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

Andrew Feinberg

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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

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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Education

Schools And Libraries Look For Solutions With $7 Billion In Federal Help

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot from SHLB event

April 6, 2021 – In a webinar last week hosted by the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), panelists discussed opportunities schools and libraries have to better serve their communities with the recent $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan, a $1.98 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on last month.

Laura Cole, director at the BiblioTech public library, shared how a successful pilot program with Southwest Independent School District made a goal to provide digital access to 100 students. To date, 62 students had broadband installed with the remaining still being worked on. The project was done to act as a proof-of-concept for digital connection expansion in Bexar County, Texas, where broadband access rates are low. Though the program’s success has caused it to be extended through December 31, 2021, Cole said she recognizes that there needs to be a more permanent solution to close the digital divide in all areas where people lack internet.

At the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City, Selvon Smith, president of information technology and chief information officer at the library, said that collaborative programs with the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and the New York City Department of Education were able to provide thousands of free hotspot devices for the entire school year to under-connected people. The organizations created a “Bookmobile Wi-Fi” program that was comprised of three vans and one truck stocked with laptops and outfitted with Wi-Fi antennas.

And it’s not just libraries that benefitted from the $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan. Rajesh Adusumilli, assistant superintendent for information services at Arlington County public schools (APS), said his organization worked to address student connectivity needs throughout the pandemic. The rollout of the 1-2-3 Connect Me pilot program was a core part along with maintaining Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program sponsorship and continuing to provide devices and wireless access hotspots at Arlington’s public schools.

This pilot program was financed by the Virginia governor’s Fasttrack Broadband Funding program, and is an extension of broadband services off of the APS and county-owned fiber network.

It uses technology on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum band, which has allowed private networks solely meant for students. It allows for students to connect to the APS network from home so they can continue distance learning instruction and access APS resources. It also can save money as it does not require the county to build additional fiber to create the extension.

Now, all Arlington Public Schools are set up with wireless access, with 99.2 percent of all APS students having participated successfully in synchronous learning activities.

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Education

Lack of Awareness Sees Michigan Schools And Libraries Miss Out on E-Rate Funding: State Coordinator

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Joe Polasek taken from his LinkedIn page

March 30, 2021 – Despite expanded funding for the E-Rate internet subsidy program for schools and libraries, the Michigan State program coordinator said there’s an awareness problem that is causing those institutions to miss out on money in the state.

“I don’t know any school or library that feels they have enough funding,” Joe Polasek said at the “Connecting Michigan Communities: Digital Education in Michigan” event, hosted by Connected Nation Michigan.

The E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for internet. In some cases, the program can cover up to 90 percent of an internet service bill, something Polasek would like to see more schools and libraries take advantage of in his state.

There have been recent legislative proposals to extend the E-Rate to cover internet subsidies to the home.

If a school or library qualifies for E-Rate funding, it can then use money that would have gone toward paying the internet bill for other needs like technology or education improvements.

While a growing number of schools are eligible in the program, the need to push libraries to qualify is even greater. Three years ago, 50 percent of Michigan libraries were participating in the E-Rate program, said Polasek. Libraries need to be aware of the benefits and help available to them in accessing much-needed funds and filing proper paperwork to qualify.

To date, Polasek said efforts to raise awareness of E-Rate funding have grown steadily, which has culminated in nearly 65 percent of libraries now receiving E-Rate funding.

Polasek’s role as a state coordinator is to facilitate the application process for prospective schools and libraries. He made it clear that he cannot actually file the paperwork on behalf of the applicant, but he is there to answer any questions and educate.

The verification process for E-Rate can be tricky to handle, he said. Confirming that the student count and discount rate are accurate is important because money is on the line.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said that the E-Rate program was recently expanded to cover subsidies to the home. The story has been corrected to say that various legislative proposals have been introduced to achieve that. As it is, the E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for the internet.

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