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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

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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FCC

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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