Policy

An unsung, unnamed bureaucrat could soon be in charge of closing the digital divide

If the Senate infrastructure bill gets through the House, the NTIA will be in charge of $42.5 billion for broadband. Who will lead the agency is still anyone's guess.

A person working at a laptop.

If passed, the Senate infrastructure bill allocates a whopping $42.5 billion for broadband deployment to states and local governments, all of which will be overseen by the NTIA administrator.

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

As far as telecom regulators go, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, has always felt like something of a bit player compared to the Federal Communications Commission.

While the FCC has soaked up the spotlight over the years — battling with Howard Stern and Janet Jackson, sparking a bot-fueled battle over net neutrality rules and overseeing billions of dollars in funding to close the digital divide — the NTIA's work, which mostly involves managing the country's public spectrum, has more or less gone unnoticed in mainstream circles.

But if the Senate infrastructure bill successfully makes its way through the House and to President Biden's desk, all that could change. The bill allocates a whopping $42.5 billion for broadband deployment to states and local governments, all of which will be overseen by the NTIA administrator — a cash infusion that could turn this historically unsung position into perhaps the most important job in the country when it comes to closing the digital divide.

Just who President Biden will appoint to that role is still anyone's guess. While some names have been floated — including Alan Davidson, a former Googler who is currently the Mozilla Foundation's vice president of global policy — neither the Biden administration nor Davidson are talking.

Finding the right person for the job is "going to be a big challenge," said Blair Levin, a policy advisor to New Street Research, who previously oversaw the development of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. "There are not a lot of people anywhere who have been in charge of allocating that order of magnitude of money in the communications networking space."

That $42.5 billion in the Senate infrastructure package was the FCC's to lose, Levin said. "If you look at the bills that were precursors to the infrastructure bill a couple of years ago, they all were giving money to the FCC," Levin said. But the agency's management of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program that also aims to connect the unconnected in rural areas, has been plagued with problems. As the agency itself described it recently, the FCC's reverse auction in that program led to "complaints that the program was poised to fund broadband to parking lots and well-served urban areas."

Now, under acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC is working on cleaning up that program, asking providers who have already won funding to withdraw their applications "where significant questions of waste have been raised."

"The reputation of the FCC took a deep dive in the process of drafting the bill," Levin said. "The bill went from giving the FCC a lot of money and the NTIA some, to giving the NTIA all the money."

Technically, of course, the money goes to the states. But it's the NTIA administrator who will determine whether the broadband deployment plans put forth by the governors of those states are approved. "You're not developing a plan for the distribution of $42.5 billion. You're overseeing 58 different groups that are making decisions about how to award their money," Levin explained. "The challenge is to prevent the bad."

The Senate bill also gives the NTIA administrator a fair amount of discretion to interpret the law and issue waivers to states as needed. The bill as written requires states to prioritize delivering broadband service "to all unserved locations," before prioritizing "underserved" projects. That, some fear, could lead to some of the funding going unspent, because there are unserved locations throughout the country that are simply too costly or impractical to serve, but money could be prevented from going to "underserved" locations in the meantime. "There will not even be viable projects proposed to connect every unserved location," said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that works on connecting students to broadband. "This is language that will have unintended consequences and has the potential to dramatically lower the impact of the bill."

But the NTIA administrator will be empowered to greenlight plans that run up against these issues. "This is where the NTIA appointment will matter a lot," said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There is some gray area in the law that could give states a way around those hurdles, Falcon said, but "it would require the executive branch to interpret the statute in a way that would allow those kinds of outcomes."

While the person who will lead this work is still unknown, the NTIA is already preparing for its expanded role in the broadband space, recently opening two new broadband-focused offices. The infrastructure package is still being negotiated in the House, but these offices will focus meanwhile on other broadband-focused grant programs, including the $288 million Broadband Infrastructure Program. Already, that program has elicited $2.5 billion in funding requests from states.

"With this new organizational structure, we are prepared to make significant progress in closing the digital divide through our broadband programs, bringing us closer to President Biden's goal of connecting all Americans to reliable, affordable high-speed Internet," current acting administrator Evelyn Remaley said in a statement announcing the NTIA's new offices. The NTIA didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment for this story.

Of course, $42.5 billion is a lot more than $288 million. The question now is whether the NTIA is ready for such a massive expansion of its duties, should the infrastructure bill make it through the House. "The easy answer is 'no,' because no one's ever prepared," Levin said. "Government doesn't work that way."

A MESSAGE FROM FACEBOOK

Facebook supports updated regulations, including four areas where lawmakers can make quick progress:

  • Reforming Section 230
  • Preventing foreign interference of our elections
  • Passing federal privacy law
  • Setting rules that allow people to safely transfer data between services

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins