Washington’s Overlooked Barrier to Internet Access

A growing consensus is emerging in Washington about the necessity of reliable access to the Internet and online resources. Last week, in front of a packed auditorium in the capital of the Choctaw Nation, President Obama unveiled the ConnectHome initiative, which aims to provide high-speed internet to some 200,000 rural and low-income families. The month prior, Congressional leaders introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act, seeking to rollout greater out-of-school Internet access for students through Department of Education grants.

As the Internet has fast become the bedrock of commerce and communication, such efforts are critical to ensure a level playing field for businesses and communities, especially those in the rural pockets of the country.

Congress has been spinning its wheels trying to address utility patent trolls, yet they’re ignoring the looming threat of design patent trolls that have seen a catalyst from recent court decisions. Specifically, recent interpretations of Section 289 of the U.S. patent code have opened the door for businesses and individuals to seek outsized settlements for design infringements, which could further incentivize patent trolling and predatory patent litigation.

In May of this year, without any analysis of the importance of the patented designs, the Federal court ruled that an entity that infringes on a patented design could be held liable for all the profits earned from the product in which the design is incorporated. This can lead to the absurd scenario in which an unwitting infringer could be forced to pay their full profits several times over if they intrude on more than one protected design. Given that many products, especially high-tech devices incorporate numerous patented components, the outcome is untenable.

Consider, for example, a situation in which the manufacturer of a tractor might be forced to pay all his or her profits from the equipment because it infringed on a patent covering the design of the fender. The manufacturer might then be required to pay the same amount to a second patent holder with the rights to the wheel design. It quickly becomes a race of who can bleed them dry first.

This multiple damage scenario is particularly likely to occur when a single product contains different patented features held by several owners. It’s not difficult to see how soon the tractor manufacturer has little incentive to produce the equipment at all.

The potential infringement claims don’t stop at the manufacturer. It can trickle down to the store selling the tractor as well as tractor owners – who frankly aren’t purchasing tractors based on fender or wheel design, yet could be paying large sums for operating the infringing machinery. This domino effect is thanks to the “make available for sale” provision in Section 289, which shares blame with those selling an allegedly infringing a product. Under this interpretation, if a farm operator purchased equipment or tools that have infringing design patents on them online from a company like eBay or Amazon, does this then make eBay or Amazon liable for “exposing the sale” of products that infringe on design patents, even if for a minor feature? If this is the case, this will have a chilling effect on these necessary business models that provide rural customers access to a wide range of products difficult to obtain locally.

The dilemma is particularly troublesome for technology providers, and thereby for the individuals who rely on the devices they create to access the Internet. A recent Pew Research study found one in five American adults rely on their smartphone as their primary, and often only, access to the internet. In rural parts of the country still lacking adequate broadband infrastructure, it’s not uncommon that a smartphone serve as their sole connection to the Internet. Barriers that hamper development of new devices obstruct their access to online resources.

Because smartphones and other modern appliances utilize many patented technologies – the iPhone, for example, hundreds of patented elements – developers face the risk of paying out their full profit for intruding only a few discrete features, as was a court’s decision in a recent case between Apple and Samsung. With such sizable consequences, companies may well forego developing new technologies for fear it will end up costing them.

Simply put, infringement penalties should fit the scope of the infringement. One wouldn’t expect the tractor manufacturer to give up all his or her profits because of a bumper design. That shouldn’t be the case in the U.S. technology markets either.

As early as late nineteenth-century, the National Grange has advocated the risks in design patent law. In 1879, our organization cautioned about emergence of “patent sharks,” some of earliest predatory patent abusers, which patented designs on crowbars, hoes and other tools and then demanded to be paid by others in the agricultural industry. In the Apple-Samsung case [CLICK HERE TO VIEW BRIEF], the National Grange filed an Amicus brief urging the court to reconsider the outsized $399 million penalty imposed because the ruling’s implications for modern day tools – tools that are helping to close the digital divide.

In response to the courts’ failure to curb patent litigation abuse, for the past year, Congress has been debating various patent reforms. In the case of design patents, it looks like the court has again failed to interpret the law reasonably and indeed laid the groundwork for additional frivolous litigation. While we filed a brief calling on the Court to revisit this issue, if Court denies a rehearing or fails to set a reasonable standard for the award of total profits, Congress should turn some attention to the issue of design patents and provide much-needed guidance to the courts.

Medicare Part D Rebates

The National  Grange has joined a large number of patient health and elderly care organizations on a letter to the U.S Congress opposing proposals to weaken programs for seniors and persons with disabilities.  One of these proposals would mandate rebates on Medicare’s Part D drug program.  But these are not rebates to patients as one might assume.  This money would be treated as a tax paid by drug manufacturers direct to the Federal Government with no resulting new drug development or lower patient prescription costs.  Click here to read Medicare Part D letter to Congress

Postal Service Cuts Causes Rural Concerns

Despite three cautionary reports by the Postal Regulatory Commission, The Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, and an internal management report, the U.S. Postal Service has moved ahead to reduce its service standards for First-Class Mail.  These new policies will create a two-tier network with service to rural areas and small towns downgraded much more than large urban areas.  Several state and local Granges are objecting to the Postmaster General with copies to their Senators and Representatives.  Click here to read Op-Ed by Commissioner Ruth Y. Goldway

USDA Extends Application Deadline for Dairy Margin Protection Program to Dec. 19

Dairy producers urged to act now to protect their businesses against unpredictable market swings, take advantage of increased protections offered in first year of program

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2014 – U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that the application deadline for the dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP) will be extended until Dec. 19, 2014.  The program, established by the 2014 Farm Bill, protects participating dairy producers when the margin – the difference between the price of milk and feed costs – falls below levels of protection selected by the applicant.

“The 2014 Farm Bill created these safety net programs to provide safeguards against the uncertainty of weather and markets, but this safety net is not automatic. Producers must visit their local Farm Service Agency office to enroll before December 19,” said Vilsack. “Despite the best forecasts, weather and markets can change, so a modest investment today can protect against unexpected losses tomorrow.”

“For just $100, a farmer can cover 90 percent of production at $4 margin swings, and with affordable incremental premiums, dairy farmers can cover up to $8 margin swings,” said Vilsack. “Those who apply this year will receive a slight increase in production protection that will not be available in the future. Farmers who do not sign up for the Margin Protection Program for 2015 will forfeit the 1 percent base production increase. For a 400 cow operation, this would equate to an additional 80,000 pounds of milk that are eligible for coverage. It’s a small step to take to ensure your business is covered.”

Vilsack encourages producers to use the online Web resource at www.fsa.usda.gov/mpptool to calculate the best levels of coverage for their dairy operation. They can type in specific operation data and explore price projections and market scenarios to determine what level of coverage is best for them. They can also compare the data to see how the program would have helped in previous years, such as 2008, when margins dropped from $8 to $3 in just three months. The online resource is on a secure website that can be accessed from computers, mobile phones or tablets, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Farmers also have a chance to share comments and help shape the Margin Protection Program for the future. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the extension of the opportunity for public comments on both the Margin Protection Program and the Dairy Product Donation Program until Dec. 15, 2014. Comments can be submitted to USDA via the regulations.gov website at http://go.usa.gov/GJSA or send them by mail to: Danielle Cooke, Special Programs Manager, Price Support Division, FSA, USDA, STOP 0512, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 20250-0512.

Today’s announcement was made possible through the 2014 Farm Bill, which builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. Since enactment, USDA has made significant progress to implement each provision of this critical legislation, including providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life in rural America. For more information, visit www.usda.gov/farmbill.

To learn more about the Margin Protection Program for dairy, contact your local USDA Farm Service Agency county office at offices.usda.gov or visit us on the Web at www.fsa.usda.gov.

Federal Appeals Court Scheduled to Make Important Ruling

Today is a big day in the intellectual property arena, and it’s not just scholars and technology aficionados who are taking notice. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is set to hear appeals and objections in the Apple vs. Samsung proceedings (14-1335, Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.), a critical case in the development of design patent reform. The National Grange is paying close attention to this case, being heard directly across Lafeyette Park from the National Grange Building in Washington DC, for its impact on Grange members access to advanced telecommunications technologies.

This case is not just a showdown between two corporate smartphone giants, who are primarily concerned with a jury’s award of close to $399 million dollars to Apple as damages for design patent infringement. It is of distinct interest to the National Grange and all of our members living in tribal, rural and remote communities across the country. We are deeply concerned that damages awards of this scope for this type of infringement will have ramifications far outside of the courtroom, including on rural communities that may suffer reduced internet access as a result. Smartphone technologies are essential to rural Americans in distinct ways. Wired broadband access is not as common in rural communities, and those who live in these areas frequently rely on their smartphones’ wireless capabilities (so called “mobile hotspots”) for the ability to access the internet.

Design patent damages can currently be measured based on 100 percent of the infringer’s profit. Given that a design patent is only a small piece of a larger product, this measure of potential damages is not warranted. The national Grange is pleased that our Amicus brief for the Apple v. Samsung case was referenced at the Design Law 2014 conference in November (downloadable here, slide 39). We hope the Appeals court agrees that the design patent infringement standards are unfair to tribal, rural and remote communities and need remedying.

Agriculture, Interior Departments partner on water quality

ALTON, Ill., Oct. 21, 2014 – The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a new partnership agreement today that will provide a clearer picture of the benefits of farmers’ conservation practices on the quality of our Nation’s water.

Working together, USDA’s NRCS and DOI’s USGS will quantify the benefits of voluntary agricultural practices at a watershed scale. This information will strengthen the effectiveness of state and federal nutrient reduction strategies while protecting the privacy of individual farmers. The agreement was announced at the Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Meeting.

“On a voluntary basis, the agricultural community has put extensive effort into the management of nutrients and reducing runoff into waterways. This collaboration will help evaluate the impact of farmers’ conservation efforts on improving water quality,” said Ann Mills, USDA’s deputy under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.

Mills said when hundreds of farms take action in one watershed, it can make a difference-it can help prevent an algal bloom downstream or lessen the need for water treatment plants to treat for nitrates.

Read the full story here.

New Whole-Farm Revenue Protection Insurance Premium Subsidy Established

2014 Farm Bill Required Policy Offers Diversified Farms More Affordable Protection

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3, 2014 — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA) today announced that a premium subsidy has been established to offer more affordable protection to eligible diversified farm operations, as part of the new Whole-Farm Revenue Protection insurance policy.

Whole-Farm Revenue Protection, required by the 2014 Farm Bill, will be offered through the RMA managed federal crop insurance program. The new policy will offer fruit and vegetable growers and producers with diversified farms selling commodities to wholesale markets, local and regional markets, farm identity preserved markets, or direct markets, more flexible, affordable risk management coverage options.

“Crop insurance options continue to adapt to meet the farm safety net needs of today’s farmers,” said RMA Administrator Brandon Willis. “Whole-Farm Revenue Protection insurance will expand options for specialty crop, organic and diversified crop producers, allowing them to insure all the crops at once instead of one commodity at a time. That gives them the option of promoting crop diversity and helps support the production of a wider variety of healthy foods.”

Read the full story here.

USDA Invests Nearly $118 Million to Support America’s Specialty Crop Producers

By: USDA

MIAMI, Fla, Oct. 2, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced nearly $118 million in grants to strengthen markets for specialty crops, such as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, horticulture and nursery crops. The grants were authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill as part of an effort to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops and provide resources to strengthen American agriculture. The Secretary made the announcement in Florida.

“Specialty crop grants provide a major boost to the rural economies,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Today’s announcement is another example of how USDA is implementing the Farm Bill to deliver critical tools producers need to successfully grow, process and market high-quality products.”

Sales of specialty crops total nearly $65 billion per year, making them a critical part of the U.S. economy. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), will provide $66 million to state departments of agriculture for projects that help support specialty crop growers, including locally grown fruits and vegetables, through research and programs to increase demand. In addition, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is awarding $51.8 million in grants through its Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). SCRI supports the specialty crop sector by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops.

Read the full story here.

To Ensure the Best Outcomes for Rural Americans, Better Provisions Needed in Federal Broadband Plan

By Joan C. Smith, President, Potomac Grange #1

Today’s global economy demands that every participant have access to reliable, high-speed Internet in order to attain a level playing field to actively participate in the virtual business marketplace. Although rural America constitutes 15% of our total population, it is these men and women and families who keep food on our tables, fuel in our cars and provide energy for our homes and businesses. We owe it to them to implement the infrastructure to provide broadband internet services.   Americans living in rural areas still lack access to this vital resource.

Historically, rural areas have been the last to gain access to new conveniences. Broadband Internet, however, is not merely a convenience—it is essential to the business of agriculture, farming and ranching and nearly every other aspect of life in rural America. Rural communities are profoundly and adversely affected by poor access to high-speed Internet. Right now we have the chance to change that once and for all with appropriate reforms during Phase II of the Connect America Fund (CAF) plan; it’s up to the Federal Communications Commission to make the right choices.

There’s a lot at stake with the CAF initiative, so we must get it right; the consequences, good or bad, could stretch over decades. The National Grange has always advocated for updating rural infrastructure, as it did for the railroads and rural postal delivery, and now the emphases is with rural broadband Internet. Modern farming and ranching is like any other business; it relies heavily on technology and information. Dairy production and crop yields can be monitored and data shared in real time between different farms and the marketplace. Commodities prices can also be followed to help determine what crops to plant and when to harvest.

CAF was first developed in 2011, with the goal of connecting as many as 7 million un-served rural Americans by 2017 and all of the country’s 19 million un-served individuals living in rural areas by 2020; yet it still is not finalized and hasn’t even begun to be put into practice. CAF calls for $1.8 billion in funding, but how best to use this funding to effectively build out broadband infrastructure to rural areas is the real issue at hand. Regrettably, it seems significant changes need to be made to the existing plan during Phase II to deliver the most essential outcomes.

The plan is centered on more than doubling required download speed from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. That would be fantastic, but it won’t make a big difference if other related aspects of the CAF plan are not improved as well.

Consider the way in which broadband coverage is measured. Right now, “Census blocks” are used, and as long as part of the block has access, it is counted as being covered. Yet within each “block” there are households left without the service, perpetuating the digital divide for those individuals and families while keeping up the appearance of closing the gap in access. Higher standards and independent verification of different providers’ broadband coverage claims can ameliorate this problem.

Moreover, unlicensed, fixed Wireless Internet Services, or WISPs, are being treated as suitable alternatives to real facilities-based fiber infrastructure, not true. The FCC’s regulatory assumption is that a WISP provides reliable connectivity to an entire area, but that just isn’t accurate. Capacity can be very limited in these networks, and there are issues like line-of-sight (LOS) and spectrum interference. WISPs really aren’t acceptable as primary infrastructure, but can be useful in a supporting function.

Providers still need better incentives to build out the infrastructure to reach rural areas, the most isolated, and hard-to-reach areas. Connect America Fund (CAF) resources can be used to share some of the financial burden for those efforts. Providers should be held to elevated but reasonable standards and need enough flexibility to handle the unexpected hindrances that are bound to occur with a project like this.

Finally, let’s extend the planned funding period to a full ten (10) years to ensure this work is steadily and properly carried out.

Perhaps most important, our families and communities can be strengthened through better access and higher download speeds. Jobs can be created and local economies improved. Services that eliminate some travel over large distances in many rural areas, such as telemedicine and distance learning, can save energy, develop a better rural workforce and improve quality of life. The majority of our nation’s farmers and ranchers are small business owners, internet utilization informs them of new agricultural technologies to enhance their production thereby providing higher yields to meet our growing demand for food, fiber and fuel.

Rural Americans need and deserve equal access to top-notch broadband Internet service. As a fifth-generation Granger myself, I urge the FCC to enact the “right rules and regulations” to get the most out of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II represents.

Joan C. Smith is President of Potomac Grange #1, Washington, DC. The National Grange, founded in 1867, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan fraternal organization that advocates for rural America and agriculture. With a strong history in grassroots activism, family values and community service, the Grange is part of more than 2,100 hometowns across the United States.

U.S. Aims to Curb Peril of Antibiotic Resistance

19antibiotics-master675WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Thursday announced measures to tackle the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, outlining a national strategy that includes incentives for the development of new drugs, tighter stewardship of existing ones, and improvements in tracking the use of antibiotics and the microbes that are resistant to them.

The actions are the first major White House effort to confront a public health crisis that takes at least 23,000 lives a year, and many experts were pleased that a president had finally focused on the issue. But some said the strategy fell short in not recommending tougher measures against the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, which, they argue, is a big part of the problem.

Researchers have been warning for years that antibiotics — miracle drugs that changed the course of human health in the 20th century — are losing their power because of overuse. Some warn that if the trend is not halted, we could return to the time before antibiotics, when it was common for people to die from ordinary infections and for children not to survive strep throat.

John P. Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters that the new strategy — established by an executive order that President Obama signed on Thursday — was intended to jolt the federal government into action to combat a health crisis that many experts say it has been slow to recognize.

Read Full Story Here.
By Sabrina Tavernise | The New York Times