Axios Login

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February 08, 2021

The biggest score of last night's football game for me came in the fourth quarter — when I managed to book an appointment online for my mother-in-law to get her COVID-19 vaccine.

Situational awareness: Bitcoin skyrocketed to record highs Monday morning, cracking $44,000 after Tesla revealed in a securities filing that it has bought $1.5 billion worth of the cryptocurrency and will start accepting it as a payment method for Tesla products.

Today's Login is 1,255 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Digital divide lurks behind school reopening plans

Illustration of an unplugged backpack.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Students on the wrong side of the digital divide who have struggled to keep up with remote learning will continue to face major hurdles even as schools reopen, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: Students without reliable in-home internet are already at an educational deficit, and many of the remote learning tools the pandemic has ushered in are here to stay. Experts and advocates worry that unconnected students could permanently fall behind their more wired peers if they don't get assistance now.

By the numbers: Schools scrambling to ensure that students can get online at home have tapped public and private resources to connect an estimated 3 million kids since the pandemic began, according to a tally from EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit focused on school connectivity.

  • But another 12 million kids still don't have the connections they need for distance learning, according to a January report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group.
  • And that analysis found that 75% of pandemic-related efforts to close the digital divide will expire in three years.

Kids in rural areas and Black, Latino and Native American households are hardest hit by the digital divide, according to the Common Sense study.

  • Texas, California and Florida have the most overall students without adequate internet service, while Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama have the highest proportion of insufficiently connected students.

What could help: Money. "One of the lessons I hope that gets learned during all this is that internet service is expensive," Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, told Axios. "Now we have to come up with a long-term solution to address that."

At the federal level, acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last week kicked off a process to potentially expand a broadband subsidy program for schools and libraries so it can be used to connect students at home.

  • The FCC is also moving forward to disburse $3.2 billion in federal funding under the last COVID relief package to help low-income families cover up to $50 of their monthly broadband bill.

At the local level, Chicago created a model program through partnerships with philanthropists and local internet service providers to sponsor service for students who lack access. The program connected 50,000 students by December and aims to connect another 50,000 by June.

  • Schools provide their students' addresses to local ISPs, which identify the homes that aren't connected. The schools then purchase internet service for low-income families that lack access, and work with community organizations to connect families.
  • EducationSuperHighway and ISPs are trying to expand the Chicago model nationwide.
  • Comcast, which participates in the Chicago program, announced plans this month to connect 1,000 community centers to WiFi by the end of 2021 as part of its Lift Zones project to help expand access to distance learning during the pandemic.

The bottom line: "The homework gap existed before the pandemic and it will persist after it if we don't make it a priority right now to get every student the broadband connection they need," Rosenworcel told Axios.

2. Microsoft halts donations to election deniers

Microsoft announced Friday it will suspend contributions for the rest of the 2022 election cycle to all members of Congress who voted to object to the presidential election results, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Driving the news: The decision comes after Microsoft held listening sessions with employees to discuss the future of its political action committee after the Capitol riot.

The big picture: Businesses are seriously reconsidering their approaches to political giving following the riot, and future giving will surely not go without scrutiny.

Yes, but: It's possible regular giving resumes after this election cycle, once businesses feel enough time has passed since the riot and emotions aren't as high.

What's happening: In addition to the suspension of giving to certain members of Congress, state officials and organizations who said the presidential election should be overturned, Microsoft will now allow employees to donate directly to causes like campaign finance reform and voting rights.

  • The company is also renaming its PAC to the Microsoft Corporation Stakeholders Voluntary PAC.
  • Microsoft had previously suspended all political giving pending the review that led to Friday's announcement.

What they're saying: "We believe these steps are appropriate given the importance of these issues for the stability and future of American democracy," Fred Humphries, VP of U.S. government affairs for Microsoft, wrote in a blog post.

3. Ex-Parler CEO says he didn't want Trump deal

Ex-Parler CEO John Matze tells "Axios on HBO" that the social media company's negotiations last summer to bring then-President Trump onto the Twitter rival were a lose-lose proposition and never got beyond unsigned, non-binding term sheets.

What Matze says: "I didn't like the idea of working with Trump, because he might have bullied people inside the company to do what he wanted. But I was worried that if we didn't sign the deal, he might have been vengeful and told his followers to leave Parler."

Backstory: BuzzFeed News reported Friday that Matze and two Parler advisers met at Mar-a-Lago last June to discuss a deal whereby the Trump organization would receive a 40% stake in Parler in exchange for Trump making Parler his exclusive social media home.

  • Trump himself was not in attendance, but his campaign chief and campaign lawyer were there.

Matze did not mention the Mar-a-Lago meeting when interviewed Thursday by Dan Primack for an "Axios on HBO" episode that aired Sunday. Instead, he said neither he nor other Parler executives had met with Trump or "anyone in the White House" about the former president creating a Parler account.

  • The Buzzfeed story does not contradict that statement, since it references negotiations with Trump "campaign" officials.

During a subsequent phone interview, Matze told Axios the Mar-a-Lago meeting was set up by Jeffrey Wernick, an early Parler investor and its eventual chief operating officer. He says it lasted a few hours and that he didn't sleep over at the private club in Florida where Trump now lives.

  • Matze adds he doesn't know if the first offer was made by Wernick or by Trump campaign officials.

4. Nanotech lets spinach send emails

a photo of spinach growing
Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Researchers at MIT have devised a way to allow chemical signals from spinach plants to transmit an email, Axios Future's Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: The system could help provide an early warning system for explosives or pollution, but really, we just want to know what the spinach are thinking.

How it works: In a study published this week in Nature Materials, researchers engineered the roots of spinach plants to contain microscopic nanosensors that are capable of detecting nitroaromatics — chemicals that are often found in explosives and man-made industrial chemicals.

  • When the nanosensors detect those compounds, they can send a signal to an infrared camera, which can shoot out an email alert.

Our thought bubble: It's not so much that the plants are communicating with us, as that nanotechnology allows us to transform these plants into a kind of living computer.

  • Spinach cyborgs, if you will.
  • DARPA — the Defense Department's advanced research wing — has an entire program dedicated to exploring how plants could be engineered to detect threats like pathogens and chemicals in the environment.

The bottom line: Whatever happens next in our conversation with plants, I hope it has a better ending than Mark Wahlberg's attempt to talk to a tree in "The Happening."

5. Take note

On Tap

  • Take Two Interactive Software reports earnings today. Twitter, Cisco and Lyft are slated to report Tuesday, with Uber set to deliver its quarterly update on Wednesday.

Trading Places

  • Pam Karlan is officially leaving Facebook's independent oversight board. Karlan, a Stanford Law school professor, had been on leave since volunteering on the Biden transition and today is starting a new gig at the Justice Department.


6. After you Login

Remember the a cappella singers that did the Windows computer sounds? Well, they're back and using their pipes to simulate Apple sounds this time.