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FCC Restricts Options Under the Low-Income Consumer Lifeline Program, to Democratic Outcry

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WASHINGTON, November 16, 2017 — In a move harshly condemned by Democrats and consumer advocates, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted along party lines to significantly restrict the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to enable lower-income consumers to purchase basic telecommunications services.

The vote took place during a contentious open meeting at the commission’s headquarters on Thursday. The Republican majority also voted to end restrictions on media consolidation that have been in force for decades.

Under the new Lifeline rules — which take effect immediately — poor consumers will no longer be able to purchase phone or broadband internet services from telecommunications resellers like TracFone, Simply Wireless, and numerous other service providers.

Such providers are called resellers because they do not own their own networks, and instead resell capacity bought wholesale from network operators like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

Under the new Lifeline rules, only facilities-based carriers need apply

Only so-called “facilities-based carriers” — telecommunications companies that own and operate their own networks — will be allowed to participate in the Lifeline program by offering subsidized plans. The plans are subsidized by the Universal Service Fund, which is funded from small charges on consumers’ landline phone, wireless, and broadband Internet service bills.

The new restrictions will most heavily impact tribal lands, many of which largely depend on resellers for all of their telecommunications services. In addition to the service provider restrictions, the commission eliminated an extra $25 subsidy once available to anyone living on tribal lands. Under the new rules, only tribal consumers living in rural areas will be eligible for the extra $25 subsidy.

Republicans on the FCC said the change was necessary to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The Lifeline program has been criticized by conservatives since the program — which began under then-President Ronald Reagan — expanded to allow Lifeline subsidies to be used to purchase wireless phone service.

The Lifeline expansion began as a pilot program under then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, the FCC chairman during the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2009.

But when providers began advertising the subsidized service to lower-income consumers a few years later, Republicans began to mock the program by calling the subsidized wireless plans “Obamaphones.” Such criticism was amplified by a racially-tinged viral video featuring an African-American woman shouting to “keep Obama in president” because “he gave us a phone.”

Under the new rules, however, far fewer consumers will be eligible for wireless Lifeline services because not all “facilities-based” wireless carriers offer subsidized plans.

Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel assail the new restrictions

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn assailed the new restrictions in a statement before the vote, telling the assembled crowd that despite assurances from the GOP majority, the plan would not help bridge the digital divide.

“It is a bridge to nowhere,” she said. “It proposes to shirk one of the four pillars of our universal service promise – affordability – but I can only hope that this commission and its majority sees the error of its ways before it does further harm to those Americans trapped in economic distress.”

Clyburn added that under the new rules more than 70 percent of Lifeline-eligible consumers will be told they cannot continue to use their current plans even though they may not have a Lifeline-eligible carrier to turn to.

Clyburn’s Democratic colleague, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, said that the changes to the program were not “real reform,” but were in reality “cruelty.”

“It is at odds with our statutory duty,” she said. “It will do little more than consign too many communities to the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Rosenworcel also noted that despite Republican assertions that the new rules were needed to prevent fraud, the FCC was in the process of implementing new controls to do just that, and her GOP colleagues were “discard[ing] its possibilities before we even begin,”

FCC Chairman Pai says that his changes would make Lifeline more effective

In a statement, Pai said he was adamant that the reforms were necessary and would accomplish needed goals.

“The reforms that we implement and propose today seek to accomplish two important objectives: (1) curtail the waste, fraud, and abuse that continue to plague the Lifeline program and (2) make Lifeline more effective at bridging the digital divide on behalf of low-income Americans,” he said.

His Republican colleagues also maintained that the changes were necessary. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said that the reforms were “necessary fixes” and that the FCC had a responsibility to protect taxpayer money, despite the fact that Lifeline isn’t funded by tax dollars.

O’Rielly added that Lifeline was meant to be a discount service program — not a free one — and that there should be some way of requiring a minimum contribution from even the most destitute consumers.

The newest member of the FCC, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr agreed. “I am glad that we’re now taking action to increase accountability while at the same time considering ways to target Lifeline support to consumers and communities that need it most,” he said.

Markey calls Lifeline the ‘Medicaid of the telecommunications universe’

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that has oversight over the FCC, also assailed the commission’s decision to restrict Lifeline services.

“The FCC also voted to advance a proposal that threatens to cut the very lifeline that helps tens of thousands of Bay Staters access critical telephone and internet services,” Markey said.

“The Lifeline program is the Medicaid of the telecommunications universe, and any attempt to cap funding, limit benefits, or reduce the number of providers for this critical program could exacerbate the digital divide and deprive disadvantaged communities the opportunity to access key educational, employment, and emergency services.”

 

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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