February 22, 2021
In today's Login, we’re pondering the big questions. Like this one: Does playing different types of music to cheese as it ages change the flavor? Well, wonder no more.
Today's Login is 1,295 words, a 5-minute read.
1 big thing: Pandemic puts money, political muscle behind broadband
Now that the pandemic has made it clear just how essential it is to be connected to high-speed internet, lawmakers are finally putting billions of dollars into funding government programs to expand access to it, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Kim Hart report.
Why it matters: The big lesson from the pandemic is that broadband service is no longer a nice-to-have amenity — it's critical for virtual school, remote work and telemedicine. Yet around 14.5 million Americans still lack access to it, according to the FCC. (Many advocates believe that figure undercounts the number of people still not connected.)
Driving the news: Federal and local officials in both parties are taking ambitious steps.
- Congress set aside $7 billion in funding for broadband in the December COVID-19 relief package, including a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program that will provide up to $50 a month off internet bills and a one-time $100 discount for a laptop or other device for low-income families.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month advanced $7.6 billion in funding to expand internet connectivity for students and teachers without access as part of its COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation legislation.
- Acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last week launched a broadband task force to improve the agency's data collection and mapping tools, which have long been criticized for under-reporting the access gaps.
What's happening: Urgency has also increased at the state level: 34 states enacted legislation or resolutions related to broadband development in 2020, per the National Conference of State Legislatures. Action is already underway this year; for example:
- In Nebraska, 11 bills have been introduced so far to expand broadband access and Gov. Pete Rickets has for the first time earmarked state general funds to address it, per the Omaha World-Herald.
- In Texas, Republican state senators have proposed a creating a Broadband Development Program, establishing a map of where improvements are needed and creating a statewide broadband plan within a year, per the Houston Chronicle.
- Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's budget proposal for $210 million toward increasing broadband access has bipartisan support and was fast-tracked by the legislature last week, AP reports.
The big picture: Such steps to close the digital divide are long overdue, but previous proposals were typically hobbled by partisan bickering or overshadowed by sexier tech-related issues.
- Now, though, the stark need for better and more affordable access has finally summoned political will from both parties.
- "People are finally serious not just about talking, but spending," said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press. "This is something that's essential and everybody needs it and not everybody can afford it right now."
Another factor is pushing high-speed internet access to the top of the priority list: The sudden potential for smaller towns to attract new residents who are fleeing big, expensive cities.
- People can't work remotely with slow and spotty internet service.
- The increased reliance on smart phones, wireless devices and — eventually — 5G services is only possible if fiber networks in the ground keep expanding to handle the extra traffic.
Yes, but: Plenty of hurdles remain. For example, the FCC is tasked with getting the $50 broadband benefit program up and running, but it hasn't yet figured out what to do if the money runs out and customers suddenly face "bill shock."
Partisan differences are also emerging. House Republicans have focused on broadband deployment proposals in 28 bills, including deregulatory measures such as imposing deadlines on cities to act on permitting requests or limiting environmental reviews.
- A bill from Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) would curb cities from building their own broadband networks.
2. Fitbit CEO: Wearables can detect COVID and more
Fitbit started out trying to make us healthier by making us take a few extra steps. Now such wearables can help detect diseases like COVID-19 and even spot signs of depression, CEO James Park told me in an interview for "Axios on HBO."
Why it matters: Early detection is important for a range of health conditions, but especially so with communicable diseases like the flu or COVID-19.
A new algorithm, Park said, was able to use Fitbit data including heart rate fluctuations to spot COVID-19 a day or two before symptoms appeared.
- That may not sound like a lot, Park said, but "it's pretty profound in the sense that if you could tell people one to two days before that they should start self-quarantining, that could actually have a pretty meaningful impact on the spread of the disease."
- Other companies, including smart ring maker Oura, are also studying ways their data can be used to detect COVID-19.
The big picture: Park acknowledged that spotting diseases was not part of his initial plan, but said that as the company has added sensors over the years, its products have gained new uses.
- In addition to tracking steps, Fitbit's newest devices can track body temperature, oxygen levels and even measure stress.
Between the lines: Fitbit itself is changing too, having recently become part of Google. Even though Fitbit sits on a trove of health data, including 14 years of Park's own health data, Park said he trusts the company to stick to the privacy protections Fitbit has promised as well as Google's pledges not to use health data for advertising purposes.
- "That was one of the key things in our conversations with Google that led us to ultimately agree to the merger," Park said.
3. Another AI ethics leader pushed out of Google
Google started Friday by announcing it had wrapped up its inquiry into the controversial ouster of ethical AI team co-leader Timnit Gebru and ended it by firing the team's other co-leader, Margaret Mitchell.
Why it matters: The moves have served to further inflame critics already furious at the company for its treatment of Gebru.
Driving the news:
- As first reported by Axios, Google has concluded its investigation of the events surrounding Gebru's exit, but isn't sharing what the inquiry found.
- It is making a series of changes, including tying executive pay to diversity results, streamlining procedures for publishing research and increasing the number of HR employees devoted to retention.
- Hours after making that announcement, the company notified Margaret Mitchell, who co-led the Ethical AI team with Gebru, that she was being fired. Google said she violated company policies, while a source said she ran an automated script in an effort to uncover evidence supporting Gebru's claims of harassment and discrimination.
Between the lines: Google's moves are only widening the gulf between the company and those who support Gebru, increasing dissension, especially within the research unit.
What they're saying:
- Google AI head Jeff Dean, in a staff email: "I heard and acknowledge what Dr. Gebru’s exit signified to female technologists, to those in the Black community and other underrepresented groups who are pursuing careers in tech, and to many who care deeply about Google's responsible use of AI. It led some to question their place here, which I regret."
- Timnit Gebru, on Twitter: "Write an email asking for things, I get fired, and then after a 3 month investigation, they say they should probably do some of the things I presumably got fired asking for, without holding anyone accountable for their actions."
4. Google hires Obama vet for key policy role
Google has hired Anne Wall, a former Obama White House legislative staffer, as head of strategy and external affairs, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.
What's happening: Wall will lead strategy for Google's U.S. and Canada government affairs and public policy teams, reporting to Republican Mark Isakowitz, Google's VP of government affairs and public policy for the U.S. and Canada.
Why it matters: Google is putting a high-profile Democrat in a key external affairs role as the Biden administration ramps up.
Between the lines: Wall will also lead engagement with third-party groups and advocacy organizations. Heading up strategy for the policy team is a new part of the external affairs role.
- Social media platforms and big tech companies are under intense regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and across the world. Google is under multiple antitrust investigations.
5. Take note
- DLD is holding DLD All Stars, an online conference that runs through today. I'm interviewing Exponential View creator Azeem Azhar.
- Retail tech company Enjoy last week announced it had hired former Kellogg financial chief Kareed Khan as CFO, while former Major League Baseball CIO and CFO Jonathan Mariner will serve as chief administrative and people officer.
- BuzzFeed has an in-depth look at the role Mark Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan have played in key political content decisions, including the handling of Alex Jones. (BuzzFeed News)
- Researchers are scratching their heads over previously undetected Mac malware that has infected more than 30,000 machines. (Ars Technica)
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