Telecom law, regulations, and accurate broadband mapping - ETI
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August 15, 2023

Telecom law, regulations, and accurate broadband mapping

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch. The Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software.

Brad Hine:

Hello, everyone in broadband land. Welcome to another episode of The Broadband Bunch. I’m your host, Brad Hine, bringing you stats, stories, and samples from the world of broadband. Today we’re continuing to follow up on a fabulous conference we attended months ago in San Diego, California. The RTIME Conference, which is the largest conference for rural independent broadband providers, and the NTCA were in full swing. Our guest today is Claire Andonov. She’s a telecommunications attorney with Herman & Whiteaker. She assists clients with federal subsidies, regulatory spectrum, and transactional matters. Claire specializes in advocating for the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and other federal agencies. Claire currently serves as the chair of the Associate Member Advisory Council of the NTCA, which is the Rural Broadband Association where she represents the interests of rural independent telecommunications carriers and cooperatives. Welcome to the podcast, Clare.

Clare Andonov:

Thank you, Brad. Very happy to be here.

Brad Hine:

Well, it was sure great to meet you in San Diego. I will say while we were in San Diego, my counterpart, Joe, and I were asking the NTCA staff who could help us better understand the current regulatory demands and promotion and advocacy of these rural broadband providers and their vendors. Everybody said, “You have to speak to Clare.”

Clare Andonov:

Oh, that’s nice.

Advocacy and Support from NTCA and Herman & Whiteaker

Brad Hine:

As we know, rural broadband providers are critical in keeping our communities connected. So whether it’s school, work, healthcare, family, friends, the list goes on, the NTCA plays a really important role in this knowledge transfer, and you do also. So tell our listeners a little bit about what you’re doing with the NTCA and perhaps an overview of Herman & Whiteaker as well.

Clare Andonov:

Sure. Well, let me start with Herman & Whiteaker. We are a boutique law firm based out of Washington, DC. We specialize in telecom law, although we also have an attorney who specializes in corporate law, Carrie DeVier. So we do a lot of transactions as well as any sort of FCC compliance. As you mentioned before, Brad, we do a lot of lobbying before the FCC, NTIA, RUS, and also in front of Congress.

Our clients are rural, independent telcos. We make sure that they are in compliance with FCC rules. We also assist them with acquiring spectrum and with acquiring subsidies through the Universal Service Fund. My role with NTCA is I serve on AMAC, which stands for Associate Member Advisory Council. I am the chair of AMAC. Basically, AMAC represents the interests of associate members. At NTCA, associate members are basically the non-telcos, the non-carriers. So we are the people who are vendors and basically help telcos out either through law compliance, our attorneys, or through engineering, marketing, and that sort of stuff. So AMAC also provides seminars. We also provide educational material to the members. Usually at a conference, we will have at least one panel where we’ll have a session on something that’s going on currently in rural broadband land.

AMAC’s Seminars and Workshops in the World of Rural Broadband

Brad Hine:

So you talked a little bit about the seminars and workshops that you guys set up. Can you talk a little bit more about how often you’re doing that? I know that you’re currently doing that once a year at RTIME.

Clare Andonov:

Sure. So usually AMAC will sponsor at least one panel or one session. I think at RTIME we did two. One was on broadband funding and then I think the other one was on 5G and what that means for rural broadband. 5G is mobile 5G. We also usually have a panel discussion at the summer symposiums. Last year we did one on working from home, and I think the year prior we did one on marketing. Then we will also have a seminar at the fall conference, and we are still currently deciding on what the topic should be.

From Undergrad to Telecom Law

Brad Hine:

So you talked about working for Herman & Whiteaker. I know you’re in telecom law. Tell our listeners a little bit about how you got involved, maybe your path starting with your degree and up through law school, and kind of how you got involved with telecom.

Clare Andonov:

Sure. I graduated from the University of Virginia. I got my undergrad there. And then I always knew I was going to go to law school. Actually, my father was an attorney. He passed away when I was young, so I always knew that I sort of wanted to follow in his footsteps. So I went to Catholic University, which is in Washington, DC. Catholic actually has a telecom program, which I became very interested in. So I joined that program. And through that program, I had a few internships as was required through the program. So I worked at the Federal Trade Commission where I learned a little bit about antitrust, which does seem to be applicable to telecom a lot. And then I also worked at NTIA. Then last but not least, I worked at the Federal Communications Commission where I worked for a commissioner, Deborah Taylor Tate.

Inside the FCC

Brad Hine:

Oh, so tell us a little bit about working for the FCC. How was it working for the federal government?

Clare Andonov:

Well, it was really nice because I did that in my third year of law school. I did it actually both semesters. I really got to learn a lot because I was working for a commissioner, and I was working on the 8th floor. Now the FCC has recently relocated, so the commissioners are now on the 10th floor, but at the time they were on the 8th floor. And so I got to really know a lot on a high level about all the top current events that are going on in telecom. Actually, I think the year that I worked there, there were a lot of mergers going on.

Finding Passion in Constant Innovation

Brad Hine:

So what interested you specifically about the FCC? Is there anything specific that you started to get involved with that you really started to be attracted to?

Clare Andonov:

Well, honestly, when I went to law school, I sort of became concerned that law could maybe possibly become a little bit boring because it’s sort of always the same. Like for example with property law, it’s always the same. It’s based on precedent that’s been around for hundreds of years. When I started to learn more about telecom law, I thought, “This is what is for me, because it’s always changing.” Technology is always changing, and so the regulations have to always change. And so you are always seeing new things come out of the FCC. And I sort of liked that you’re constantly learning something new.

Brad Hine:

When you initially told me about your three internships, I thought, “Man, that’s a lot of work for you.” You’re a total overachiever, but it sounds like it’s a requirement for anyone who’s a telecommunications law major. Is that true?

Clare Andonov:

That’s correct. I mean, I think in law school you usually don’t have a major, but Catholic University did offer a program, the Telecom Program, which gives you a special certificate in telecom law. And yeah, there were requirements, that you take a certain amount of courses and that you also have at least three internships. And actually, I also served on the telecom journal at Catholic University.

Unveiling the Spectrum Journey

Brad Hine:

Oh wow. So post internship, you started to get more involved directly with telecommunications. Can you talk about your timeline and where you ventured next?

Clare Andonov:

Sure. So in law school, I started working for a small boutique telecom law firm also based out of Washington, DC. And then I continued there after I graduated, working not just as a law clerk, but as an attorney. That firm specialized in spectrum acquisition. I worked there for I think about four or five years. We specialized in the 2.5 gigahertz band. And for those of you who don’t know, the 2.5 band was EBS or educational broadband service. It was a band that the FCC years and years ago actually designated for educational entities and nonprofit institutions and basically allowed these entities to just apply for the license instead of having to pay for it through an auction. The idea was that they could use the licenses for instructional broadcasting.

A lot of schools did apply for these, and nonprofit institutions did as well. But the problem was that they didn’t really have the know-how to build out a system. So eventually the FCC did allow these schools and nonprofits to lease to a commercial company where the commercial company would build out for them and then use a portion for themselves. In the beginning, it was used for broadcast. And then the band actually transitioned to broadband. So if you are familiar, just recently the FCC auctioned the remaining 2.5 off. And they did open it up for commercial entities to buy that. That was Auction 108, which was concluded I think a year ago.

Advocacy for Broadband Access and Spectrum Opportunities

Brad Hine:

When you and I were talking initially, you told me a great story that I think is in tandem with this 2.5 spectrum. You were advocating on the side of a couple of tribal nations and maybe some successes you had with getting tribal nations served with broadband before the 2.5 auction by the FCC.

Clare Andonov:

Yep. So we do represent a few tribal nations. We have them as clients. They came to us specifically about the 2.5 band because they were interested in how to acquire some spectrum so that they could build out on their own a network covering their tribal nation or their reservation. As you may know, a lot of tribal nations are really very badly underserved. And so they wanted to go ahead and do that themselves, but they did need access to licensed spectrum.

So before the FCC initiated Auction 108, we went in and petitioned the FCC many times and lobbied them asking before they auction it off for them to have a filing window where basically tribal nations can apply for a license that covers their territory. The FCC did grant that. And so I think almost all tribal nations that were eligible to basically apply for this license did apply and have received it.

The Crucial Role of Accurate Broadband Maps

Brad Hine:

That’s fabulous. So in advocating for the tribal nations, obviously your role on the AMAC on that committee, you’re advocating for all the broadband independent rural providers out there.

I know there’s a ton of interest in the NTIA maps. There were former FCC maps, you and I spoke about it while we were in San Diego. Talk to me about the importance of these maps and where they are today.

Clare Andonov:

Sure. So the FCC recently has been charged by Congress with putting together a more granular broadband map. As some of you might be familiar, the FCC used to collect 477 data, which would show coverage. They have now switched to the Broadband Data Collection or BDC. They do have the first iteration of the map available. You can find that on the web. However, I would say that it’s a work in progress. When I’ve looked at it with some of our clients, we’ve noticed that it seems like a lot of fixed wireless providers overstate their coverage stating that they can cover large areas with 100 over 20. And while it might be true that they could serve one location within that area, if all of those locations asked for 100/20 at the same time, it seems very unlikely that they could.

The problem with overstating their coverage is that the broadband map now looks like, “Oh, we’re all covered. We don’t need any more broadband in these areas.” But that’s really not the case. Funding moving forward, whether that’s through the FCC or NTIA or RUS, really they’re required to look at these broadband maps. So those areas that are potentially overstated or inaccurate will be ineligible for funding, which is not great because then those people years down the road will all still not have adequate broadband.

The Evolution of Broadband Mapping and the Quest for Accuracy

Brad Hine:

So these maps are going to become the standard? I mean, I was looking through a few maps earlier this week. There’s a digital divide index. I live in a metro area like you, and we have fiber to the home. We probably have 50 devices connected here at my house for remote work and school, and even we have remote healthcare appointments sometimes. But that’s not always true when you drill down in these rural areas. And I’m seeing information where not only is there poor capacity currently but there are folks still without connectivity at all, without cell phones or without proper cell phone connections. So their cell phones are only feeding a little bit of data at a time.

But it’s interesting to me how this has evolved from, like you said, 477 through the Broadband Data Collection. With the current NTIA maps and the other maps that we’re trying to use for reference for all this, would you say we’re kind of on the 1.5 version? Are we at the 2.0 version yet?

Clare Andonov:

I think 1.5 sounds right. Look, the FCC will continue to collect information twice a year, right? The challenges are ongoing. So if you look at the broadband map and you look up your address and it says, “Oh yeah, you get gigabit service here.” And you’re like, “No, I do not get gigabit service.” You can go in and challenge that. And then the FCC will remove that from their maps. I think what we’re seeing though, is that there is sort of an issue or there does seem to be trouble with doing a bulk challenge. So saying an entire area is not covered. So I think the FCC is working on improving that challenge process.

Understanding Universal Service and Affordable Connectivity Programs

Brad Hine:

I guess just like anything, it’s still a bit new, and we’re refining it along the way. I know there are going to be some updates to those maps with the data before some of the June announcements this year, which will be important. Regarding getting people connected, I know there’s also an issue of affordability too. So I know you talked about Universal Service. Could you explain to our listeners a little bit about exactly what Universal Service means?

Clare Andonov:

Sure. So Universal Service, if you look at your phone bill, you’ll probably see a line item at the bottom that says Universal Service fee. That is something that you pay into the Universal Service Fund or really that the carrier pays into. And then that fund, which in recent years it’s been about 8 to $9 billion, is used to make sure that everybody is connected to the internet. Because honestly, if you think about it, what’s the use of the internet if you can’t connect to everyone? So in certain areas of the country, it’s very spread out. And it’s very expensive to build out. In fact, a business model doesn’t make sense because it’s expensive to build out because everyone’s spread out. And then you also are getting fewer subscribers.

And so Universal Service provides a subsidy to carriers who are willing to build out in what is called high-cost areas. So then they’re able to build out, and they are required to so that everyone does have coverage. The Universal Service also provides subsidies to educational entities so that they all have broadband internet, and then also to rural hospitals and then to low-income people through the Lifeline program.

The Lifeline program is only for telephone service. It is not for broadband, but the FCC recently did put together an ACP program, which I think stands for Affordable Connectivity Program. That provides a subsidy for broadband. That currently is not under Universal Service. It was in appropriation from Congress under the Infrastructure Act. Basically, Congress funded that for $14 billion. However, a concern is that if everybody who is eligible for ACP did apply for it, that fund could easily be exhausted within two years. So I don’t know what we’ll see in two years whether the FCC will add that to Universal Service or whether Congress will continue to make appropriations so that low-income people can get a subsidy to get broadband.

Bridging the Digital Divide with $14 Billion in Funding

Brad Hine:

Wow. Well, certainly affordability is a huge thing, especially in rural areas. Did I read that there was a $14-, $15 billion chunk of money that’s connected to the ACP, the Affordable Connectivity program?

Clare Andonov:

That’s correct. It’s a little bit over $14 billion.

Brad Hine:

So what’s the chance that something like this may end up growing? Is this outside of the infrastructure fund that’s coming, or is this part of this?

Clare Andonov:

This is a part of it. So it was part of the Infrastructure Act. Yeah, so the 65 billion, it’s part of that. BEAD is taking up a large chunk of it. I think BEAD is about 45.5 billion. And then 14 billion is for the ACP.

Beyond Telecom

Brad Hine:

Gotcha. Gotcha. Well, Clare, when you were not fighting the good fight for the independent broadband folks of America, what are you doing in your spare time?

Clare Andonov:

Well, let’s see. I like to watch hockey. I’m a big Caps fan, although it kind of disappointed me this year. They didn’t make the playoffs.

I also am a big Formula 1 fan. The season has just sort of begun. Unfortunately, I’m a Ferrari fan, and they have not been doing so well. They’re racing this weekend. And then actually in May, I am going to go see them in Italy.

Embracing Self-Advocacy in Your Career Journey

Brad Hine:

A world traveler also. So like all of our episodes, I have to ask the Back to the Future question. Clare, if you were to go back in time in your DeLorean and speak to yourself or give yourself a little bit of advice before you started your telecommunications law path and career, is there anything specifically that you might tell yourself to help you along the way?

Clare Andonov:

I think a trait that I have, which I’ve always taken pride in, is that I am a very loyal person. I think if I were to look back and tell my younger self some advice, I would say don’t forget to be loyal to yourself and to your own goals and aspirations. And be clear with your employer and your colleagues what those goals and aspirations are. And if your employer doesn’t seem to agree with those, it might not be a great fit. Don’t fear moving forward because you need to be loyal to yourself first.

Navigating Unprecedented Funding and the Importance of Long-Term Advocacy

Brad Hine:

Wise advice. So on the flip side of that, our crystal ball question. Where do you see the industry going in terms of rural independent broadband providers in the next 5, 10, or 20 years? How do you see this shaping up? Obviously, there’s a very large fund coming from the government this year that we may not see a lot of in the future. We don’t know. But where do you see all this headed in the future?

Clare Andonov:

Well, I think we’re about to see a lot of changes especially because there’s such a large, unprecedented amount of money that is being pumped into rural broadband. Once that money is spent, what are we going to see in terms of Universal Service? Is there still going to be a need? In my opinion, yes. There will still be a need, but will Congress and will the FCC still consider their need? And if Universal Service starts to decline, that might be a big issue for rural telecom. I think it’s very important that rural telcos really get in front of Congress and the FCC right now and tell them, “We still need money for maintenance and operation and upgrades moving forward even after all of this BEAD funding is spent.”

Closing Thoughts and Contact Information

Brad Hine:

More great advice. Well, Clare, as we wrap up this episode of The Broadband Bunch Podcast, I’d like to thank you specifically for all the work you’re doing to educate and support these rural broadband independent initiatives. Your role with the NTCA in helping to keep all the vendors that serve the providers in check too is invaluable. We’d definitely love to connect with you next year at RTIME if we could and get an updated report on what transpires in the second half of 2023. And also for our listeners that maybe want more info on what you do, or your committee, or on Herman & Whiteaker and the work you’re doing there, how can they get in touch with you and your company?

Clare Andonov:

Well, you can go to our website, hermanwhiteakerllc.com, or you can always send me an email. Unfortunately, my email is a little bit long, but it’s candonov, Andonov is spelled A-N-D-O-N-O-V, @hermanwhiteaker.com. And Whiteaker is spelled W-H-I-T-E-A-K-E-R. Or you can always call me. It’s 703-973-9470, and I would love to hear from you, guys. Thank you, Brad, for having me, and I look forward to talking to you again next year.

Brad Hine:

Oh, my pleasure, entirely. And to Clare and all our listeners on the Broadband Bunch Podcast today, I won’t say goodbye. But for a little while, so long. Talk soon, everyone.

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