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FCC Provides Details for Puerto Rican E-Rate Funding as Chairman Pai Visits Island

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WASHINGTON, November 4, 2017 — More than a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Friday announced that he will travel to the island territory on Sunday to observe the recovery process and assess the pace of efforts to restore communications on the hurricane-ravaged United States territory.

The Chairman’s announcement came following Tuesday’s release of an order promulgating new temporary rules to allow hurricane-damaged schools and libraries the use of Universal Service Fund E-Rate funding to rebuild their communications infrastructure.

The order specifying these new temporary rules — which had been announced before the agency October 24 open meeting — was delayed while commissioners considered its approval in a format outside of an official meeting.

“This order would provide targeted financial support to these institutions through the FCC’s E-rate program and give them maximum flexibility as they try to restore connectivity,” Pai said in an October 26 statement, announcing that the item would be considered through a process known as “circulation.”

The FCC is specifying their process to obtain E-Rate funding

To be eligible for E-Rate rebuilding funds under the temporary rules, applicants must certify that they are located in one of the counties affected by the hurricanes, that there has been “substantial damage” to the infrastructure used to provide E-Rate eligible services, and that the damage to their communications infrastructure is hurricane-related.

Even if those criteria are met, however, applicants will only receive funding under the temporary rules if no other funding is available from any other source, such as insurance payments, Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance funds, or any manner of funding from community organizations.

While the rules governing the E-Rate program normally require that any service substitutions paid for with USF funding (such as switching to a fixed wireless connection to serve a location once served by a wireline connection) must provide the same functionality, the temporary rules specified by the order waive this requirement, allowing funds that would normally be restricted to use for restoring Internet access to be used to purchase equipment to restore internal connectivity within a facility as well.

But for any broadband advocates who might have hope that the effort to rebuild Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure could present an opportunity to improve the island’s high-speed networks, those hopes will likely remain unfulfilled. A provision in the temporary rules specifying that “any additional E-rate funding received pursuant to this Order will be used solely to restore E-rate eligible services to the level of functionality that immediately preceded the Hurricanes.”

An FCC spokesperson confirmed to BroadbandBreakfast.com that the FCC’s decision to make use of E-Rate funds for rebuilding should not be considered an indicator of any desire to improve communications capacity. The sole purpose of the program will be to restore services to the status quo as it existed before the hurricane, the spokesperson said.

O’Rielly raised concerns that the E-Rate order is not enough, and urged action by Congress

But even while applauding the release of these limited USF funds, Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly — who voted to approve the order along with the rest of his colleagues — voiced concerns that they may not be sufficient given the sheer magnitude of the devastation wrought by the 2017 hurricane season, and suggested in a statement that Congress should get involved.

“Because of our budget limitations, providing additional funding from universal service generally comes at the expense of other recipients,” O’Rielly said.

“Targeted funding from Congress would ensure that qualifying providers and beneficiaries receive the relief needed to rebuild and restore service without impeding the important work of other universal service program participants to connect unserved communities.”

During a Wednesday press conference, Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed satisfaction in the response to the Puerto Rico situation by her colleagues “both individually and collectively,” and told reporters that she had heard no complaints from any of the stakeholders she has met with.

“We are right there answering the call and will continue to do so,” she said. “We are in it for the long haul.”

(Photo from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Contingency Response Group, augmented by troops from the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard units in multiple states, dowload relief supplies from aircraft around the clock at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the wake of Hurricane Maria Oct. 6, 2017. Photo by U.S. Air National Guard Lt. Col. Dale Greer used with permission.)

 

Andrew Feinberg was 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.

Public Safety

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.

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Photo of Lori Adams of Nokia discussing emergency communications response to Colorado wildfires at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

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.

Screenshot of Blake Nelson, Jon Saunders, Wesley Wright and Thomas Tyler (left to right)

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.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

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.

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Education

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.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

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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