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Senators Examine Relationship Between Wireless Carriers, Consumers

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2009 – Wireless carriers deals with equipment vendors and their commitment to rural coverage came under the microscope Wednesday as executives and industry analysts testified before the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing on “the wireless consumer experience.”

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WASHINGTON, June 18, 2009 – Wireless carriers deals with equipment vendors and their commitment to rural coverage came under the microscope as executives and industry analysts testified before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday.

A total lack of wireless broadband coverage in rural areas “resonates very, very deeply” with Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. Rockefeller – who claimed to have never before used a chart on the Senate floor – displayed a map of wireless broadband coverage which showed a total absence of service for consumers in places like his home state of West Virginia.

“There’s nothing there,” he complained. “[Rural states] may have beauty, but they also have people,” he said.

Rockefeller expressed some frustration with Government Accountability Office Director of Physical Infrastructure Mark Goldstein, who presented results of a GAO survey on wireless customer satisfaction.

The survey was based on a random sample and showed dissatisfaction among a sizable percentage of consumers with wireless carriers’ billing practices, as well as a lack of knowledge regarding the Federal Communications Commission’s role as a mediator between consumers and wireless providers.

The GAO should have undertaken a “more specified” survey that took into account factors such as income and location, Rockefeller said.

Results of such efforts are “incredibly important…for telling the American people what they need to know.” He was especially annoyed with the report’s lack of specificity with respect to rural consumers. “It’s not rocket science,” he said.

Goldstein said the FCC is at fault for not properly educating consumers about its’ statutory role as a mediator in disputes between customers and carriers.  “There are mixed messages about what it is consumers can expect [from the FCC],” he said. But Rockefeller was not buying the GAO’s argument: “You are asking if [consumers] know they should call [the FCC]: that’s not your job.”

The real “heart” of the consumer experience comes down to whether or not carriers should have exclusive control over handsets, said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Kerry, who chairs the subcommittee on communications, took the gavel during the latter part of the hearing which focused on agreements for handset exclusivity between manufacturers and carriers.

In his opening statement, Kerry made reference to the FCC’s Carterfone decision, which allowed consumers to connect devices like fax machines and modems to the landline telephone network. He compared Carterfone to today’s internet, which does not require a consumer to own a specific type of computer to gain access – and to European and Asian handset markets, in which users purchase a handset separate from their wireless service.

Kerry also made note of a letter he sent Monday to acting FCC chairman Michael Copps, which was also signed by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Lowell Wicker, D-Miss.

The letter asked Copps to examine handset exclusivity agreements and their effect on consumers. And while representatives from several wireless carriers were present, Kerry noted invitations for many major handset manufacturers to testify had been turned down.

But Paul Roth, AT&T president for retail sales and support, defended the agreements – such as the one AT&T has sold Apple’s iPhone under – as allowing device manufactures and carriers to “share risks to develop the most compelling devices, and “ensure innovation, lower price, and choice.”

Competition in the wireless sector is “white hot,” he said. And deployment of next-generation networks and technologies would be hampered if the government were to reverse “pro-competition polices and impose intrusive restrictions” on carriers, he warned.

But Penn State University Professor Rob Friedan cautioned Senators against allowing carriers too much control over wireless handsets, which he said are becoming a “Swiss Army Knife” of features that make up a “third screen” for consumers, after television and personal computers.

If the FCC were to adopt a Carterfone-like set of rules for wireless handsets, it would spur the same kind of innovation that has taken place in the computer and consumer electronics markets, he said: “I see no basis for concluding that the upside benefits accruing from the wired Carterfone policy somehow will not apply to wireless networks.”

Andrew Feinberg is the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

FCC

FCC Watchdog Finds Evidence of Fraud in Emergency Broadband Benefit

Inspector General report finds “dozens” of cases of EBB abuse across the country.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 24, 2021 – The watchdog that monitors fraud and abuse of Federal Communications Commission programs said it has found evidence that service providers are enrolling into the Emergency Broadband Benefit program more students than exist at some schools.

The Office of Inspector General said in a Monday report that service providers, who are reimbursed from the program for offering subsidized broadband services to schools, and their sales agents have been abusing the program by enrolling more “households that claimed they have a dependent child” than students “who are actually enrolled in those schools.”

The report found “dozens” of eligible schools across the country are overenrolled six months into the program. That includes schools in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New York and Florida.

The most “egregious examples” of such abuse, the OIG said, came out of Florida, with one example of a school that had enrolled 1884 households in the EBB program, when OIG research showed that “no more than 200 students attend” the school. Another school with 152 students had 1048 households enrolled in the program. The OIG said it will not disclose which schools to preserve its on-going investigation.

The report notes that additional households were blocked from enrolling in the program “by other program safeguards.”

Majority of abuse done by “handful” of providers

“Evidence shows this is not consumer-driven fraud – enrollment data directly links certain providers and their sales agents to these enrollments,” the report said, adding the same sales agents who overenrolled students in the aforementioned schools also did the same in other state schools.

“Sales agents who work for just a handful of EBB providers are responsible for the majority of this fraudulent enrollment activity,” it added.

Other examples of abuse, the report said, includes failure to identify the dependent child, the repeated use of the provider retail address as the address of homes served, and more than 2000 EBB households were noted as being more than 50 miles from their schools.

“As EBB providers incentivize sales agents to maximize enrollments by providing commission-based compensation, many of the abuses that once plagued the FCC’s Lifeline program have reappeared in the EBB program,” the report concluded, adding these providers will be liable for violations.

“If providers discover enrollment problems, OIG reminds them of their obligation to take appropriate remedial measures,” the report added. “Providers who defraud FCC programs by violating program enrollment rules and claim support for those households will be held accountable and may be subject to civil or criminal sanctions.”

The $3.2-billion EBB program, which launched in May, provides a subsidy of $50 per month to eligible low-income households and $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands, as well as a one-time reimbursement on a device. The program has enrolled over five million households so far.

The FCC is currently asking the public for comment on how it should handle the program’s expansion into a permanent fixture as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden last week.

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FCC Requires Telecom Companies to Let Subscribers Text to Suicide Prevention Hotline

The measure would increase access for those seeking emergency mental health assistance.

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WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require providers of telecommunications to permit individuals to text directly to a three digit number, 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The suicide prevention lifeline is a national network that offers free and confidential support in Americans in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The move increases access for individuals in crisis by  routing text messages sent to 988 to the group’s 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

The vote to establish text-to-988 comes after Americans spent months isolated under stay-at-home orders in 2020. The CDC reported that last year, 44,834 individuals died by suicide in the United States. Experts have suggested that the pandemic has increased mental health struggles for Americans.  The FCC has repeatedly recognized suicide’s impact on at-risk communities, including youth, the Black community, the LGBT community, Veterans, and the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, and people who have speech disabilities that affect communication.

The FCC required text providers to support three digit dialing and text messages to 988 by July 16, 2022. “This uniform deadline will help to prevent confusion and facilitate unified outreach campaigns,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who described 988 as “life-saving work.” “I am pleased to approve today’s decision because Text-to-988 will save lives in vulnerable and underserved communities by taking advantage of this vital communications channel,” he said.

Commenting on her vote to approve the measure, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted that LGBT youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. “These young people deserve a future,” she said. “They deserve support. And that support should be simple to access. Today we help make that possible.”

Americans sent an estimated 2.2 trillion text messages in 2020. Texting to 988 may be an especially important option for young people, who may prefer the anonymity and convenience of texting a crisis counselor instead of engaging in a phone conversation, said the FCC.

The agency urged Americans who need help during the transition to 988 should contact the Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) and through online chats.

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Senators, Citing Funding Influx, Press Need to Confirm Rosenworcel

Senators pointed to FCC’s initiatives on mapping, which will need to be good to maximize federal funds for broadband.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – Senators tasked Wednesday with questioning Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel as part of her confirmation hearing urged the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee to hurry her through the process so she can focus on implementing critical initiatives, including better broadband maps that will be used to effectively implement the billions allocated in the infrastructure bill passed into law this week.

Rosenworcel was selected by President Joe Biden to be the permanent head of the agency late last month after being selected as the interim head following his inauguration as president. She now must get confirmation from the Senate.

Wednesday’s largely welcoming hearing included members expressing urgency to confirm Rosenworcel to the FCC before her term expires on January 3, 2022.

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to nominate someone who will effectively implement the infrastructure law to address the digital divide’s impact on disadvantaged communities,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

“[Rosenworcel] has been a distinguished champion, energetic and compassionate champion on a number of issues, including robocalls, net neutrality, and providing spectrum coordination.” Blumenthal, who said he was “honored to introduce [Rosenworcel] as the nominee,” has worked closely with Rosenworcel since her confirmation to the FCC as a commissioner in 2012.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said it was “important” that Rosenworcel’s nomination goes through the committee’s markup process to expedite her confirmation.

The warm reception at committee was in line with a previous request from lawmakers representing 17 states urging Biden to nominate Rosenworcel as the permanent head of the agency.

Rosenworcel addresses mapping

Rosenworcel answered a number of questions from Senators about the FCC’s progress on completing its broadband mapping ahead of more federal funding to deploy broadband.

Rosenworcel told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, that to overcome challenges in funding broadband programs from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – which became law this week – funding communities “requires good execution to do it well.

“We need to make smart decisions about where to fund and deploy,” she said. “All of the funding for the infrastructure bill depends on the mapping.” By confirming her nomination to the FCC, Rosenworcel says she would “get the money out quickly after getting mapping” and focus on “putting a premium on the projects we can complete fastest.”

The FCC released a statement of objectives this month to commission mobile wireless and fixed broadband data for better mapping. Mapping faults, such as that from relying on less-than-reliable internet service provider data, was most prominently seen from the fallout of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s reverse auction. The new initiative is part of the  Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, which became law last year.

“We need to make sure 100 percent of us in this country have access to fast, affordable, and reliable broadband—every household, every business, every consumer, everyone, everywhere,” she said. ‘If confirmed, it will be an honor to lead this charge,” Rosenworcel said.

“If confirmed, I pledge to listen to this Committee, which not that long ago I had the great honor of serving as counsel. And if confirmed, I pledge more broadly to listen to the Congress, those with business before the FCC and above all—the American people.”

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