of Joe Biden’s election victory over President Donald Trump.

It has been standard practice to halt controversial rulemakings in the period between an election and inauguration when control of the White House switches from Republicans to Democrats or vice versa. In November 2016, Pai himself called on then-Chairman Tom Wheeler to “halt further action on controversial items during the transition period.” Wheeler complied one day later.

But things could be different this time, because Trump is contesting the election despite Biden’s clear victory and making baseless allegations that the election was stolen by Democrats. The Trump administration has refused to formally begin the presidential transition and has reportedly continued budget planning and vetting candidates for job openings as if there will be a second Trump term. To comply with Democrats’ request to the FCC, Pai would effectively have to concede Trump’s defeat before Trump himself does so.

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#ajit-pai, #biden, #biz-it, #democrats, #fcc, #policy, #presidential-transition, #trump

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House Reps ask FCC to ‘stop work on all partisan, controversial items’ during transition

Two U.S. Representatives who oversee the FCC have asked the agency to respect the results of the election by abandoning any “partisan, controversial items under consideration.” This likely includes the FCC’s effort to reinterpret Section 230, an important protection for internet platforms, at the Trump administration’s request.

In the letter sent to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai today (a similar letter was sent to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons), Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) writes:

With the results of the 2020 presidential election now apparent, leadership of the FCC will undoubtedly be changing. As a traditional part of the peaceful transfer of power — and as part of our oversight responsibilities — we strongly urge the agency to only pursue consensus and administrative matters for the remainder of your tenure.

And his colleague at the House Commerce Committee, Mike Doyle (D-PA) adds:

We note that that you have previously welcomed calls from congressional leaders for the FCC to “halt further action on controversial items during the transition period.” We hope you will respect this time-honored tradition now.

For a receipt, the letter references Pai’s own call for this exact thing to happen almost exactly four years ago, referring in his turn to the same practice occurring eight years prior under the previous chairman. “I hope Chairman Wheeler follows his [2008 Chairman Kevin Martin’s] example and honors the wishes of our congressional leaders, including by withdrawing the four major items on the November meeting agenda,” Pai wrote in 2016 (PDF).

The matters scheduled for consideration during the upcoming November FCC meeting are not particularly partisan, though they could be considered major — there is, for instance, a new rule being looked at that would simplify satellite licenses.

The letter, then, almost certainly refers to the “absurd” announcement that the agency would revisit Section 230 only weeks before an election and seemingly at the express request of Trump himself (the FCC is an independent agency and cannot be forced to consider any rule changes).

This is most certainly a partisan matter, as there are not only dueling bills attempting to reform the law, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, but Trump has loudly and publicly blamed Section 230 for what he perceives as censorship of certain viewpoints on those platforms.

Even if the FCC had dropped everything and started working full time on its proposed review of Section 230, it could not have even issued a draft of any new rules or changes before the election, making the announcement seem nakedly political: an embrace of the Executive’s displeasure with the way the FCC currently interprets the law. Even in the best case scenario and unanimous support it would be many months before such a rulemaking could be accomplished.

I’ve asked the Chairman’s office if he intends to do as the letter asks, and will update this post if I hear back. Of course, to do so would tacitly acknowledge the victory of President-Elect Joe Biden over Trump in last week’s election, which few Republican leaders in the government seem willing to do.

While Pai considers, his colleagues, Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Brendan Starks, have issued statements that they are eager to comply with the request from Congress.

“Historically, the FCC has honored the transfer of power from one Administration to the next by pausing any controversial activity. I urge FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to follow this past practice in order to ensure an orderly transition of agency affairs,” said Rosenworcel in her statement.

“As two of my Republican colleagues observed in 2016, it is long-standing Commission practice that, upon a presidential transition, the agency suspends its consideration of any partisan, controversial items until the transition period is complete. Our congressional leaders have called for Chairman Pai to respect this precedent, and I expect that he will abide by their request,” said Starks.

If the FCC accedes to the request, this and other items will be held until the new administration announces its plan for the FCC. Traditionally the previous Chairman resigns when a new administration is incoming, as Tom Wheeler did in late 2016, and a new leader is announced and confirmed the next year.

#election-2020, #fcc, #government

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FCC forces T-Mobile to pay $200 million fine for subsidiary Sprint’s fraud

A man holding a briefcase full of money.

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | aluxum)

T-Mobile has agreed to pay a $200 million fine to resolve an investigation into subsidiary Sprint, which was caught taking millions of dollars in government subsidies for “serving” 885,000 low-income Americans who weren’t using Sprint service.

Sprint admitted the violations in September 2019, about six months before T-Mobile completed its purchase of Sprint. Today, the Federal Communications Commission announced the $200 million settlement, which T-Mobile will pay to the US Treasury.

The $200 million is in addition to money that Sprint previously agreed to pay back to the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides $9.25-per-household monthly subsidies to companies that offer discounted telecom service to people with low incomes. Sprint had taken the money from Lifeline in violation of the “non-usage rule” that requires providers of free, subsidized plans to de-enroll subscribers who haven’t used their phones recently. When the FCC investigation was announced last year, the commission said that the “885,000 subscribers represent nearly 30 percent of Sprint’s Lifeline subscriber base and nearly 10 percent of the entire Lifeline program’s subscriber base.”

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#fcc, #lifeline, #policy, #sprint, #t-mobile

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FBI, FCC investigating suspicious robocalls, texts that went to voters

Voters in Michigan, one of the states where residents received misleading robocalls about the election, casting their ballots on November 3, 2020.

Enlarge / Voters in Michigan, one of the states where residents received misleading robocalls about the election, casting their ballots on November 3, 2020. (credit: Elaine Cromie | Getty Images)

Both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission are investigating a series of suspicious robocalls that warned recipients to “stay home” on Election Day in an apparent attempt at voter suppression.

Voters around the nation have received approximately 10 million of the automated “stay safe and stay home” calls, The Washington Post was first to report. YouMail, which offers smartphone apps for blocking spam calls, told the Post that the calls have been received in roughly 88 percent of all US area codes since the summer.

“If you wanted to cause havoc in America for the elections, one way to do it is clearly robocalling,” YouMail CEO Alex Quilici told the Post. State and federal officials evidently agree.

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#2020-election, #election-2020, #election-integrity, #fbi, #fcc, #policy, #robocalls

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Pai’s FCC squeezes in one more vote against net neutrality before election

FCC members Brendan Carr, Michael O'Rielly, and Chairman Ajit Pai participating in a panel discussion.

Enlarge / FCC Republican members (L-R) Brendan Carr, Michael O’Rielly, and Chairman Ajit Pai participate in a discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23, 2018, in Maryland. (credit: Getty Images | Chip Somodevilla )

The Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission took another vote against net neutrality rules today in its last meeting before a presidential election that could swing the FCC back to the Democratic party.

Today’s vote came a year after a federal appeals court upheld FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s repeal of net neutrality rules and deregulation of the broadband industry. Though Pai was mostly victorious in the case, the judges remanded portions of the repeal back to the FCC because the commission “failed to examine the implications of its decisions for public safety,” failed to “sufficiently explain what reclassification [of ISPs] will mean for regulation of pole attachments,” and did not address concerns about the effect deregulation would have on the FCC’s Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone and Internet access for low-income Americans.

The FCC approved its response to the court’s remand instructions in a 3-2 vote today but didn’t make any significant changes. “After thoroughly reviewing the record compiled in response to its request for additional comment on these issues, the FCC found no basis to alter the FCC’s conclusions in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” the commission said in its announcement. “The Order on Remand finds that the Restoring Internet Freedom Order promotes public safety, facilitates broadband infrastructure deployment by Internet service providers, and allows the FCC to continue to provide Lifeline support for broadband Internet access service.” A draft version of the decision is available here.

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#ajit-pai, #broadband, #common-carrier, #fcc, #net-neutrality, #policy, #title-ii

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T-Mobile screwups caused nationwide outage but FCC isn’t punishing carrier

A T-Mobile advertisement that says,

Enlarge / T-Mobile advertisement in New York City’s Times Square on October 15, 2020. (credit: Getty Images | SOPA Images)

The Federal Communications Commission has finished investigating T-Mobile for a network outage that Chairman Ajit Pai called “unacceptable.” But instead of punishing the mobile carrier, the FCC is merely issuing a public notice to “remind” phone companies of “industry-accepted best practices” that could have prevented the T-Mobile outage.

After the 12-hour nationwide outage on June 15 disrupted texting and calling services, including 911 emergency calls, Pai wrote that “The T-Mobile network outage is unacceptable” and that “the FCC is launching an investigation. We’re demanding answers—and so are American consumers.”

Pai has a history of talking tough with carriers and not following up with punishments that might have a greater deterrence effect than sternly worded warnings. That appears to be what happened again yesterday when the FCC announced the findings from its investigation into T-Mobile. Pai said that “T-Mobile’s outage was a failure” because the carrier didn’t follow best practices that could have prevented or minimized it, but he announced no punishment. The matter appears to be closed based on yesterday’s announcement, but we contacted Chairman Pai’s office today to ask if any punishment of T-Mobile is forthcoming. We’ll update this article if we get a response.

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#911-outage, #ajit-pai, #biz-it, #fcc, #policy, #t-mobile

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FCC cites Title II in defense of helping Trump’s attack on social media

A computer keyboard with the word

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | Peter Dazeley)

The Federal Communications Commission’s top lawyer today explained the FCC’s theory of why it can grant President Donald Trump’s request for a new interpretation of a law that provides legal protection to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Critics of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan from both the left and right say the FCC has no authority to reinterpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives legal immunity to online platforms that block or modify content posted by users. FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson said those critics are wrong in a blog post published on the FCC website today.

Johnson noted that the Communications Decency Act was passed by Congress as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was an update to the Communications Act of 1934 that established the FCC and provided it with regulatory authority. Johnson also pointed to Section 201(b) of the Communications Act, which gave the FCC power to “prescribe such rules and regulations as may be necessary in the public interest to carry out the provisions of this Act.”

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#facebook, #fcc, #policy, #section-230, #social-media, #trump, #twitter

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FCC trying to help Trump win election with Twitter crackdown, Democrats say

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai talking while standing in front of an FCC seal.

Enlarge / FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on December 14, 2017, in Washington, DC, the day of the FCC’s vote to repeal net neutrality rules. (credit: Getty Images | Alex Wong )

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has turned the FCC into “a political appendage of President Trump’s campaign” by aiding Trump’s battle against social media websites, two House Democrats said yesterday.

“Chairman Pai’s decision to start a Section 230 rulemaking is a blatant attempt to help a flailing President Trump,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Penn.). “The timing and hurried nature of this decision makes clear it’s being done to influence social media companies’ behavior leading up to an election, and it is shocking to watch this supposedly independent regulatory agency jump at the opportunity to become a political appendage of President Trump’s campaign.”

On Thursday last week, Pai announced that he is backing President Trump’s proposal to limit legal protections for social media websites that block or modify content posted by users. Pai said he will propose a new interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, limiting the legal immunity websites like Facebook and Twitter are granted when they block or screen content. Trump claims the companies are biased against conservatives, and he wants to post on social media without the platforms adding fact checks or limiting the reach of posts that violate their rules.

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#ajit-pai, #facebook, #fcc, #policy, #trump, #twitter

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Who regulates social media?

Social media platforms have repeatedly found themselves in the United States government’s crosshairs over the last few years, as it has been progressively revealed just how much power they really wield, and to what purposes they’ve chosen to wield it. But unlike, say, a firearm or drug manufacturer, there is no designated authority who says what these platforms can and can’t do. So who regulates them? You might say everyone and no one.

Now, it must be made clear at the outset that these companies are by no means “unregulated,” in that no legal business in this country is unregulated. For instance Facebook, certainly a social media company, received a record $5 billion fine last year for failure to comply with rules set by the FTC. But not because the company violated its social media regulations — there aren’t any.

Facebook and others are bound by the same rules that most companies must follow, such as generally agreed-upon definitions of fair business practices, truth in advertising, and so on. But industries like medicine, energy, alcohol, and automotive have additional rules, indeed entire agencies, specific to them; Not so social media companies.

I say “social media” rather than “tech” because the latter is much too broad a concept to have a single regulator. Although Google and Amazon (and Airbnb, and Uber, and so on) need new regulation as well, they may require a different specialist, like an algorithmic accountability office or online retail antitrust commission. (Inasmuch as tech companies act within regulated industries, such as Google in broadband, they are already regulated as such.)

Social media can roughly defined as platforms where people sign up to communicate and share messages and media, and that’s quite broad enough already without adding in things like ad marketplaces, competition quashing and other serious issues.

Who, then, regulates these social media companies? For the purposes of the U.S., there are four main directions from which meaningful limitations or policing may emerge, but each one has serious limitations, and none was actually created for the task.

1. Federal regulators

Image Credits: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission are what people tend to think of when “social media” and “regulation” are used in a sentence together. But one is a specialist — not the right kind, unfortunately — and the other a generalist.

The FCC, unsurprisingly, is primarily concerned with communication, but due to the laws that created it and grant it authority, it has almost no authority over what is being communicated. The sabotage of net neutrality has complicated this somewhat, but even the faction of the Commission dedicated to the backwards stance adopted during this administration has not argued that the messages and media you post are subject to their authority. They have indeed called for regulation of social media and big tech — but are for the most part unwilling and unable to do so themselves.

The Commission’s mandate is explicitly the cultivation of a robust and equitable communications infrastructure, which these days primarily means fixed and mobile broadband (though increasingly satellite services as well). The applications and businesses that use that broadband, though they may be affected by the FCC’s decisions, are generally speaking none of the agency’s business, and it has repeatedly said so.

The only potentially relevant exception is the much-discussed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (an amendment to the sprawling Communications Act), which waives liability for companies when illegal content is posted to their platforms, as long as those companies make a “good faith” effort to remove it in accordance with the law.

But this part of the law doesn’t actually grant the FCC authority over those companies or define good faith, and there’s an enormous risk of stepping into unconstitutional territory, because a government agency telling a company what content it must keep up or take down runs full speed into the First Amendment. That’s why although many think Section 230 ought to be revisited, few take Trump’s feeble executive actions along these lines seriously.

The agency did announce that it will be reviewing the prevailing interpretation of Section 230, but until there is some kind of established statutory authority or Congress-mandated mission for the FCC to look into social media companies, it simply can’t.

The FTC is a different story. As watchdog over business practices at large, it has a similar responsibility towards Twitter as it does towards Nabisco. It doesn’t have rules about what a social media company can or can’t do any more than it has rules about how many flavors of Cheez-It there should be. (There are industry-specific “guidelines” but these are more advisory about how general rules have been interpreted.)

On the other hand, the FTC is very much the force that comes into play should Facebook misrepresent how it shares user data, or Nabisco overstate the amount of real cheese in its crackers. The agency’s most relevant responsibility to the social media world is that of enforcing the truthfulness of material claims.

You can thank the FTC for the now-familiar, carefully worded statements that avoid any real claims or responsibilities: “We take security very seriously” and “we think we have the best method” and that sort of thing — so pretty much everything that Mark Zuckerberg says. Companies and executives are trained to do this to avoid tangling with the FTC: “Taking security seriously” isn’t enforceable, but saying “user data is never shared” certainly is.

In some cases this can still have an effect, as in the $5 billion fine recently dropped into Facebook’s lap (though for many reasons that was actually not very consequential). It’s important to understand that the fine was for breaking binding promises the company had made — not for violating some kind of social-media-specific regulations, because again, there really aren’t any.

The last point worth noting is that the FTC is a reactive agency. Although it certainly has guidelines on the limits of legal behavior, it doesn’t have rules that when violated result in a statutory fine or charges. Instead, complaints filter up through its many reporting systems and it builds a case against a company, often with the help of the Justice Department. That makes it slow to respond compared with the lightning-fast tech industry, and the companies or victims involved may have moved beyond the point of crisis while a complaint is being formalized there. Equifax’s historic breach and minimal consequences are an instructive case:

So: While the FCC and FTC do provide important guardrails for the social media industry, it would not be accurate to say they are its regulators.

2. State legislators

States are increasingly battlegrounds for the frontiers of tech, including social media companies. This is likely due to frustration with partisan gridlock in Congress that has left serious problems unaddressed for years or decades. Two good examples of states that lost their patience are California’s new privacy rules and Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) was arguably born out the ashes of other attempts at a national level to make companies more transparent about their data collection policies, like the ill-fated Broadband Privacy Act.

Californian officials decided that if the feds weren’t going to step up, there was no reason the state shouldn’t at least look after its own. By convention, state laws that offer consumer protections are generally given priority over weaker federal laws — this is so a state isn’t prohibited from taking measures for their citizens’ safety while the slower machinery of Congress grinds along.

The resulting law, very briefly stated, creates formal requirements for disclosures of data collection, methods for opting out of them, and also grants authority for enforcing those laws. The rules may seem like common sense when you read them, but they’re pretty far out there compared to the relative freedom tech and social media companies enjoyed previously. Unsurprisingly, they have vocally opposed the CCPA.

BIPA has a somewhat similar origin, in that a particularly far-sighted state legislature created a set of rules in 2008 limiting companies’ collection and use of biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition. It has proven to be a huge thorn in the side of Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and others that have taken for granted the ability to analyze a user’s biological metrics and use them for pretty much whatever they want.

Many lawsuits have been filed alleging violations of BIPA, and while few have produced notable punishments like this one, they have been invaluable in forcing the companies to admit on the record exactly what they’re doing, and how. Sometimes it’s quite surprising! The optics are terrible, and tech companies have lobbied (fortunately, with little success) to have the law replaced or weakened.

What’s crucially important about both of these laws is that they force companies to, in essence, choose between universally meeting a new, higher standard for something like privacy, or establishing a tiered system whereby some users get more privacy than others. The thing about the latter choice is that once people learn that users in Illinois and California are getting “special treatment,” they start asking why Mainers or Puerto Ricans aren’t getting it as well.

In this way state laws exert outsize influence, forcing companies to make changes nationally or globally because of decisions that technically only apply to a small subset of their users. You may think of these states as being activists (especially if their attorneys general are proactive), or simply ahead of the curve, but either way they are making their mark.

This is not ideal, however, because taken to the extreme, it produces a patchwork of state laws created by local authorities that may conflict with one another or embody different priorities. That, at least, is the doomsday scenario predicted almost universally by companies in a position to lose out.

State laws act as a test bed for new policies, but tend to only emerge when movement at the federal level is too slow. Although they may hit the bullseye now and again, like with BIPA, it would be unwise to rely on a single state or any combination among them to miraculously produce, like so many simian legislators banging on typewriters, a comprehensive regulatory structure for social media. Unfortunately, that leads us to Congress.

3. Congress

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

What can be said about the ineffectiveness of Congress that has not already been said, again and again? Even in the best of times few would trust these people to establish reasonable, clear rules that reflect reality. Congress simply is not the right tool for the job, because of its stubborn and willful ignorance on almost all issues of technology and social media, its countless conflicts of interest, and its painful sluggishness — sorry, deliberation — in actually writing and passing any bills, let alone good ones.

Companies oppose state laws like the CCPA while calling for national rules because they know that it will take forever and there’s more opportunity to get their finger in the pie before it’s baked. National rules, in addition to coming far too late, are much more likely also be watered down and riddled with loopholes by industry lobbyists. (This is indicative of the influence these companies wield over their own regulation, but it’s hardly official.)

But Congress isn’t a total loss. In moments of clarity it has established expert agencies like those in the first item, which have Congressional oversight but are otherwise independent, empowered to make rules, and kept technically — if somewhat limply — nonpartisan.

Unfortunately, the question of social media regulation is too recent for Congress to have empowered a specialist agency to address it. Social media companies don’t fit neatly into any of the categories that existing specialists regulate, something that is plainly evident by the present attempt to stretch Section 230 beyond the breaking point just to put someone on the beat.

Laws at the federal level are not to be relied on for regulation of this fast-moving industry, as the current state of things shows more than adequately. And until a dedicated expert agency or something like it is formed, it’s unlikely that anything spawned on Capitol Hill will do much to hold back the Facebooks of the world.

4. European regulators

eu gdpr 1Of course, however central it considers itself to be, the U.S. is only a part of a global ecosystem of various and shifting priorities, leaders, and legal systems. But in a sort of inside-out version of state laws punching above their weight, laws that affect a huge part of the world except the U.S. can still have a major effect on how companies operate here.

The most obvious example is the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, a set of rules, or rather augmentation of existing rules dating to 1995, that has begun to change the way some social media companies do business.

But this is only the latest step in a fantastically complex, decades-long process that must harmonize the national laws and needs of the E.U. member states in order to provide the clout it needs to compel adherence to the international rules. Red tape seldom bothers tech companies, which rely on bottomless pockets to plow through or in-born agility to dance away.

Although the tortoise may eventually in this case overtake the hare in some ways, at present the GDPR’s primary hindrance is not merely the complexity of its rules, but the lack of decisive enforcement of them. Each country’s Data Protection Agency acts as a node in a network that must reach consensus in order to bring the hammer down, a process that grinds slow and exceedingly fine.

When the blow finally lands, though, it may be a heavy one, outlawing entire practices at an industry-wide level rather than simply extracting pecuniary penalties these immensely rich entities can shrug off. There is space for optimism as cases escalate and involve heavy hitters like antitrust laws in efforts that grow to encompass the entire “big tech” ecosystem.

The rich tapestry of European regulations is really too complex of a topic to address here in the detail it deserves, and also reaches beyond the question of who exactly regulates social media. Europe’s role in that question of, if you will, speaking slowly and carrying a big stick promises to produce results on a grand scale, but for the purposes of this article it cannot really be considered an effective policing body.

(TechCrunch’s E.U. regulatory maven Natasha Lomas contributed to this section.)

5. No one? Really?

As you can see, the regulatory ecosystem in which social media swims is more or less free of predators. The most dangerous are the small, agile ones — state legislatures — that can take a bite before the platforms have had a chance to brace for it. The other regulators are either too slow, too compromised, or too involved (or some combination of the three) to pose a real threat. For this reason it may be necessary to introduce a new, but familiar, species: the expert agency.

As noted above, the FCC is the most familiar example of one of these, though its role is so fragmented that one could be forgiven for forgetting that it was originally created to ensure the integrity of the telephone and telegraph system. Why, then, is it the expert agency for orbital debris? That’s a story for another time.

Capitol building

Image Credit: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

What is clearly needed is the establishment of an independent expert agency or commission in the U.S., at the federal level, that has statutory authority to create and enforce rules pertaining to the handling of consumer data by social media platforms.

Like the FCC (and somewhat like the E.U.’s DPAs), this should be officially nonpartisan — though like the FCC it will almost certainly vacillate in its allegiance — and should have specific mandates on what it can and can’t do. For instance, it would be improper and unconstitutional for such an agency to say this or that topic of speech should be disallowed from Facebook or Twitter. But it would be able to say that companies need to have a reasonable and accessible definition of the speech they forbid, and likewise a process for auditing and contesting takedowns. (The details of how such an agency would be formed and shaped is well beyond the scope of this article.)

Even the likes of the FAA lags behind industry changes, such as the upsurge in drones that necessitated a hasty revisit of existing rules, or the huge increase in commercial space launches. But that’s a feature, not a bug. These agencies are designed not to act unilaterally based on the wisdom and experience of their leaders, but are required to perform or solicit research, consult with the public and industry alike, and create evidence-based policies involving, or at least addressing, a minimum of sufficiently objective data.

Sure, that didn’t really work with net neutrality, but I think you’ll find that industries have been unwilling to capitalize on this temporary abdication of authority by the FCC because they see that the Commission’s current makeup is fighting a losing battle against voluminous evidence, public opinion, and common sense. They see the writing on the wall and understand that under this system it can no longer be ignored.

With an analogous authority for social media, the evidence could be made public, the intentions for regulation plain, and the shareholders — that is to say, users — could make their opinions known in a public forum that isn’t owned and operated by the very companies they aim to rein in.

Without such an authority these companies and their activities — the scope of which we have only the faintest clue to — will remain in a blissful limbo, picking and choosing by which rules to abide and against which to fulminate and lobby. We must help them decide, and weigh our own priorities against theirs. They have already abused the naive trust of their users across the globe — perhaps it’s time we asked them to trust us for once.

#facebook, #fcc, #ftc, #gdpr, #government, #instagram, #regulation, #social, #social-media, #social-networks, #tc, #twitter

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