Leroy Jones, Jr. is the creator of Talking Technology with Leroy Jones, Jr.

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What is Lifeline?

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Moving Lifeline Forward

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Reform of the federal Lifeline program took an important and much-needed step forward earlier this month as Congress heard testimony about how to create a more effective system to help low-income consumers.


In one sense, the hearing was a deserved victory for recent efforts to improve the program.  Four years ago, Congress and the FCC took action to stop the program's spiraling problems of waste and fraud. Lifeline had become stereotyped more for its inefficiency than for its successes. As everyone recognized, those likely to be affected most by a continued lack of confidence in the program would be the low-income beneficiaries Lifeline was designed to help.


As Congress heard, the 2012 reform has produced tangible results. Annual program payments have dropped by more than 30% since 2012 as fraudulent and undeserving participants were dropped from the program.


But the hearing also put a necessary spotlight on the next logical part of Lifeline's reform: establishing an efficient verification system to keep out those who don't qualify.


Last month, the FCC began moving in the right direction with a new National Eligibility Verifier (NEV) to further control Lifeline's waste and abuse. The NEV is an independent third party that uses Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to determine eligibility.


Until now, Lifeline relied on wireless carriers to establish program verification and the problems with that have become increasingly clear.  Earlier this month, the FCC announced a $51 million fine against California-based Total Call Mobile for defrauding its Lifeline. The FCC claimed that the company enrolled tens of thousands of ineligible consumers, allegedly receiving nearly $10 million from the Lifeline program in improper payments.


Even beyond this, virtually no other carrier supported the system because it often put them in an unwinnable position of mediating qualification disputes between consumers and the Federal government.


Finally, no discussion of Lifeline can be complete without acknowledging the larger context around changing consumer demands and areas of greatest need.  Clearly, Lifeline's expanded focus on mobile broadband is proving correct.  Last December, the Center for Disease Control reported that almost half of all U.S. households were wireless-only and that the shift to mobile services has been even more prevalent among low-income Americans.


Millions of low-income Americans depend on the Lifeline program and Congress and the FCC deserve credit for improving it. The challenge now is to build on this success.



Lifeline: Internet Access for Everyone

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As Black History Month comes to a close, we must continue working to ensure the African American community and all Americans have access to the resources they need to succeed in a modern world.  According to a recent New York Times article, expanding access to home broadband and public Wi-Fi, especially in low-income communities, should be a top priority for our country.


This issue has special importance since next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider changes to the roughly $2 billion-a-year federal Lifeline subsidy program. Among possible changes, the Commission will consider expanding the current phone-only subsidies to include home broadband.


According to The New York Times, in certain areas of Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband.  Students go to libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots. In some neighborhoods, school buses with free Wi-Fi are sometimes parked overnight in residential neighborhoods to allow students without home broadband to do their homework. 


Given the overwhelming need for Internet access, Lifeline's lack of support for home broadband is a serious shortcoming - so is Lifeline's ongoing problem with waste and fraud, as one of the FCC's own Commissioners has documented.


The Commission's duties next month are clear-cut: First, Lifeline should be expanded to cover home broadband, both wireline and wireless.  This will help young students in underserved communities gain Internet access in the convenience of their own home.


Second, the Commission should reduce the potential for fraud by having state agencies, not phone companies, determine eligibility.  This step is every bit as important as the first.  The Commission will miss the mark entirely if it only expands a flawed, inefficient program.  Reforming the process for determining eligibility is an equally important step because it will channel program funding to where it is most needed.


The benefits of having a home broadband connection in regard to education has grown sharply in recent years and will only become more integral.  Students need it for basic research, joint projects, and submitting homework. And an increasing number of teachers - approximately 7 in 10 - assign homework that requires access to the Internet.


In order to create a society with equal opportunity to quality education and employment, the FCC cannot wait any longer. It must modernize the Lifeline program now.



The Internet Game

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Everyone knows that Washington, D.C. is a city that lives and dies with every move that their NFL professional football team makes 365/24/7. The mood of the entire city is set by how well the team playing. So it's interesting watching the political football game being played out on federal Internet policy issues. For nearly 20 years this issue has been one of the few issues that brought members of congress together.
Right now, the stakes are too high, particularly given next year's Federal auction of wireless spectrum to fuel mobile Internet growth. And now that the courts have been called upon to referee our Internet regulations (the third time in five years), Congress has a responsibility to weigh in and take action in a bipartisan way to ensure our policies can strengthen this amazing platform for telehealth and other applications that help improve the lives of Americans across the country.
This problem began in February when the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to use Title II rules, written in 1934, to regulate the Internet as a public utility. The economic implications of that vote are huge.  Among industries that generate capital investment, only the energy industry surpasses broadband Internet deployment.  In fact, even when you include all industries, the top two investors in our nation's economy were broadband providers.  In 2013, broadband investment was $75 billion, up nearly 10 percent from 2012.
The FCC's action also shattered the previous bipartisan unity around a policy started during the Clinton Administration.  The short-term harm from the Commission's Title II vote is already apparent. The FCC has received multiple documented examples of compliance costs interfering with rural broadband improvement, and with these new rules potentially strangling innovation and investment, our diverse communities stand to suffer as broadband providers are now forced to rethink how much they should invest under this new bureaucratic scrutiny.
The brakes on the Internet's development seem inevitable. "We decline to adopt fixed, short deadlines for resolving formal complaints," the FCC's order says.  According to The Wall Street Journal, the FCC actually rejected a 90-day deadline for resolving complaints.
Other problems relate to the difficulties of applying rules from 1934 to modern technology.  Take Internet exchange, the complicated system that enables data consumers want to access on the Internet to cross multiple networks from various servers and Internet systems.  The FCC says that agreements must be "just and reasonable." But what is the definition of 'just and reasonable'?  Nobody knows.
If that sounds vague, here's how the Commission explains it: "While we have more than a decade's worth of experience with last-mile practices, we lack a similar depth of background in the Internet traffic exchange context."
Amid this bad news, a silver lining is emerging.  Leaders from both parties in Congress increasingly seem to recognize this threat to the Internet. A compromise involving "light touch" rules for tomorrow's technology cannot come too soon. As I've written (here and here), the growth of telehealth and mHealth could help millions gain affordable health care access, especially among our various diverse communities who need broadband access the most.  But telehealth and mHealth will only reach their potential if the Internet itself continues to grow and flourish.
The need for Congressional action is particularly important given the urgency of resolving legal uncertainties before next year's Federal wireless spectrum auction. The FCC, which is handling the auction, has now placed the mobile Internet - which had never been heavily regulated - under its wide thumb with the exact same rules enacted during the Great Depression. 
The response from Congress and consumers should be clear: No.  The same framework that brought us the wonders of the Internet and its empowering opportunities of free speech, civic engagement and educational pursuits should be the same rules that allow the Internet to thrive in the 21st century.  Rather than a forward-looking approach, the FCC decided to look backwards 100 years. 
Our system for overseeing the Internet, which worked so well for so long, has seemingly come apart.  It's time for Congress to come together and step up to protect the Internet and the opportunity for companies to invest and create new opportunities.

Protecting Tomorrow's Internet

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The revolution in mobile healthcare continues to accelerate: More than 40 million smartphone owners now actively use at least one wellness or fitness app and by an overwhelming margin, they report that their health is improving because of it.

So why is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) undercutting advances vital to this industry's progress?  And how quickly will Congress fix the problem?


Those two questions came to mind as I was reading a interesting new analysis of the FCC's recent vote to place the Internet under Title II utility regulations. With almost surgical precision, Internet analyst Larry Downes dissects the Commission's action, showing how the rules could violate multiple areas of federal law.


To give one example, the FCC redefined the entire Internet to make it part of the old, antiquated 1930s era telephone system and therefore subject the modern, dynamic Internet to these 1934 regulations.

As a result, Downes notes, every component on the Internet has been transformed into a telephone service and is therefore subject to utility regulation. The FCC, he warns, "can't rewrite the law by giving a key term an absurd new 'definition' [that contradicts] a consistent string of the agency's own precedents, and even basic rules of grammar."


The FCC's vote for Title II regulations will harm the Internet and, by extension, our access to new healthcare apps and services.


My hope is that Congress will work together to resolve these issues quickly so that needed improvements for both the Internet and telehealth technologies aren't delayed by the resultant legal uncertainties or by what is certain to be federal intrusion as, for the first time, layers of federal bureaucracy are added that impair innovators and their new ideas.

A Congressional action - narrowly focused to ensure Internet openness but without the overreach of Title II - would keep innovation moving.


Over the years, mobile and Internet-based healthcare services have emerged as an effective and affordable healthcare solution. As Commissioner Mignon Clyburn stated last fall, "Broadband-enabled solutions, can help communities better manage chronic disease, address language barriers, improve health literacy... and help improve overall population health and wellness."


While Commissioner Clyburn is right about the benefits of Internet healthcare, the FCC's decision to regulate the Internet under Title II authority will simply negate the progress made with these innovative services. That is why Congress must find a legislative solution that will combat the FCC's harmful policy and help mHealth programs become more effective.


The FCC's decision to regulate the Internet is a recipe for stale and uninspired innvovation. With the wireless Internet in particular, America is among the world's leaders and this has enabled our success in creating services to help seniors, people with chronic & debilitating diseases, and millions more who lack easy access to a doctor.


Congress has to both confirm and maintain America's leadership with online healthcare by working together to create and pass a law before the end of this year that extricates the Internet from Title II's overregulation but that permanently ensures an open Internet.

Congress must accept their responsibility to discourage and avoid the unnecessary years of legal wrangling with lawsuits after lawsuits that can be avoided. In the long run it is the consumers that will be the real winnner as innovators can return to what they do best - creating state of the art opportunities for consumers.




The Future of the Internet of Things (IoT)

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A dazzling future was on display in Washington, DC last week at a Congressional hearing on the "Internet of Things" (IoT). The IoT is a network in which objects - vehicles, healthcare services, consumer goods, to name a few - are connected to the Internet in order to provide more valuable and efficient services. These emerging technologies combine with traditional manufacturing to produce a surge in economic opportunity, benefits in healthcare, infrastructure and the environment.

There's just one thing that possibly stands in the way of expanding this innovative technology to virtually all Americans: the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Internet regulation that could quite possibly inhibit innovation and investment in state-of-the-art Internet-based technologies both now and in the future.

The Committee heard testimony about developments taking place that would have seemed like science fiction 20 years ago: an automaker that wirelessly updates its cars' software to enable "self-driving," or a technology company that recently saw a $9 million return on a pilot program using connected machines to troubleshoot maintenance before problems arose.

As technology analyst Dan Castro testified that day, the IoT is a key to helping the U.S. upgrade its infrastructure. Investing in communications networks solves productivity and safety issues - in other words, helping to create jobs and improve our quality of life. Technology is clearly moving in a direction that plays to America's traditional economic strength: break-the-mold invention and innovation.

But there's a potential major problem confronting this progress: last month's FCC decision to place the innovative, fast-paced high-speed Internet - including the mobile web - under 80-year-old Title II utility style regulation. By its own admission, the FCC could not document a single violation since 2010 to justify regulating the Internet like a public utility. After decades of a bipartisan light touch that enabled the Internet to flourish to the Internet we enjoy today, this new federal micromanagement is unprecedented in Internet history.

That's why many are calling on Congress to intervene to both protect the Internet as we know it as well as to correct the FCC's overreach. Only an act of Congress would carry both the legal heft and certainty to protect the Internet and enable it's continue growth.  One of the driving catalysts of this call for legislative action is that the future build-out of America's high-speed Internet service will require tens of billions of private sector investment. Without this investment, consumers will not be able to experience the full benefits of the Internet of Things.

Facing the cold hard reality of many years of litigation as a result of the FCC's recent action, businesses will not have the certainty they need in order to invest this type of capital.

This new IoT revolution has the potential to touch and improve every part of the U.S. economy. At this critical time in our nation's technological advancement, our federal regulations should not be looking back just as the technology sector is working to move us forward.  If we are to see the full benefits these technological advances potentially promise, it's up to Congress to find a way to come together to move quickly and create a 21st century law for our 21st century Internet.

LJJ (@TechnicalJones)

Internet and Education

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ChristmasTree_Dec 2008.jpg



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Internet Regulation: "Old School" or "New School"?

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Should federal regulations designed for rotary telephones be expanded to cover our high-speed Internet use?  Incredibly, this question has become a serious issue in Washington, as supporters of Title II regulations promote the idea even in the face of new evidence that Americans do far more online than people in almost every other major country.

Congress drafted these rules during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.  They were meant for the nation's emerging telephone service, which often involved placing calls through live operators and calling during the evening to save money on long-distance tolls.  Yet while these problems are thankfully long-gone, some want to apply these antiquated regulations to today's modern, competitive and diverse communication systems through the Internet.

The technological arguments against expanding Title II rules are obvious: High-speed Internet technologies are emerging everywhere, which is why Americans do so much more online than the Japanese, British, Canadians, West Europeans and many others. With all our choices for video streams, downloads, gaming, and cloud storage, Americans on average use more than double the data of the average Japanese or West European. Indeed, the average American Internet user generates more online data than users in all other major nations except South Korea.

The American Internet model is spurring remarkable social improvements. Nowhere is this more obvious than with advancements in home health care.  Patients suffering from diabetes, heart and kidney disease, which are leading causes of death in the African American community, are gaining direct benefits from real-time, Internet-based healthcare monitoring.

Regulations and bureaucratic red tape will inevitably slow this progress for no good reason.  Indeed, even those pushing for expanded online regulation acknowledge that there's no current problem.

Worse, like a bad Christmas gift, this one comes with a hefty price tag -  about $15 billion annually.  That's the total amount of new state and local taxes and fees that consumers will have to pay from this reclassification. Among the states hardest hit by these new taxes and fees are California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

For anyone with a smartphone or home Internet connection, the stakes are significant. Expanded regulation would mean new taxes and fees - and people on fixed income would also be hit hard by the new costs, which will average $72 per year for each wireless connection and $67 for wired service.

The most puzzling aspect of this issue, aside from the fact that there isn't a practice that anyone in the debate is pointing to as evidence for this change, is that it detracts from a much more important issue.  Our focus should be trained on promoting better and faster Internet service for all, particularly for unserved and underserved communities.  As Internet networks become more accessible, it will spur ongoing advances in affordable health care that can unlock huge benefits, particularly for those who cannot easily visit a doctor's office.

This much is clear: Americans deserve an open Internet.  They deserve to access whatever legal content they choose without anyone interfering.  But applying a set of rules from the 1930s to achieve this is guaranteed to produce more expensive Internet access.  There has to be a better way!

Thankfully for us, we have that better way.  In rendering an opinion on FCC net neutrality rules in January, the Court laid out a pathway under Section 706 of the Communications Act that would protect the Internet, and ensure that the broadband networks we need built out nationwide would have the best chance to happen.  Section 706 provides the best, and least intrusive, means of protecting the wonderful Internet world we all enjoy, and continuing to bring us the benefits we enjoy today.

LJJ (@TechnicalJones)

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