Although it is the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) that is charged with implementing the ambitious universal service policy goals set forth in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (the “Act”), the FCC designated the Universal Service Administrative Company (“USAC”), an independent, not-for-profit corporation, to administer the day-to-day operations of federal universal service. USAC bills and collects contributions to the federal universal service fund (“USF”) from telecommunications providers and disburses the funds to the four federal universal service programs: (1) High Cost; (2) Lifeline; (3) Rural Health Care; and (4) E-Rate. At the head of USAC is its Chief Executive Officer, who is responsible for the management of USAC’s daily operations.
What does this have to do with Scott Barash? As USAC’s first in-house counsel (a post he assumed in 1999) and Acting Chief Executive Officer (a post he assumed in 2006), Scott has been a constant USAC presence for over fourteen years in an otherwise tumultuous telecommunications world. He has had a ringside seat as telecommunications has progressed from primarily PSTN to include wireless, interconnected VoIP and broadband.
In his role as USAC’s first in-house counsel, Scott worked with USAC to develop federal universal service practices and procedures when the federal universal service fund was still in its infancy. As USAC’s Acting CEO, Scott managed USAC’s day-to-day operations, a task which required him to forge strong collaborative relationships with the FCC and USAC Board of Directors. As USAC’s figurehead, and perhaps most well-known employee, Scott was held accountable for USAC’s actions to Congress, the FCC, the USAC Board of Directors, industry participants and telecommunications consumers alike.
Given Scott’s long history with USAC and the importance of his role as Acting CEO, one would think that his recently announced departure would mean significant upheaval at USAC. That is not the case. There is no doubt that USAC faces tough challenges. Technology has rapidly outpaced the current telecommunications laws making it difficult for USAC to align the FCC’s policy goals and regulations with the practical reality of today’s telecommunications providers and the services they offer.
The FCC is grappling with reform in all of the federal universal service programs, as well as attempting comprehensive contribution reform. Lawmakers are also grappling with the task of universal service reform. President Obama has previously called for the overhaul of E-Rate, a task which the FCC initiated with its E-Rate modernization NPRM. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama re-stated his commitment to bring high-speed broadband connectivity to 99% of America’s students with the support of the FCC and philanthropic relationships with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon.
All of these potential changes come at a time when federal universal service has seen a shrinking contribution base and higher contribution factors (16.4% for the first quarter of 2014). With the move away from the Public Switched Telephone Network towards IP-based telecommunications, whether broadband Internet access, text-messaging and enterprise communications providers should be added to the list of federal USF contributors remains a contentious subject. While each of these is a matter of policy that must first be addressed by the FCC,9 each of them will have a significant administrative impact on USAC.
And yet, the old adage is true. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is no doubt that the loss of Scott’s broad institutional knowledge and practical perspective regarding effective implementation of FCC policy goals will be a significant loss to USAC. However, perhaps the best testament to Scott’s leadership is that because of the strong administrative practices and procedures developed during his tenure, his departure will have little to no impact on the day-to-day administrative aspects of federal universal service.
At least in the short term (i.e., pending any significant Congressional or FCC universal service reform), the day-to-day obligations for federal USF contributors and beneficiaries will look the same after Scott’s departure as they did during his time as USAC’s Acting CEO. Nonetheless, given the rapidly evolving state of telecommunications and the calls for rapid, decisive federal universal service reform, it will only benefit USAC to have a strong, knowledgeable leader at the helm. The board would be wise to nominate, and the FCC to appoint, a new USAC CEO in an expeditious manner.
Lack of People Opting Into Emergency Alerts Poses Problems for Natural Disaster Scenarios
Disaster protocol experts remarked on lessons learned from fire outbreaks in Boulder County, Colorado.
KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 26, 2022 – A lack of people opting into local emergency alerts poses a severe challenge for public officials during natural disasters, a panel of experts said Tuesday.
The panel remarked on just how significant the number of people not subscribed to emergency alerts is during a panel on disaster preparedness at the annual Mountain Connect conference.
In Boulder, getting emergency alerts is on an opt-in basis, whereas in other areas, it is opt-in by default.
The specific focus of the panel was on lessons learned from the outbreak of fires in Boulder County, Colorado this past December.
Fires presented challenges for providers
Several challenges of managing a response to the fires were recounted.
Blake Nelson, Comcast’s senior director of construction, stated that some of his company’s underground broadband infrastructure buried at a considerable depth was still melted from the heat of the fires to cause service outages for customers. Thomas Tyler, no stranger to disaster response as Louisiana’s deputy director for broadband and connectivity through several hurricane responses, pointed out that it is quite possible local officials may be skilled in responding to one type of disaster such as a hurricane but not another like a tornado.
The panel also spoke to the challenges of coordination between essential companies and agencies if people do not have personal relationships with those who work at such entities other than their own.
Successful emergency responses to service outages during disaster serve as models for the future, with Nelson stating the internet provider opened up its wireless hotspots to temporarily increase service access and Tyler saying that standing up Starlink satellite internet access helped bring broadband to Louisiana communities only accessible by bridge or boat during their periods of disaster.
Conversation moderator Lori Adams, senior director of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia, suggested keeping town servers not in municipal buildings but rather off site and Wesley Wright, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, recommended the Federal Communications Commission’s practice of developing strong backup options for monitoring service outages.
Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning
Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.
WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.
As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.
Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.
When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.
Privacy and security concerns
Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.
Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.
To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.
There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.
Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears
Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.
WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.
“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group SIIA, formerly known as the Software and Information Industry Association. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”
Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.
Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”
Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help
Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.
But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.
This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.
Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.
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