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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Biden’s big broadband ambitions mean historic hurdles for NTIA

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Happy Tuesday! We hope you enjoyed the long weekend as much as we enjoyed the Bills' decimation of the Patriots. 

Below: Critics of the tech giants launch a new group to push for antitrust bills, and airlines issue a warning on the 5G rollout. First:

Biden’s big broadband ambitions mean historic hurdles for NTIA

When President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill in November, he made a bold pledge: “This law is going to make high-speed Internet affordable and available everywhere.” 

Now, the little-known telecom agency tasked with leading those efforts faces the historic challenge of turning Biden’s goal into reality, including by overseeing the bulk of the $65 billion set aside for expanding Internet access.

Up until recently, that task had been made more daunting by the fact that the agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), had gone longer than ever into a new administration without a permanent leader. 

That changed last Tuesday as the Senate confirmed Google and Mozilla alum Alan Davidson as director of NTIA. The agency will steer $48 billion in federal funding for broadband deployment, a massive sum that will test its capacity.

We asked two former NTIA chiefs, David Redl and Larry Irving, what they see as the biggest hurdles for Davidson and the agency’s upcoming agenda. Here are some takeaways: 

More money, more oversight

With NTIA receiving a massive cash infusion for broadband grants, scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill about how that money is dolled out is likely to reach new heights. That’s particularly true given that most of the grants NTIA will oversee will be for projects at the state level, where lawmakers may have their own constituents in mind, Redl said.

“The level of oversight you’re going to get is usually commensurate with the amount of money, and [this] is going to demand a lot of oversight,” said Redl, who served as NTIA chief under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2019.  

Irving, who helmed NTIA from 1993 to 1999 under President Bill Clinton, said the challenge of handling so much in funding is “more than an ocean” for NTIA. And he quipped that Davidson would be wise to prioritize developing relationships with lawmakers on key committees that oversee NTIA early on in his tenure. 

“The one thing that I think that every head of NTIA should do, and not all do do, is make sure that they kiss the ring and have conversations with every member of Congress on your authorizing an appropriations committee that you can,” he said.

Outdated Internet connectivity maps will make doling out funds a tall task

To make high-speed Internet “affordable and available everywhere,” as Biden pledged, federal officials will need to determine which areas across the country are most in need of grants. But the federal government’s aging maps on Internet connectivity will pose a major obstacle.

Irving called the current mapping situation “a disaster” and said that updating the Federal Communications Commission’s maps must be done “well and quickly” to avoid wasting funds.

“To spend billions of dollars with poor or incomplete mapping would be a huge mistake,” he said.

Redl called the mapping situation a “constant challenge” but said the push is in good hands with Davidson and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel leading the charge.

“With the two of them, I think the maps are going to come out as well as we can expect, given the constraints that the FCC is under,” he said.

The agency faces an ever-growing to-do list

While the broadband build-out will be NTIA’s biggest task, lawmakers and advocates have also been pushing for the agency to take a more active role on data privacy and cybersecurity. That could test the agency’s ability to juggle different priorities. 

“I’m confident that the NTIA staff can walk and chew gum,” Redl said. “The folks that do privacy and cybersecurity are in general not the same staff that are going to be managing a grant program. … So I’m less concerned with any of those issues getting short shrift.”

Irving said the agency could serve as a “catalyst” for developing the Biden administration’s views on those issues, but noted that NTIA is limited by not having the same regulatory power as other agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission. 

Our top tabs

Big Tech critics are launching a ‘campaign-style’ initiative to push for antitrust legislation

The Tech Oversight Project aims to be a direct counterweight to Big Tech allies’ campaigns arguing that lawmakers shouldn’t overly regulate the industry, Cat Zakrzewski reports.

"Launching Tuesday, the Tech Oversight Project plans to bring “campaign-style” tactics to push lawmakers to pass competition legislation aimed at the tech industry," Cat writes. "The project is primarily funded by the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic venture launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar that has called for greater regulation of the tech industry, and the advocacy arm of the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit organization led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who has called for the breakup of the social network he helped create."

The group’s first target: pressuring senators to pass legislation blocking tech giants from favoring their products and services over those of their rivals. A Senate committee could consider the bill as early as this week.

Airline executives warn of impending chaos as AT&T and Verizon plan to launch 5G service

The chief executives of the country’s major passenger and cargo carriers warned that the rollout of fifth-generation wireless technology on Wednesday could cause thousands of grounded flights and lead the economy to grind to a halt, Reuters’s David Shepardson reports. The companies are asking for 5G to “be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways” at some major U.S. airports.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who chairs the committee's aviation panel, have called for a delay of the rollout, Reuters reported.

The airline industry has said the technology could disrupt airline safety systems. AT&T and Verizon have twice agreed to delay the launch of the technology, which was originally set for Dec. 5.

A Senate panel is poised to consider another major antitrust proposal as early as this week

The Senate Judiciary Committee has listed the Open App Markets Act for consideration as early as Thursday. The bipartisan bill would upend the way smartphone apps and app stores operate by requiring the companies that run large app stores to allow people to download apps from outside those app stores and let them install alternative app stores.

The Judiciary Committee’s decision to debate the bill was praised by the Coalition for App Fairness, which has criticized Apple’s control over its App Store.

The committee typically holds bills for at least a week before they’re debated, so it’s unclear whether it will be debated this week. Last week, the Judiciary Committee listed for consideration a proposal to block tech giants from giving their products and services a leg up over those of their rivals.

Rant and rave

Netflix's latest price increase had Twitter users pondering what the service is missing — and what their options are. Journalist Casey Newton and Homebrew partner Hunter Walk:

Apple's Josh Elman:

Variety's Heidi Chung:

Inside the industry

Twitter expands feature allowing users to flag misleading tweets (Reuters)

Dutch consumer watchdog to vet Apple dating app payment reforms (Reuters)

Workforce report

Apple will now require employees to submit proof of COVID-19 booster shot (The Verge)

Activision Blizzard pushes out dozens of employees over workplace misconduct (Wall Street Journal)

Trending

A Silicon Valley city will use lasers and a boombox to try and scare away crows after other methods failed (Insider)

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a business meeting on Thursday at 9 a.m. The committee has listed two antitrust bills for potential consideration at the meeting. 

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