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After Changes, FCC Approves Rural Digital Opportunity Fund For More Than $20 Billion

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the commissioners at the January 30th commission meeting by Adrienne Patton

WASHINGTON, January 30, 2020 – The Federal Communications Commission voted in favor of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund on Thursday in spite of concerns voiced from the democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the successor to the Connect America Fund, and is a decade long initiative to allocate $20.4 billion to closing the digital divide in rural areas that have no broadband access or scattered service.

The fund is split into two phases. The first phase will use the majority of the funds to provide 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband speeds (25 down and 3 up) to nearly six million homes and companies that have no access.

Phase one will use $16 billion to serve rural Americans through a multi-round reverse auction.

The second phase, using $4.4 billion including any remaining funds from the first phase, targets partially served census blocks where some homes do not have 25/3 Mbps broadband access.

Chairman Ajit Pai boasted the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund as the “biggest step the FCC has ever taken” to bridge the digital divide and provide digital opportunities to unserved Americans.

Among the key developments discussed at the agency’s open meeting were changes to the letter of credit requirement. Consequently, carrier costs will be reduced nearly 80 percent and is likely to incentivize bidders.

Criticism of Pai’s approach by the Democratic commissioner Rosenworsel

Rosenworcel and Starks voted to approve in part and dissent in part. Both expressed concerns that the funds will not be used in the best interest of the American people because of flaws with the agency’s broadband maps.

She described the FCC’s maps as “notoriously inaccurate” and said that the digital divide cannot be addressed without an accurate broadband map.

Before using billions in funds, the FCC needs to know where there is and isn’t service, said Rosenworcel. She called the new initiative a “broadband publicity stunt,” advocating for a thorough, data driven approach.

Rosenworcel said she worried that many people will be left without service while the FCC exhausts 75 percent of its funds. “We need maps before money, and data before deployment,” she said.

She also urged “ambitious” approaches to balanced download and upload speeds and addressing broadband cost and adoption barricades.

Pai defended the need to promote rural broadband funding now

Asked in the press conference to comment on the inaccuracy of the mapping, Pai said the FCC knows there are people who do not have broadband access but are counted on the maps as being “served.” But he also said he would not stall any longer to address the digital divide.

Countering this statement to the press, Rosenworcel said this was a hasty move to push out funds on an election year. “This feels sloppy,” said Rosenworcel.

Starks voiced his concern that the FCC is sidestepping the states’ efforts to deploy broadband. He mentioned that members of Congress have expressed concern and asked to postpone the vote. The FCC has not tried to examine how the state initiatives are already in action, said Starks.

Concerned at the vague language, Starks said the states were not aware that the areas served by state subsidies would be precluded from the Rural Digital Opportunity Funds. Starks and Rosenworcel were disappointed at this change.

Starks said the FCC “should have taken the time to get this right.” He encouraged taking the time to develop correct maps, affordable broadband service, and holding providers accountable to meet set milestones.

Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr approved fund

O’Rielly said nearly 8.4 million Americans do not have 10/1 Mbps broadband service. O’Rielly acknowledged the benefit of fiber-based broadband, but said the FCC cannot focus on improving areas that are already served.

The areas that are difficult to serve cannot be left behind, said O’Rielly.

Carr said the digital divide had been ameliorated by about 20 percent in 2019. He touted the merits of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to boost 5G infrastructure and aid communities that have no service or only dialup.

Agency officials said auctions for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would take place later this year.

Adrienne Patton was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. She studied English rhetoric and writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She grew up in a household of journalists in South Florida. Her father, the late Robes Patton, was a sports writer for the Sun-Sentinel who covered the Miami Heat, and is for whom the press lounge in the American Airlines Arena is named.

FCC

FCC Takes Stock of Telehealth Successes, But Acknowledges a Long Way to Go at Agency Event

Procedural hurdles lie ahead for the commission’s telehealth efforts.

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FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2021 – Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr and several leaders in healthcare said Monday the agency’s efforts to expand telehealth programs for Americans face procedural hurdles before Congress.

The cost of government telehealth expansion efforts is among key factors that create congressional hesitance to rubber stamp the FCC’s telehealth initiatives.

During panel discussions moderated by Carr at a commission event on Monday, experts also remarked that the commission’s efforts would require a good deal of regulatory flexibility that many members of Congress may not be willing to grant it.

Panel guest Deanna Larson, CEO of virtual health network Avera eCARE, testified before the Senate on the matter in October, urging Congress to extend or make permanent its regulatory flexibility toward telehealth.

The panels also spent time discussing the substantial success the FCC has had in expanding telehealth over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts emphasized accomplishments such as the employment of remote monitoring devices by physicians to physically examine patients when they cannot come into the office.

The panel stated that the move from fully in-person healthcare to telehealth can be compared to the significance of the move from “Blockbuster to Netflix,” referencing the at-home experience of the streaming platform.

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Senate Committee OK’s Rosenworcel, Questions Sohn on Mapping, Net Neutrality, Broadband Standards

Gigi Sohn explained her positions on issues facing the FCC.

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Gigi Sohn at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee meeting

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – As the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, it also questioned Wednesday agency nominee Gigi Sohn on issues including net neutrality, broadband mapping, and speeds.

Rosenworcel is already chairwoman of the FCC by virtue of being named to the position by President Joe Biden. The president picks the chair of the agency from among the commissioners. However, Rosenworcel’s term as commissioner is to expire unless the Senate confirms her appointment to another term.

The committee on Wednesday also approved Alvaro Bedoya, a staunch privacy advocate, as commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission and had rounds at questioning Alan Davidson, who was nominated as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which will oversee $42.5 billion in broadband funds from the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

On mapping, Sohn called for a “crowdsourcing” effort amongst states to improve the quality of broadband mapping, as the agency has started to do. “A lot of states have maps already and they are quite accurate,” she said. Though she could not commit to a timeline, Sohn said that there could be no “good policy without good maps” and that if she were confirmed, she would dedicate herself to improve the FCC’s broadband maps.

Sohn also voiced her support for municipal broadband. “I have supported municipal broadband for a very long time,” she said, adding she supports open access models that allow service providers to share the same network. Sohn pointed to Utah as an example, where the model has been implemented successfully. She stated that the model has led to “enormous competition” for service providers.

When pressed as to whether the FCC should be able to preempt states and dictate how they implement their broadband policy, Sohn said she would like the FCC to have a better relationship with states. “If I am confirmed, one of the things I would ask the chairwoman [to use me as] a liaison to the states, because I’ve really formed very good relationships with them,” she said. “In the past, we have not [reached out] to the states and made them partners. We have been more adversarial.”

Net neutrality, broadband standards and Big Tech

Sohn also came out in support of net neutrality. “What I am concerned about now, with the repeal in 2017 of the net neutrality rules and the reclassification of broadband, is that we have no touch,” she said. “[Net neutrality] is really much broader than [preventing] blocking and throttling. It is about whether or not bandwidth – which we all agree is an essential service – should have government oversight, and right now, it does not.”

Legislators also questioned Sohn on her perspectives regarding broadband standards. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Sohn what standard – whether it was 100 Mbps download with 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical service – would bridge the digital divide. Sohn stated that it would take more than just the deployment of infrastructure to bridge the digital divide.

“I have urged that Congress adopt a permanent broadband subsidy like the Affordable Connectivity Program – which is more money but is not permanent,” Sohn said. “You still always have the adoption problem as well, where people do not have the digital literacy, sometimes not even [actual] literacy, to be able to use the internet.”

Insofar that capacity and internet speeds are concerned, Sohn emphasized that the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act “does prefer scalable networks to meet the needs of tomorrow.”

“What we do not want, I would think – or I would not want – is to come back in five or ten years and say, ‘Oh, my goodness! We spent all this money, and we still have slow networks, and we still have areas that are not served,” she said. “The ability to have technologies that can grow over time.” Sohn stopped short of explicitly listing specific scalable technologies.

On Big Tech, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, described “a confluence of liberals advocating for censoring anyone with whom they disagree,” and a situation where “big tech [is] eagerly taking up the mantle to censor those with whom they disagree.” Cruz asked Sohn how she could guarantee she would not “use the power of government to silence.”

Sohn said that she would “make that commitment” to not act in such a way and added that she would “take any allegations of bias extremely seriously.” She said that she will continue to work with the Office of Government Ethics to dissuade any concerns people may have about her biases.

A date for a vote on Sohn and Davidson’s nominations has not yet been scheduled.

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FCC

FCC Eliminates Emergency Broadband Benefit Enrollment Freeze

The commission says an enrollment freeze is no longer necessary as the Infrastructure Act’s Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it is axing rules requiring a freeze on enrollment at the initial end of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

That’s because the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law two weeks ago, extends the program indefinitely and rebrands it to the Affordable Connectivity Program. The FCC is currently gathering comments on how it should manage the transition to the new program.

The freeze was initially planned to avoid claims volatility and to allow for more certain financial projections in the EBB’s final months when funds were running low. Based on current budget projections, there is no longer concern that the EBB will run out of funding before the Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect, the FCC said.

In its announcement on Friday, the FCC also waived requirements for customer notice on the end of the EBB, which mandated 15- and 30-day consumer notices.

These mandates were eliminated to prevent any alarm or confusion over the EBB Program ending, as consumers will continue to receive service for 60 days following the program’s end due to provisions of the IIJA.

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