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Ajit Pai Comes to Senate Oversight Hearing, Defends his More Limited Vision of FCC Authority

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WASHINGTON, March 10, 2017 – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai defended his very vision of the agency’s role, as compared with his predecessor, during the first Senate Commerce Committee oversight hearing this year. The difference in attitude between Pai and former Chairman Tom Wheeler on broadband deployment highlighted the differences between the two.

“High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity. But there are still too many parts of this country where broadband is unavailable or unaffordable,” Pai said, describing a “real and growing digital divide” between cities with ubiquitous 4G wireless service and rural areas where such service is lacking.

Pai said the FCC already had the tools to ameliorate such problems. In particular, he highlighted already-extant Universal Service Fund programs that subsidize broadband service for low-income Americans, and the push he has made since becoming FCC Chairman to roll back and revise “regulations that deter the private sector from investing in next-generation networks.”

That was a reference to his initial efforts to overturn the Open Internet order that reclassified broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act, and which asserted FCC authority to promulgate and enforce network neutrality regulations. Rolling back those rules has been a major goal of Pai’s and other Republicans for many years.

Pai also highlighted recent plans to use the second phase of the agency’s Mobility Fund to increase wireless broadband access and his plans for “Gigabit Opportunity Zones” that would use tax incentives to encourage investment in high speed networks in currently underserved areas. Pai’s proposal has been compared to the “Empowerment Zone” concept that was to spur investment in minority communities, and was championed by former Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y.

Some Senators weren’t convinced by Pai’s attempts to pledge allegiance to the cause of affordable broadband and access for all.

Ranking Member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., expressed concern that Pai was planning major changes to the E-Rate program, which has historically enabled schools and libraries to connect to high-speed networks at reduced rates. Nelson called the program “essential to schools and libraries. I would expect the FCC not to make any major changes” until completing the required review of the program in 2018, he said.

Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also questioned Pai on his desire to roll back network neutrality regulations in light of the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner — a merger Pai claimed the FCC had no legal authority to review under the so-called “public interest” standard – because the merger would not involve any FCC license transfers.

Schatz asked Pai if rolling back Network Neutrality regulations would mean that the FCC could no longer enforce the merger conditions placed on Comcast when the FCC approved its merger with NBC-Universal. Pai responded that the FCC could enforce merger conditions already in place. But he did not say how the Commission could enforce conditions based on regulations if the regulations were no longer operative.

Regarding the AT&T-Time Warner merger, Senator Tom Udall, D-Colo., asked Pai directly if he would respond to pressure from the Trump Administration to possibly hold up the merger because of the Trump Administration’s dislike of Time Warner subsidiary CNN’s news coverage.

That subject reportedly came up in meetings between Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Time Warner executives. Pai deflected the question, refusing to comment.

Despite Pai’s repeated assertions that Network Neutrality regulations were stymieing investment in broadband networks and innovation, Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., had other ideas. He pointed out that when it came to network neutrality harming investment and innovation, “the sky is not falling.”

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.

Education

Federal Communications Commission Says $5 Billion Requested for Emergency Connectivity Fund — in Just Round One!

The program is designed to help schools, libraries and students.

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Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

August 25, 2021—Two months after launching the first round of applications, the Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday that the Emergency Connectivity Fund has received more than $5 billion in funding requests.

The requests, which came from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, are for 9.1 million connected devices and 5.4 million broadband connections.

The $7-billion program, whose first round closed August 13, provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and general connectivity is expected to help students stay connected at school and off school premises, addressing the “homework gap” made paramount during the pandemic.

The money is to be used for said services and devices purchased between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022. The program will open a second round for applications due to a spike in new coronavirus cases, which will run from September 28 to October 13.

“The Emergency Connectivity Fund is the single largest effort to bring connectivity and devices to students who lack them – and this robust response from applicants shows the tremendous need in our communities,” FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a Wednesday press release.

“This funding is an important down payment in closing the Homework Gap so that all children, regardless of their circumstances or where they live, have access to the tools they need to succeed,” she added.

Congress authorized the program as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The FCC has previously noted that the Emergency Broadband Benefit had proved out that there is demand for such a program and that the ECF would help fill the gap.

Breakdown by state

The FCC included a breakdown of the first-round requests by state. California was the top requester at roughly $812 million, followed by New York with $559 million, Texas with $496 million, Florida with $264 million, New Jersey with $225 million, Arizona with $200 million, Illinois at $197 million, Georgia $183 million, North Carolina with $149 million, Michigan with $108 million, Ohio with $103 million, and Puerto Rico with $102 million, and Washington rounding out the 9-digit requesters with $101 million.

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Education

NTIA Releases Details on Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Project

The $285-million program will help connect minority educational institutions.

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Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo

August 4, 2021–The agency managing telecommunications policy for the commerce department has released details Tuesday on eligibility for its $285-million grant program for broadband access for minority educational institutions.

The Connecting Minority Communities pilot program, announced in June, will address the lack of broadband access, connectivity and equity at historically Black colleges or universities, Tribal colleges or universities, and minority-serving institutions.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration released a notice of funding opportunity for the program, established via the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which will grant funds to eligible recipients to purchase broadband service or equipment, hire IT personnel, operate a minority business enterprise or a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, and facilitate educational instruction, including remote instruction.

Eligible institutions include 501 Hispanic-serving institutions, 336 Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions, 104 predominantly Black institutions, 102 historically Black colleges and universities, 66 Alaska native-serving institutions and native Hawaiian-serving institutions, 37 Tribal colleges and universities, and 32 native American-serving non-Tribal institutions.

The deadline to submit applications is December 1, 2021.

“Communities of color have faced systemic barriers to affordable broadband access since the beginning of the digital age,” said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in a press release.

“The investments we make as part of the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program will help communities that are struggling with access, adoption and connectivity, and will inform our path forward as we seek to finally close the digital divide across the country,” she added.

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Education

Broadband Breakfast CEO Drew Clark and BroadbandNow’s John Busby Speak on Libraries and Broadband

Friday’s Gigabit Libraries Network conversation will feature Drew Clark of Broadband Breakfast and John Busby of BroadbandNow.

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July 16, 2021—Friday’s Gigabit Libraries Network conversation will feature Drew Clark, Editor and Publisher of Broadband Breakfast, joined by John Busby, Managing Director of BroadbandNow. The event will take place on July 16, 2021, at 11 a.m. ET.

Registration for the event is available on Eventbrite. The session will also be available on Zoom.

Beginning in March of 2020, the Gigabit Libraries Network has hosted a series of conversations called the “Libraries in Recovery.”

The series is ambitious in its scope, and poses the question “What is a library if the building is closed?” Over the course of its more than 50 episodes, the the series has tackled myriad topics, ranging from equity, access, and inclusion to smart cities, social infrastructure, and the future of libraries.

The series recorded its first episode on March 26, 2020—only 15 days after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The episode discussed the importance of internet access during a time when many questions about the pandemic were still swirling, and many of the ramifications had yet to be felt—only a week prior had the first states begun issuing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

Broadband Breakfast also launched its webcast series, Broadband Breakfast Live Online, around the same time. The first session of the Broadband Breakfast series was on “Coronavirus and Education – Getting Ready for Online Education.”

Broadband Breakfast Live Online Archives provides links to all events in the Broadband Breakfast series.

Many of the Gigabit Libraries conversations and initiatives surrounding digital inclusion and the digital divide have only drifted into mainstream conversation in the wake of the pandemic.

During a time when many Americans had no idea how long they would have to remain indoors, “Libraries in Recovery” was discussing methods of boosting Wi-Fi signals to make internet available in library parking lots and the importance of remote access in anticipation of a surge in demand.

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