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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.”

Andrew Feinberg

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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

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr Optimistic About Finding Common Ground at Agency

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr from C-Span

March 24, 2021 — Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said the regulator has since 2017 seen what he wanted: Broadband speed increases and lower prices.

“The approach we adopted in 2017 is working,” he said at the Free State Foundation’s 13th annual telecom policy conference on Tuesday. “Speeds have increased, prices are down, and we see more competition than ever before; we need to keep it that way,” he said, stressing the importance of reinforcing the good work the previous administration did and continues to do.

Carr, who has been a part of the FCC since 2012 in various capacities and through different compositions, said the transition into the new administration is going well.

In contrast to before, when it seemed as though the “sky was falling” and there were many problems with net neutrality, today’s reality is quite different, thanks to Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, he said.

The chairwoman contacted him almost immediately after she asked him to participate an event together on telehealth. There have been a lot of conversations and compromises since that moment, he said.

He said elections do bring some consequences, and undoubtedly have shaken some of the agency’s previous standards with a different party in leadership. However, he said the FCC has been finding common ground, something that “has been all too rare in the past couple of years.”

He added that, in 2016, experts and analysts weren’t painting a very rosy picture for the US future leadership when it comes to 5G. One of the primary reasons cited was the cost and length of time to build out the Internet infrastructure in this country, he said.

“We went from 708 new cell sites in 2017 to over 46,000. The progress is astounding, and not only with towers but with fiber, as we built 450k miles of fiber in just one year alone.”

Spectrum auctions driving the agenda, Carr says

Optimistic on spectrum, he pointed out that at present, there is a lot of it available. “In 2017, the FCC had previously voted in a lot of higher band spectrum options.”

The work of initial prioritization was completed by us before 2017 when we moved in and noticed the lack of midband spectrum in the pipeline. We had to move fast, and we had the first auction for the midband in 2020, with frequencies ranging from 3.5 to 5.5 gigahertz.

Over the last couple of years, he said the FCC has opened that band to intensive use, pushing the midband spectrum a great deal. The future holds the need to create a spectrum calendar with a rough outline of spectrum auctions, including which bands are available for auction and when, he said. “I have already filled in that calendar.”

He said the regulator’s challenge is not with a lack of communication but with coordination.  “We need the FCC to take a step back and consider the public interest, how the agency can best achieve the federal missions and how it can best do this. Even if there are going to be disagreements, it is paramount to ensure that the American economy stays competitive.”

Looking ahead, Carr said the 5.9 gigahertz project, which last year was on trial to expand rural broadband access, would be a great beginning to prove that good leadership and compromise are possible between both parties.

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The $3.2 Billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: What’s In It, How to Get It?

Tim White

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Pool photo of FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel by Jonathan Newton

March 5, 2021 – Just shy of the 60-day deadline set by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order on February 25, detailing how the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program would work.

The $3.2 billion program was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed Congress in December 2020 and is allocated to the FCC to help low-income households with broadband access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Broadband Breakfast Live Online will focus on the program on Wednesday, March 10, 2021: “The Emergency Broadband Benefit: How Will the $3.2 Billion Program Work?

The funding will provide up to $50 per month for eligible low-income households, increased to $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands. Rather than disbursing directly to consumers, the funds will be distributed to participating broadband providers, who in turn will grant the discounted internet access to qualifying households who apply.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is not to be confused with the Emergency Connectivity Fund currently being considered by Congress.

The Emergency  Broadband Benefit program also has a one-time reimbursement option of $100 for purchasing desktops, laptops or tablets for connecting to the internet, with a co-pay of between $10 and $50.

Households do not receive the reimbursement for buying a device separately: That is provided by the service providers through which the funding will be disbursed.

To qualify for the program, households must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Qualifies for the FCC Lifeline program
  • Is approved for the free or reduced-price school breakfast/lunch program
  • Demonstrates substantial documented loss of income since February 29, 2020
  • Received a federal Pell grant in the current award year
  • Qualifies for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 relief program, subject to FCC approval.

To receive reimbursement for services and connected devices, participating service providers must register with SAM.gov, cannot be listed on the Department of the Treasury’s “do not pay” list, and must register with the FCC to receive a registration number. Similar to the Lifeline program, the EBBP will be provided to companies who participate through the Universal Service Administrative Company.

To participate, companies are not required to be eligible telecommunications carriers through Lifeline, but must apply through an “election notice” with USAC. They must also get prior approval from the FCC before filing their notice.

The application window for service providers to apply to the program opens on Monday, March 8, 2021, and ends March 22. The program should begin approximately April 25, or 60 days after the FCC published the order.

The service provider’s broadband plan must have been in place by December 1, 2020, to receive the discounted rate.

Unlike the FCC’s Lifeline program that has been in place for several years, this new funding is temporary and set to expire, either when the $3.2 billion are exhausted or six months after the Health and Human Services secretary declares that COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency.

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FCC

What You Need To Know About the More-Than-$7 Billion Emergency Connectivity Fund

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Kamala Harris proceeding to break the deadline on coronavirus relief deliberations from the Los Angeles Times

March 5, 2021 – The Senate on Thursday voted to begin debate on the $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is part of the House-passed $1.9-trillion coronavirus stimulus bill.

Most of the 591-page bill adheres closely to what President Biden called for in his relief proposal in January 2021, as reported by CNN. The $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund includes funds for internet service, hot spots, and other devices to use at home. The larger coronavirus bill includes new rounds of stimulus checks, unemployment assistance, and healthcare support.

This comes after a coalition of education advocates in January 2021 petitioned the FCC to add in a provision for emergency E-rate funding. On Feb. 9, 2021, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., announced the provision as part of the committee’s legislative recommendations for the COVID budget reconciliation legislation. The Federal Communications Commission would be tasked with implementing the $7.6-billion fund.

The potential fund of more than $7 billion fund in this Emergency Connectivity Fund is not to be confused with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, a new pot of broadband money allocated by the consolidated appropriations bill passed in December 2021.

Broadband Breakfast Live Online will focus on that other program on Wednesday, March 10, 2021: “The Emergency Broadband Benefit: How Will the $3.2 Billion Program Work?

The magnitude of the pandemic has sent schools scrambling to connect students to virtual learning. The Emergency Connectivity Fund would help connect some more than 15 million children and as many as 400,000 teachers, according to Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group.

But passage of the additional more-than-$7 billion in funding is not assured. Even to begin debate on the broader coronavirus relief package, Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast a tie-breaking vote because the Senate is even split with 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats and 50 Republicans.

Major tech priorities included in an earlier Senate draft of the bill appear unchanged in the official version of the bill introduced to the Senate yesterday. Funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund is part of larger funding for the Technology Modernization Fund, as well as for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other proposals.

President Biden originally proposed $10.2 billion of funding for the modernization fund and cybersecurity, but the Senate’s version includes just $1 billion. Additional, the Senate’s version includes  $7.17 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which was reduced by more than $400 million from the original $7.6 billion proposed figure.

Still, the fund represents the a very large tech investment to support broadband capabilities and remote learning in schools.

As Broadband Breakfast noted on Monday, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, previously signed into law in December 2020, secured $3.2 billion to expand broadband coverage to underserved communities and households in need. This internet service discounts of up to $50 per month for eligible consumers and up to $75 per month for those on tribal lands. Additional discounts on a computer or laptop device are also included.

As reported by MeriTalk, getting the Senate to bring its version of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill to a vote later this week is imperative, as both chambers are pushing to get the bill signed into law before March 14, when some unemployment assistance programs will expire.

Presuming the Senate passes its version of the bill, it goes back to the House for a vote and then onto the White House for President Biden’s final signature.

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