All posts in “FCC”

How the government shutdown is affecting an FCC plan to expand broadband internet in low-income, rural communities

The effects of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history are starting to be felt by an FCC program set up to support low-income Americans living in rural areas, 

The FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) was established to bring broadband internet access to some of the country’s most rural areas. Internet service providers were awarded millions of dollars in subsidies during an auction as part of the program. These ISPs, which often serve smaller markets, are saying that the government shutdown has halted the FCC’s ability to distribute these funds. The FCC has been effectively closed because of the shutdown.

“Unfortunately, since the shutdown, we’re at a standstill when it comes to funding for the project so that definitely does affect us there,” said United Electric Cooperative COO David Girvan in a phone call with Mashable. 

Last year, the FCC awarded about $1.5 billion dollars in subsidies to internet service providers around the country in order to expand broadband access to people living and working in rural areas. The winning bidders in the Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II auction will bring broadband to 713,176 new locations that are currently lacking the necessary infrastructure.

United will receive $20 million over a period of 10 years to bring high-speed broadband into parts of northwest Missouri.

“Before the shutdown, we’d been on calls with some government bodies,” said Girvan. “We would have thought we’d have been in line right now to receive our award but, obviously, that’s not going to happen and might not happen for a little bit longer now.” 

Due to the company’s previous participation in other federal stimulus programs, Girvan explained that United may be in a unique position as the company was further along in the process than most ISPs. Each winning ISP has to take part in a multi-step approval process before finally receiving the funds.

However, other providers that took part in the CAF II auction also shared concerns about the delay in the process due to the shutdown.

“I’ve got to imagine we might be waiting a bit longer for the final approval from the FCC,” Wisper ISP CEO Nathan Stook told Mashable. His company was awarded more than $220 million over 10 years to provide broadband services to rural locations in a half dozen states. 

“We have 80,000 locations across six states with the majority of them in Missouri, then Southern Illinois and a little bit in Indiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas,” said Stook. “These are people who have never really had broadband before, broadband as maybe you and I would know it coming from a more suburban or urban area. In many cases they didn’t even have that as an option.”

“We were expecting funding towards the end of March, maybe end of April” Stook said. “With the shutdown going for as long as it has, it maybe pushing that back further. With all these other things they’ll have to catch up on, it’s hard to predict from our side.”

The biggest winner of the CAF II auction, NextLink, was awarded $281 million over 10 years to bring broadband service to rural parts of Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa. When reached by email, a spokesperson also confirmed the effects of the government shutdown on CAF fund distribution. “It’s true. Funding can’t receive final approvals and be initiated if FCC is closed,” the statement said.

The FCC first created the Connect America Fund back in 2011. The FCC found that 35 percent of Americans lacked broadband access and established the CAF in order to close the digital gap between rural America and the rest of the country. As a requirement of the CAF, ISPs must provide these locations with internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream. In some locations, the minimum speed is even higher at 100 Mbps.

The U.S. federal government has now been partially shut down for over a month with no end in sight. The deadlock over the government’s spending budget has been caused by President Trump’s insistence that $5.7 billion be set aside for his border wall. It is now the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Many of the areas that will benefit from the CAF funds voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s important to note how the shutdown’s sprawling effects can reach those miles away from Washington DC. However, with hundreds of thousands of federal employees working without pay, it’s also crucial to put the issue into perspective.

“The program is really important,” said Jonathan Chambers of Conexon, the organization which administers the Rural Electronic Cooperative Consortium, a group of rural ISPs that bid in the CAF auction collectively. “But, it’s not at all like a federal employee missing a check, it isn’t that kind of impact.”

Chambers points out that the ISPs will still eventually receive approvals for the funds, albeit delayed, and be awarded the full monetary amounts over the next decade. He also notes that the ISPs he works with are not planning to delay expanding broadband networks into rural areas due to the shutdown.

“I’m not downplaying the importance of the funds for providers, but nobody I work with has altered any of their activities due to the delay” says Chambers. “There might be a higher cost in using other funds, say, borrowing money or using a line of credit, but it’s not like the poor government workers who are living without a check week to week.”

“Even though we won $20 million in an auction, it’s a far greater cost to build and it’s never going to be a slam dunk so it does hurt us, you know, there’s no doubt about it,” said United’s Girvan, whose company bid as part of the Consortium. 

“People are knocking on our door for service every day, so we’re going to keep on installing until, basically, we get the money.”

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FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch

Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within 5 days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.

FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian, and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6S, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

White House belatedly begins planning for 5G with memo asking for policy recommendations

The White House has issued a memorandum outlining the need for a new national wireless connectivity strategy; the document doesn’t really establish anything new, but does request lots of reports on how things are going. Strangely, what it proposes sounds a lot like what the FCC already does.

The memorandum, heralded by a separate post announcing that “America Will Win the Global Race to 5G,” is not exactly a statement of policy, though it does put a few things out there. It’s actually more of a request for information on which to base a future policy — apparently one that will win us a global race that began years ago.

In fact, the U.S. has been pursuing a broad 5G policy for quite a while now, and under President Obama we were the first country to allocate spectrum to the nascent standard. But since then progress has stalled and we have been overtaken by the likes of South Korea and Spain in policy steps like spectrum auctions.

After some talk about the “insatiable demand” for wireless spectrum and the economic importance of wireless communications, the memo gets to business. Reports are requested within 180 days from various Executive branch departments and agencies on “their anticipated future spectrum requirements,” as well as reviews of their current spectrum usage.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is asked to report in the same time period on how emerging tech (smart homes and grids, for instance) could affect spectrum demand, and how research and development spending should be guided to improve spectrum access.

Another report from the Secretary of Commerce will explain “existing efforts and planned near- to mid-term spectrum repurposing initiatives.”

270 days from today the various entities involved here, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the FCC, will deliver a “long-term National Spectrum Strategy” that hits a number of targets:

  • Increase spectrum access, security and transparency
  • Create flexible spectrum management models, including standards, incentives, and enforcement mechanisms
  • “Develop advanced technologies” to improve spectrum access and sharing
  • Improve the global competitiveness of U.S. “terrestrial and space-related industries” (which seems to encompass all of them)

It’s not exactly ambitious; the terms are vague enough that one would expect any new legislation or rules to accomplish or accommodate these things. One would hardly want a spectrum policy that decreased access and transparency. In fact, the previous administration issued spectrum memos much like these, years ago.

Meanwhile this fresh start may frustrate those in government who are already doing this work. The FCC has been pursuing 5G and new spectrum policy for years, and it’s been a particular focus of Chairman Ajit Pai. He proposed a bunch of rules months ago, and just yesterday there was a proposal to bring Wi-Fi up to a more compatible and future-proof state. It’s entirely possible that the agency may have to justify and re-propose things it’s already doing, or see those actions and rules questioned or altered by committees over the next year.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was not enthusiastic about the memo.

“We are ripping up what came before and starting with a new wireless policy sometime late next year. But the world isn’t going to wait for us,” she said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “Other nations are moving ahead with strategies they are implementing now while we’re headed to study hall — and in the interim we’re slapping big tariffs on the most essential elements of 5G networks. If you stand back and survey what is happening, you see that we’re not expediting our 5G wireless leadership, we’re making choices that slow us down.”

Whether this new effort will yield worthwhile results, we’ll know in 270 days. Until then the authorities already attempting to make the U.S. the leader in 5G will continue doing what they’re doing.

Net neutrality rises from the dead, and the Trump administration isn’t happy

It’s official: we can’t call anything that happens in the fight over net neutrality “Official” anymore.

Late Sunday evening, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state of California to refute its landmark net neutrality legislation. This is just the latest of many tit for tat maneuverings in a years-long battle to legally define internet freedom. 

Net neutrality advocates think that the government should classify the internet as a utility, and therefore Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must treat all content and access to the internet “neutrally.” Opponents say that the internet is an interstate information service, so that ISPs should be able to charge for access and content as they see fit.

But with this latest legal development, there are too many variables to say which viewpoint will ultimately — if ever — come out on top.

Jeff Sessions’ embattled Justice Department sued California on the same day that Gov. Jerry Brown signed the state’s comprehensive bill into law. The JD argues that the internet is a function of interstate commerce, therefore it falls under federal jurisdiction. 

“Under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy.”

The California bill’s original author, State Senator Scott Wiener, issued a statement rebuking the lawsuit.

“Sessions and his boss Donald trump aren’t satisfied with the federal government repealing net neutrality,” Wiener wrote. ” In their world, *no one* is allowed to protect an open internet.”

This legal battle will likely come down to the issue of interstate commerce. If California’s past winning record in battles with the Trump administration to protect its progressive agenda is any indication, the state will put up a good fight. Still, with net neutrality now wending its way through US district courts, we may not know how this will play out for years.

The lawsuit is also only the most recent tactic in an issue that has been fought over for years; Mashable has in the past declared net neutrality both saved, when the Obama administration established net neutrality in 2015 — and “dead,” when Trump’s FCC killed it in 2017. That speaks to how invested the stakeholders are on both sides, because having the final word on whether the internet is a utility or an information service could make internet companies an immense amount of money. Or, it could cost the public its online freedom.

But now it’s clear that what the FCC says might not go. California is not the only state to enact strong net neutrality protections — over thirty states have introduced similar legislation. So this battle could play out again and again. 

There is also a net neutrality bill in Congress, which has the ability too both protect net neutrality, and legislate it at the federal level. Though net neutrality is often a partisan issue, with Republicans against and Democrats for, the Republican-majority Senate passed a bill protecting net neutrality by reversing the FCC ruling in May. Democrats have failed to force a vote of the bill in the House. But that could change if the predicted “blue wave” of the midterms comes to fruition. And, in yet another potential battle, the strength of the wave (or perhaps tsunami) could even override any potential Trump veto.

And then there’s Trump. Trump seems to be basically following his policy of: If Obama was for it, I’m against it. He also somewhat nonsensically tweeted about net neutrality in 2014, conflating the issue with “stifling conservatives,” and arguing that the FCC did not have the authority that it is so righteously claiming now. 

Trump has also proven that he’s not loyal to anyone but himself. So there’s no telling if he’ll stick by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai if it comes down to a bill on his desk.

Net neutrality has been killed, resuscitated, kicked down, and brought back to life now so many times that this issue might not be settled any time soon, especially as our governing bodies mutate with each passing term limit. The one certainty is that in this fight, no one is backing down. And while that seems exhausting, advocates of internet freedom aren’t giving up — and neither should you.

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