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In Partisan Vote, FCC Passes a Modified E-Rate Proposal for Spending Funds on Wi-Fi Connectivity

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WASHINGTON, July 15, 2014 – The Federal Communications Commission on Friday voted to modernize of its E-Rate program Friday, reallocating funds from technologies considered obsolete to Wi-Fi based connectivity in schools and libraries. However, owing to strong skepticism from opponents over funding, the proposal was scaled back to $2 billion, down from its original $5 billion.

The 3-2 vote came when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler secured support from the other two Democratic-appointed commissioners. But Republican-appointed Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly dissented.

Wi-Fi versus Broadband Connectivity

Previously, education groups like National Association of Federally Impacted Schools and the National Education Association had criticized the proposal for leaving rural and suburban schools with no funds for basic internet connectivity, sometimes referred to as Priority I services. The final proposal agreed that funds for Wi-Fi and internal connections, called Priority II service would not be funded at the expense of Priority I services.

“Part of the problem is [our schools] are not all totally hooked up to the point where they can even consider Wi-Fi or modernized things to do with the Internet,” said NAFIS Executive Director John Forkenbrock.

In past years, nearly 50 percent of the FCC’s $2.4 billion E-Rate funds went to non-broadband legacy services including paging, email and voice service. Opponents to the proposal – among both educators and Republicans –questioned whether cutting back on these services would be sufficient to fund a new E-Rate Wi-Fi program for as many as five years.

Even with the reduced proposal budget of $2 billion from 2016 to 2018, Pai and O’Rielly blasted the agency’s Wi-Fi spending. Both said that some of the $2 billion for Wi-Fi would have to be collected through higher fees on phone bills.

“It always seems to be easier for some people to take more money from American people via taxes and fees, rather than do the hard work,” O’Rielly said. “If more money is justified for E-Rate, let’s dig in and find offsets, not stick it to hardworking poor and middle-class Americans.”

The Need for E-Rate Reform

Democratic-appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel took the opposite view: not enough of the proposed funds are being allocated toward Wi-Fi. She called for increased annual funding overall to meet the demand that is roughly double the E-Rate’s expenditure.

“We can’t expect to compete if we educate the next generation with a support system frozen in the age of dial-up,” said Rosenworcel.

NEA President Van Roekel said the FCC was right to not hastily alter the fundamental structure of the E-Rate program without guaranteed funding. He said that more needs to be done in the long term.

“If we are serious about ensuring equity in our schools, all the demand for ongoing internet connectivity must be met—especially in high-needs schools,” Roekel said. “Shifting our goals to establish Wi-Fi in targeted school districts, without increasing the cap, could undermine the historical importance and significance of the E-Rate Program.

Similar sentiments were shared by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who said that “while the need to promote Wi-Fi in all schools and libraries is more important than ever, it should not come at the expense of bringing broadband to the brick and mortar building itself. To truly ensure our students and the public can best compete in our interconnected 21st century economy, the FCC must still take action to increase the program’s permanent funding cap.”

But at Friday’s meeting, Wheeler said that significant change to the program was necessary.

“No responsible business would stick with an information technology plan developed in 1998,” Wheeler said. “We owe the same rigorous self-examination to our schools and libraries.”

Significant Criticism Preceded Vote

In the lead up to the agency vote on Friday, more than a dozen education advocacy groups wrote the FCC a joint statement saying that the proposed changes “will only dilute an already over-subscribed E-Rate program.” While “nominal savings may be realized by eliminating legacy services,” it doesn’t guarantee additional funding.

In particular, NAFIS took issue with Wheeler’s proposal to take funds from Priority I internet access and shift them to Priority II internal connections and wireless internet.

Wheeler’s previous proposals could have imposed harm if it had phased down support for the internet access portion of Priority I services, said Mary Kusler, who heads the government relations department at the National Education Association.

“For 18 years this has been an incredibly successful program. However, for the past 18 years, there has been over $5 billion worth of applications” every year, she said, ”so we’ve essentially had double the requests for discounts than money available. What we see in [Wheeler’s] proposal is an attempt to divert the attention away from that connectivity point to this idea of ensuring Wi-Fi access…and while Wi-Fi is certainly a piece of the puzzle, we are very concerned that it’s really only connecting those that already have connectivity.”

Aspen Institute fellow Blair Levin expressed much greater optimism about modernization in a blog post with the Benton Foundation. He said funding for old legacy services constitutes roughly $1.2 billion of E-Rate spending and would be a significant source of cost saving.

The Universal Service Administrative Corporation estimated that it committed $9.8 million for email services and almost $28 for web hosting in the funding year 2011. Another $934,000 that same year went to paging services in response to more than 500 E-Rate requests despite the technology being viewed as obsolete today. Another 100 requests called for $95,000 in funding commitments to dial-up services.

Considerably more savings can be seen by phasing down support for telephone services, said Kusler, calling it a “double edged sword.” Although it will allow more money to be devoted to internet connectivity, “at the same time, it’s a fixed cost at the local level that is not gonna go away. So if school districts start having to pay their full share of telephone bills, they’re going to have to make up that funding somewhere else.”

Levin added that another major source of cost savings will come through programs like “volume discounts through consortia-enabled bulk purchasing, and improved pricing transparency.”

In the lead up to Friday’s meeting, Sens  Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Markey warned that a per-student or square foot distribution method for Wi-Fi could result in a sub-optimal solution.

“As the founders of the E-Rate program, we applaud your commitment to schools and libraries across the country. Nothing short of our international competitiveness and children’s future are at stake with E-Rate modernization. That is why it is so important for you to take the time necessary to get this right.”

FCC

Broadband Labels Should Include Practical Applications of Internet Packages: MIT Researchers

The FCC’s broadband label might include the number of movies one can watch at a time with a certain plan.

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Photo of MIT's David Clark used with permission

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming broadband transparency labels should include “interpretive” information that helps consumers understand the practical implications of their internet performance, such as the number of movies they can watch at a time, according to researchers Friday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As directed by Congress in the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is currently working on a “label” service providers will be required to fulfill that features details of broadband service plans, including monthly price, typical download and upload speeds, latency, packet loss, and other relevant information. The labels, which must be finalized by November, are meant to help consumers make a more informed decision when choosing an internet plan.

Because consumers are often unaware of how aspects of network performance affect the user experience, David Clark and Sara Wedeman of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory said Friday at the TPRC 2022 conference that simply displaying technical metrics – e.g., an average upload speed of 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) – is unlikely to facilitate better user decision making.

The pair recommends the FCC adopt and require of service providers the equivalent of a nutritional label’s daily value field: a “Satisfactory Service Label.” Just as the daily value field makes complicated nutritional information actionable for the average consumer, the SSL will clarify how the technical metrics of an internet package affect performance, Clark said.

“One can propose a somewhat simple SSL for download speed by noting that for each simultaneous HD stream, no more than…about 9 mb/s is necessary. One could probably watch 3 HD streams at once over a 25 mb/s service,” said the paper on which Clark and Wedeman’s TPRC presentation was based.  

Difficulties in the labeling process

Paroma Sanyal and Divya Goel of the consulting firm Brattle Group also presented a paper on broadband labeling at TPRC. They argued that mandatory labeling will likely lead to lower prices and higher quality internet plans but also presents economic and legal risks if implemented incorrectly. Sanyal said that the standardized labeling regimes often introduce compliance costs and harm innovation, recommending instead a simple, clear system to minimize the emergence of unintended consequences.

Sanyal’s and Goel’s paper – coauthored with the Brattle Goup’s Coleman Bazelon – argues that the FCC’s current guidance doesn’t provide a specific definition of “typical” network performance, leaving much interpretation to broadband providers.

The paper also notes a multitude of technical factors outside the provider’s control that could affect performance. “For fixed broadband factors such as the vintage of equipment on the consumer premises…for mobile broadband, the vintage and type of handsets, weather, and location of the consumer are important,” the paper reads.

“As an illustration, typical speeds in a DC neighborhood may not be the typical speeds in a Baltimore neighborhood, which begs the question of how geographically targeted such labels should be, and, of course, the associated costs,” the paper adds.

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FCC

Library and Education Technology Groups Pan FCC Proposal for New E-Rate Procurement

Responders fear that updating the E-Rate process will increase complexity for applicants.

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Photo of John Windhausen of Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2022 – Responders to the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rulemaking to force internet service providers to bid for school and library services through a new portal expressed concern that the proposal would needlessly complicate the process.

The FCC’s E-Rate program supplements schools and libraries securing affordable telecommunications and broadband services through the Universal Service Fund. Earlier this year, the FCC released a proposal that would “streamline program requirements for applicants and service providers, strengthen program integrity… and decrease the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse.”

The proposal suggests implementing a central document repository, called a bidding portal, through which internet service providers would submit bids to the program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company, instead of directly to applicants at a state and local level. Currently, libraries and schools announce they are seeking services and service providers apply directly to those institutions.

With the adoption of this proposal, applicants would be required to submit competitive bidding documentation that would enable applicants to compare competing bids and the USAC would establish timeframes on when applicants are able to review the bids that providers submit.

The proposal is in response to a September 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office which addressed what the GAO considers the E-Rate program’s key fraud risks. It reported that E-Rate participants could easily misrepresent self-certification statements by violating competitive-bidding rules or processes. These violations could occur without the Commission’s or USAC’s knowledge because they do not have direct access to the bidding information.

The GAO suggested that allowing the USAC direct access to obtain and monitor bidding information would improve security and strengthen program controls.

Proposal widely panned by CoSN and educational technology directors

However, response to the proposal was widely negative, with commenters raising concern that changing the process would needlessly complicate a system that, according to Verizon, is already promoting fair and open bidding on E-Rate contracts.

The Consortium for School Networking, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the National School Boards Association claimed that the Commission’s past reliance on state and local procurement requirements has been a success and has not led to an undue amount of fraud and abuse, negating the need to update the process.

Creating a national bidding portal could also interfere with existing state and local bidding requirements and unduly complicate the bidding process, hindering E-Rate participation, said the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors in its comment to the FCC.

“A bidding portal would interfere with existing state and local bidding and procurement processes, which would likely cause significant issues for applicants and may cause some to have to drop out of the E-Rate program,” read NATOA’s report.

The establishment of a national E-rate bidding portal would be “unnecessary, burdensome and will increase the complexity of, rather than simplify the E-rate program,” agreed South Dakota’s Department of Education in its statement.

National level or local level changes

Since the FCC’s announcement in December, the proposed changes have been subject to much debate. John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, wrote in April that the E-Rate changes would be detrimental, claiming that procurement decisions are best made at the local level, rather than a “one-size-fits-all system.”

Furthermore, John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said in December that the proposal will burden applicants, despite the potential benefits of eliminating at least some forms of fraud. Windhausen claimed that there is not enough evidence to show that a new portal is needed.

However, the proposal has not been universally dismissed. In a comment filed last week, the United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, which is responsible for enforcing antitrust laws, expressed support for the proposal saying that it would “enhance the ability of the FCC’s Office of Inspector General to detect and deter fraud in the E-Rate program.”

The DOJ added that the update would allow for more robust enforcement of laws, including investigation and prosecution of antitrust and related crimes that occur during E-Rate procurements. “All responsive service providers and applicants are in a position to complete the additional step,” said the DOJ in response to critics citing undue burden.

The proposal remains in consideration at the FCC.

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FCC

FCC Encouraged to Limit Data Collection on Affordable Connectivity Program, Others Want More

One trade group warns about providers leaving the program if data collection too onerous.

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Photo of Jonathan Spalter, CEO of US Telecom, from ISE

WASHINGTON, August 9, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is being warned not to overly burden internet service providers with its Congress-mandated order to collect pricing and subscription rates data from participants in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Under the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the FCC is required by November 15 to adopt rules to collect annual data relating to the price and subscription rates of each internet service offering by a provider participating in the broadband subsidy program, which offers up to $30 per month for low-income households (up to $75 per month on tribal lands) and a one-time $100 off a device.

But a number of submissions are warning the FCC against rules that require any additional data collection efforts beyond the scope of the law so as not to unduly burden providers and, at least one other trade group said, push providers away from participating in the program.

Telecommunications company Lumen, for example, recommended the commission limit the scope of the annual reporting to monthly pricing and to exempt “excessively granular” requirements, such as promotional rates, grandfathered plans, or subscriber-level data, which the commission is proposing to collect.

Communications companies and industry groups want to limit data collection

T-Mobile said in its submission that Congress told the FCC to rely on the broadband consumer labels, which are due this November, for pricing. The commission asked for comment on the interpretation of the IIJA requiring a reliance on price information displayed on the consumer labels.

For subscription information, T-Mobile urges the commission to look at data collection from the Universal Service Administrative Company – which administers high-cost broadband programs for the Universal Service Fund – to avoid “adopting a largely redundant collection that would impose additional burdens” on all parties.

“The IIJA leaves the Commission no discretion to collect any additional price information, and the statute does not require collection of data on other service plan and network characteristics,” such as speed and latency and data allowances, the submission said.

“Collection of this additional data would create additional burdens and is unnecessary,” the submission added.

Similar limitations were also proposed by telecom Starry Inc., which pushed for privacy protection by collecting data at a higher level (such as the state) and working with information collected in other transparency efforts, such as the consumer labels.

Industry association IMCOMPAS, which represents internet and competitive communications networks, told the FCC in a submission that data collection should be limited to the state level to protect consumer privacy and proprietary information of the providers; streamline other data collection, including the consumer labels; and provide instruction on how to providers to better understand the data collection rules.

Concurring with this position is the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, which said data collection must be simple and should not go to a level of detail that goes beyond what the IIJA calls for. The trade group, which represents small providers, said such data collection beyond that required in the law could burden companies with small teams.

The included data, WISPA said, should be an annual aggregate of items including broadband plans subscribed to by ACP customers, number of subscribers for each plan, and pricing minus promotional rates, taxes, discounts or pricing breakdowns for bundled services. Any additional onerous collection could see providers leave the program, it added.

Industry groups US Telecom and NCTA – Internet and Television Association similarly urged a simple annual report that captured undiscounted monthly pricing of each broadband service offering and the number of customers subscribed. The Competitive Carriers Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association also recommended a limited data collection approach.

ACA Connects, a trade group representing small and medium-sized independent operators, said the FCC should direct providers to report numbers of ACP households “that are applying their benefit to each speed tier along with the standard price of each tier on a state-by-state basis” – rather than the FCC-proposed continuous collection of subscriber-level data via the National Lifeline Accountability Database, it said, adding the commission should be mindful of the time it takes for completion, as smaller providers have limited resources.

Others pushing for subscriber-level, more data

The cities of New York and Seattle, in their submissions, said the FCC should collect subscriber-level information to assess different service adoption rates on different plans over time – publishing categories based on price, plan and performance by the zip code. It added it is not seeking information about the households itself, and said this would not be a privacy concern as others have pointed out.

Similarly, the Connecticut Office of State Broadband said the commission should go beyond the IIJA requirements by mandating information including performance of the plans and whether a device is offered.

For the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, data collection on the ACP should include data beyond what’s included in the consumer labels, and should include other items such as installation, equipment, service, miscellaneous, data and usage fees, and state and local taxes.

In a joint submission, non-profit media group Common Sense and internet advocacy group Public Knowledge recommended data collection that is necessary to monitor the ACP, which include promotional rates, taxes, overage costs and device and equipment costs. This way, they say, the FCC can get a better idea of how much is going toward internet access after applying the subsidy. They are also asking for the commission to collect information on whether the subsidy is being used to upgrade or discount current service, and how customers are becoming aware of the program.

The commission is currently trying to get more Americans on the program, which has over 13 million households signed up. That number, the commission said last week, should be much higher. As such, it ordered the development of an outreach program to market the subsidy.

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