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Broadband's Impact

FCC Paves Way For Comprehensive USF Reform At Open Meeting

WASHINGTON, February 9, 2011 – The FCC adopted a measure during Tuesday’s open meeting that lays the groundwork for revisions to the nation’s telephone subsidy systems in the near-term and an eventual overhaul to transition those systems into building and supporting broadband infrastructure.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which was adopted unanimously by the Commission, draws a roadmap to reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF) and the closely related intercarrier compensation (ICC) system.

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WASHINGTON, February 9, 2011 – The FCC adopted a measure during Tuesday’s open meeting that lays the groundwork for revisions to the nation’s telephone subsidy systems in the near-term and an eventual overhaul to transition those systems into building and supporting broadband infrastructure.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which was adopted unanimously by the Commission, draws a roadmap to reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF) and the closely related intercarrier compensation (ICC) system.

The USF subsidized the build out of the telephone system in the last century to areas where it was not cost-effective for private industry to do so.  Subsequently, it subsidized service to those so-called “high cost” lines and phone service to low-income families.  The ICC is a system by which carriers make payments to each other for connecting calls.

As part of the National Broadband Plan unveiled last March, the administration laid forth the goal of updating the nation’s aging and increasingly anachronistic telephone infrastructure with broadband internet, which is capable of carrying both data and voice telephone transmissions.

“USF and ICC helped connect virtually every American to our 20th century communications grid,” noted Chairman Julius Genachowski during his remarks Tuesday, recognizing the positive legacy of the programs. “But the communications landscape has fundamentally changed since then… [broadband] is the indispensible infrastructure of the 21st century.”

In addition to widespread consensus that the USF and ICC support antiquated infrastructure, the programs also generously serve up instances of excessive wastefulness and gaming the system.  One such example Genachowski brought up during a speech earlier in the week cited a single residence that drew more than $20,000 per year in USF funds to maintain service.  In another, carriers artificially inflated telephone traffic across their lines to increase ICC revenue while disguising the origin of their own traffic to avoid paying fees.

The USF in particular has drawn the ire not only of the telecommunications industry but also from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

The guiding principles the FCC has laid forth for reform closely mirror the major criticisms of the programs, which have come from both lawmakers and the telecommunications industry alike. The current measure proposes to guide reform of both the USF and ICC by seeking paths to not only modernize the programs to apply to broadband technologies, but also ensure that the programs are accountable, fiscally responsible, and encourage efficient deployment of private-sector resources to build out and maintain networks.

“As a 21st century program,” said Commissioner Robert McDowell during his remarks, “the Universal Service Fund should evolve away from subsidizing inefficient, 20th century systems and support the efficiencies of current technologies as brought about by competitive pressures.”

The Commission also laid out loose mechanisms by which it would accomplish reform, both in the near- and long-terms.  Immediate remedies include cutting waste, rewarding efficiency and closing loopholes.  Long-term solutions call for transitioning the several programs that exist under the USF into a single Connect America Fund (CAF) and eliminating ICC altogether.

Though the plan amounted to little more than a set of guiding principles and high-level mechanisms by which the Commission hopes to conduct the reform, the action drew widespread support from Congress and the telecommunications industry alike.

“This fund needs to be reformed,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), who is Vice Chair of the subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and now-famously joined former Chair of the subcommittee, Rick Boucher, in calling the USF simply “broken.”

“I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues and the FCC to ensure rural areas are able to enjoy the same communication access as urban areas.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, echoed Lee’s sentiments, saying that “the [USF] must be modernized to support broadband networks, reformed to use public dollars wisely, and strengthened to ensure full transparency and accountability.”

Meanwhile, even before the Commission’s meeting had adjourned, representatives from the telecommunications industry began firing off press releases simultaneously airing their grievances with the fund and adding their support to the vote.

“We applaud the FCC for moving forward on the important task of reforming the Universal Service Fund, especially the bloated high-cost fund that sometimes provides government subsidies in communities that already enjoy robust competition,” said National Cable and Telecommunications Association CEO, Kyle McSlarrow. “Restructuring the Universal Service Fund so it promotes broadband deployment in truly unserved communities is critical to accomplishing the national priority of connecting all Americans.”

Though statements of support flooded in from seemingly all corners of the industry, the current measure is only a first step on what promises to be a long road.  Chairman Genachowski, as he did during his remarks at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation Monday, implored those in the industry to engage the process to drive fact-based solutions. The rest of the commissioners, for their parts, were careful to acknowledge that though progress had begun.

“There are significant and difficult decisions ahead,” said Commissioner Meredith Baker, concluding her remarks, “and it will be important for all of us to work together to redefine universal service and intercarrier compensation for the broadband age.”

Jonathan began his career as a journalist before turning his focus to law and policy. He is an attorney licensed in Texas and the District of Columbia and has worked previously as a political reporter, in political campaign communications and on Capitol Hill. He holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Washington and a J.D. from Villanova Law School, where he focused his studies on Internet and intellectual property law and policy. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he roots for Seattle sports teams and plays guitar in his free time.

Broadband's Impact

Julio Fuentes: Access Delayed Was Access Denied to the Poorest Americans

Big Telecom companies caused months and months of delays in the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Remember when millions of students in dense urban areas and less-populated rural areas weren’t dependent on home broadband access so they could attend school?

Remember when we didn’t need telehealth appointments, and broadband access in urban and outlying areas was an issue that could be dealt with another day?

Remember when the capability to work remotely in underserved communities wasn’t the difference between keeping a job and losing it?

Not anymore.

Education. Health care. Employment. The COVID-19 pandemic affected them all, and taking care of a family in every respect required broadband access and technology to get through large stretches of the pandemic.

You’d think the Federal Communications Commission and its then-acting chairwoman would have pulled out all the stops to make sure that this type of service was available to as many people as possible, as soon as possible — especially when there’s a targeted federally funded program for that important purpose.

Alas, by all appearances, some Big Telecom companies threw their weight around and caused months and months of delays, denying this life-changing access to the people who needed it most — at the time they needed it most.

The program in question is the federally funded Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The EBB offered eligible households — often the poorest Americans — a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service, and those households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop or other computer if they contribute just $10 to the purchase. Huge value and benefits for technology that should no longer be the privilege of only those with resources.

Seems fairly straightforward, right?

It should have been. But FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel slammed on the brakes. Why? It turns out that Big Telecom giants wanted more time to get ready to grab a piece of the action — a lot more time. While the program was ready to go in February, it didn’t actually launch until several months later.

That’s months of unnecessary delay.

But it wasn’t providers who were waiting. It was Americans in underserved and rural areas, desperate for a connection to the world.

Here are some numbers for Rosenworcel to consider:

  • As recently as March, 58% of white elementary students were enrolled for full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latino students, and 18% of Asian peers were able to attend school in person.
  • Greater portions of families of color and low-income families reportedly fell out of contact with their children’s schools during the pandemic. In one national survey in spring 2020, nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families — in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
  • In fall 2020, only 61% of households with income under $25,000 reported that the internet was “always available” for their children to use for educational purposes; this share was 86% among households with incomes above $75,000.

And all of these numbers cut across other key issues such as health care and maintaining employment.

Access delayed was access denied to the poorest, most isolated Americans during the worst pandemic in generations.

Allowing Big Telecom companies to get their ducks in a row (and soak up as many federal dollars as possible) left poor and rural Americans with no options, for months. Who knows how many children went without school instruction? Or how many illnesses went undiagnosed? Or how many jobs were terminated?

This delay was appalling, and Chairwoman Rosenworcel should have to answer for her actions to the Senate Commerce Committee as it considers her nomination for another term as commissioner. Rather than expedite important help to people who needed it most, she led the agency’s delay — for the benefit of giant providers, not the public.

Hopefully, the committee moves with more dispatch than she did in considering her actual fitness to be FCC chairwoman for another term.

Julio Fuentes is president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Education

Texas High School Students Enter the Fight for Better Connectivity

Students in a Houston-area school district hosted a panel on connecting schools and libraries as part of a national event on bridging the digital divide.

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John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – Generation Z students are making their mark at a Houston-area school district by adding broadband access to the list of issues they are actively working on.

The high school students in the Fort Bend Independent School District organized a panel conversation on internet access in education as part of Connected Nation’s national event titled “20 Years of Connecting the Nation,” and were able to host some high-profile guests in the world of telecommunications.

The November 17 panel included John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, Chris Martinez, division director of information technology for the Harris County Public Library, Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion for Connected Nation, and Meredith Watassek, director of career and technical education for Fort Bend ISD.

Nine percent of residents in Harris County, where Houston is located, reports that they do not have a connected device at home and 18 percent say they do not have access to an internet connection. These gaps in access are the focus of the panelists’ digital equity efforts.

With Windhausen and Martinez present on the panel, a key point of discussion was the importance of helping libraries to act as anchor institutions – institutions which help enable universal broadband access.

Watassek pointed out that she has been helping oversee distance learning in Fort Bend ISD for six years, starting such a program to enable teachers to teach students in several of the district’s buildings without having to drive to each one, and has seen that with time and learned experience it is possible to work through distance learning logistical issues that school districts around the nation are currently facing.

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Broadband's Impact

New York City Broadband Housing Initiative Gets First Completed Project

The initiative is part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan.

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BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird speaks at a press conference at Melrose Housing. Photo provided by BlocPower.

November 30, 2021 – BlocPower, Metro IAF, People’s Choice Communications, and pillars in the Bronx community in New York City gathered Monday at the Melrose Housing development to celebrate the first of five New York City Housing Authority community Wi-Fi projects completed by BlocPower.

Community members and other stakeholders were welcomed by Rev. Sean McGillicuddy, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and leader at Metro IAF. “As the pandemic has shown us, internet is not just a luxury, it is a necessity,” he said. “We have internet now in Melrose Housing and we are celebrating with hundreds of Immaculate Conception Church parishioners.”

The build out to Melrose Housing and Courtland Avenue was part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan, with a goal of connecting 600,000 additional New Yorkers considered underserved. A third of those underserved people are residents in New York City Housing Authority communities.

With these two projects completed, Melrose and Courtland Housing can now provide internet to their more than 2,500 residents spread across 1,200 apartments and ten buildings.

“We are incredibly excited today to bring this much-needed, low-cost wi-fi alternative to Melrose and Courtlandt Avenue,” said BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird. “What began as the by-product of our efforts to convert New York City’s aging, urban buildings into smarter, cleaner more eco-friendly ones, installing community-owned urban wi-fi networks has now become an important part of BlocPower’s expanded mandate – to help close the digital divide in America’s underserved communities.”

P.C.C. technicians were able to install antennas on roofs and wi-fi nodes on each floor. To have a sufficient workforce to accomplish this task, BlocPower trained local New Yorkers through the company’s “Pathways: Civilian Climate Corps” program.

Going forward, P.C.C. will be responsible for maintaining, billing, and customer service. Melrose and Courtland residents will, in turn, elect a board to represent them in matters of data governance, use of proceeds, and quality of service issues.

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