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EXPLAINER: What Biden's new $100B plan for broadband means

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The problems with U.S. broadband networks have been obvious for years. Service costs more than in many other rich nations, it still doesn’t reach tens of millions of Americans and the companies that provide it don’t face much competition.

Now the Biden administration is promising to do something about all of those issues as part of its proposed $2.3 trillion infrastructure package. The plan, which would devote $100 billion to get all Americans connected, is more idea than policy and lacks a lot of important detail.

But it sketches out a striking new vision of activist government measures intended to improve high-speed internet service, following decades in which the government has largely left the job to private companies.

WHAT IS BIDEN’S PROPOSAL?

It would spend $100 billion to “future-proof” broadband as part of an eight-year infrastructure plan, calling high-speed connections “the new electricity” that’s now a necessity for all Americans. (For history buffs, that’s a reference to the Rural Electrification Act — Depression-era legislation that sped the extension of power lines to farms and rural communities.)

It could signal a major policy shift toward lowering the high cost of internet service, rather than just handing money to broadband providers for building out networks. “Americans pay too much for internet,” the plan bluntly states.

It pushes for greater competition that could lower prices, by encouraging and supporting networks owned or affiliated with local governments, co-operatives and non-profit organizations. Currently, roughly 20 states restrict municipal broadband. Prioritizing such networks could give them a leg up when the government doles out money for extending service.

“The most important thing about what President Biden has done in the proposal is that he’s redefined the digital divide,” said Larry Irving, a top telecom official in the Clinton administration. “The simple act of recognizing that poverty is a bigger indicator of lack of access than geography is a huge statement.”

It’s not clear how the Biden administration plans to bring that about.

WHY IS THIS NECESSARY?

The pandemic has made clear that millions of Americans are not online, a problem that isn’t limited to rural areas but includes cities too. The White House says more than 30 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet at all, and millions more can’t afford it.

The divide persists even after the government has spent billions encouraging broadband providers to connect far-flung and often isolated communities. From 2009 through 2017, federal spending on such programs totalled $47.3 billion, according to a government watchdog report. An additional $20 billion is lined up over the next decade for rural broadband, and another $9 billion for high-speed wireless internet called 5G in sparsely populated regions. Billions more flowed to broadband from the three huge relief packages enacted during the pandemic.

America’s rural-internet policy has been an ongoing mistake, said Gigi Sohn, an official in the Obama-era FCC. “A lot of what we have is very slow,” she said. The White House now says it wants “future-proof” networks “in unserved and underserved areas,” so they don’t have to be rebuilt again years later because they’re out-of-date.

Exactly what those terms means for what gets built and where isn’t clear, either, and many Republicans oppose putting federal funds to work in areas that do have internet even if it’s slow — what’s called “overbuilding.”

WILL CONGRESS SUPPORT THIS PLAN?

The $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan has its detractors. Some Democrats are disappointed because they wanted more. On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it a “Trojan horse” for tax hikes.

Internet access is a bipartisan issue, but Republican leaders of the House and Senate Commerce committees called Biden’s approach on broadband wasteful.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the Republican ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Biden’s plan would “hurt private investment in our networks without actually closing the digital divide.” She called for trimming regulations on building infrastructure to help prompt investment. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the Republican ranking member of Senate Commerce, said the proposal “opens the door for duplication and overbuilding.”

Congressional Democrats have recently introduced major broadband legislation of their own, including a $94 billion bill from Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Majority Whip, who both said they approved of the White House’s approach.

WHAT DOES BIG BROADBAND SAY?

Republicans’ concerns echo those from industry. The cable lobbying group NCTA said the White House “risks taking a serious wrong turn … by suggesting that the government is better suited than private-sector technologists to build and operate the internet.” The NCTA also said it was worried about price regulation. The Biden document does not mention price controls.

Jonathan Spalter, CEO of the lobbying group USTelecom, said that prioritizing investments in government-owned broadband is “exactly the wrong approach” since taxpayers will get the bill if such networks fail. He also claimed that broadband prices are already falling.

The Labor Department says pricing for telephone services, which includes internet plans along with phone service, has dropped about 7% over the past decade. Internet service costs, which include things like web hosting, have risen 2%. A think-tank with a lot of tech-industry funding, New America, says prices are higher in the U.S. compared with Asia and Europe.

Tali Arbel, The Associated Press

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US Capitol Police watchdog to testify on Jan. 6 failures

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WASHINGTON — The top watchdog for the U.S. Capitol Police will testify for the first time on Thursday about the department’s broad failures before and during the Jan. 6 insurrection, including missed intelligence predicting a “war” and weapons that were so old that officers didn’t feel comfortable using them.

Capitol Police Inspector General Michael A. Bolton has investigated the force’s missteps since the siege, when hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters broke into the building and sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives. In a report obtained by The Associated Press, he paints a dire picture of his agency’s ability to respond to future threats and casts serious doubt on whether the force would be able to respond to another large-scale attack.

The Capitol Police have so far refused to publicly release the report — prepared in March and marked as “law enforcement sensitive” — despite congressional pressure. Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who heads the House Administration Committee, said last month that she found the report, along with another the department had circulated internally, “detailed and disturbing.” Lofgren’s committee is holding Thursday’s hearing.

Bolton found that the department’s deficiencies were — and remain — widespread: Equipment was old and stored badly; officers didn’t complete required training; and there was a lack of direction at the Civil Disturbance Unit, which exists to ensure that legislative functions of Congress are not disrupted by civil unrest or protest activity. That was exactly what happened on Jan. 6 when Trump supporters violently pushed past police and broke into the Capitol as Congress counted the Electoral College votes that certified Joe Biden’s victory.

The report also focuses on several pieces of missed intelligence, including an FBI memo sent the day before the insurrection that then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund told lawmakers he never saw. The memo warned of threatening online postings by Trump backers, including one comment that Congress “needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in” and blood being spilled.

“Get violent … Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest,” read one post recounted in the memo. “Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”

A separate report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in December alerted the police to messages on a blog where people appeared to be planning for Jan. 6. One online post included a map of tunnels under the Capitol used by lawmakers and staff. “Take note,” the message said.

The Capitol Police said in a statement Wednesday that officials had already made some of the improvements recommended in the report, and that the siege was “a pivotal moment” in history that showed the need for “major changes” in how the department operates. Still, they said that they would need more money and staff to make improvements.

“It is important to note that nearly all of the recommendations require significant resources the department does not have,” the statement said.

The report also provides new information on the movements of the Capitol Police as officers scrambled to evacuate lawmakers. An appendix to the document details previously unknown conversations among officials as they disagreed on whether National Guard forces were necessary. It quotes an Army official telling Sund, after the insurrectionists had broken in, that “we don’t like the optics of the National Guard standing in a line at the Capitol.”

The riot has pushed the Capitol Police force toward a state of crisis, with officers working extra shifts and forced overtime to protect the Capitol. The acting chief, Yogananda Pittman, received a vote of no confidence from the union in February, reflecting widespread distrust among the rank and file who were left exposed and injured as the violent mob descended on the building. Morale has plummeted.

The entire force is also grieving the deaths of three of their own. Officer Brian Sicknick collapsed and died after engaging with protesters on Jan. 6. Officer William “Billy” Evans was killed April 2 when he was hit by a car that rammed into a barricade outside the Senate. Evans laid in honour in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday.

A third officer, Howard Liebengood, died by suicide in the days after the insurrection.

The report describes in detail how department equipment was substandard, including at least 11 different types of munitions that appeared to have expired. Some equipment hadn’t been replaced in more than two decades. Riot shields that shattered upon impact as the officers fended off the violent mob had been improperly stored. Weapons that could have fired tear gas were so old that officers didn’t feel comfortable using them. Other weapons that could have done more to disperse the crowd were never staged before a Trump rally held near the White House, and those who were ordered to get backup supplies to the front lines could not make it through the aggressive crowd.

In other cases, weapons weren’t used because of “orders from leadership,” the document says. Those weapons — called “less lethal” because they are designed to disperse rather than kill — could have helped the police repel the rioters as they moved toward the Capitol after Trump’s speech, according to the report.

The timeline attached to the report also gives a more detailed look at Capitol Police movements, commands and conversations as the chaos unfolded. It recounts several instances in which police and SWAT teams rescued individual lawmakers trapped in the Capitol and sheds new light on conversations in which Sund begged for National Guard support. Sund and others, including the head of the D.C. National Guard, have testified that Pentagon officials were concerned about the optics of a military response.

The document quotes Army Staff Secretary Walter Piatt telling Sund and others on a call that “we don’t like the optics” of the National Guard at the Capitol and he would recommend not sending them. That was at 2:26 p.m.; rioters had already smashed their way into the building.

The Pentagon eventually did approve the Guard’s presence, and Guard members arrived after 5 p.m. While they were waiting, Sund also had a teleconference with Vice-President Mike Pence, the timeline shows. Pence was in a secure location in the Capitol because he had overseen the counting of the electoral votes. Some rioters were calling for his hanging because he refused to try and overturn Biden’s win.

The AP reported Saturday that Pence also had a conversation that day with the acting defence secretary, Christopher Miller, in which Pence demanded, “Clear the Capitol.”

___

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Colleen Long contributed to this report.

Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press



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Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

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OTTAWA — A Liberal MP was caught wearing his birthday suit in the virtual House of Commons.

William Amos, who has represented the Quebec riding of Pontiac since 2015, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked Wednesday,

A screenshot obtained by The Canadian Press shows him standing between the Quebec and Canadian flags, his private parts hidden, in what appears to be his office.

Bloc Québécois MP Claude DeBellefeuille, the party whip, raised the incident in a point of order after question period, suggesting that parliamentary decorum requires male MPs to wear a jacket and tie — and a shirt, underwear and trousers.

Amos, who did not speak in during question period on Wednesday and therefore did not show up on the main screen, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Speaker Anthony Rota later thanked DeBellefeuille for her “observations” and clarified that while he had not seen anything, he checked with technicians and confirmed they saw something.

Only people connected to the platform were able to see the interactions of other members during the question period in virtual mode. Amos, a backbench MP, did not speak on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

Catherine Lévesque, The Canadian Press

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