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Historically Black Colleges Urge Additional Funding to Close Broadband Gap

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Photo of Geoffrey Starks by the FCC

Panelists at an FCC roundtable on Monday stressed the importance of narrowing the digital divide that makes distance learning difficult for some students from historically black colleges and universities.

The roundtable, hosted by FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks and moderated by David Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition, featured a discussion between presidents and representatives from eight HBCUs as well as U.S. Reps. Alma Adams, D-N.C., and G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C.

Replacing traditional brick-and-mortar education with online teaching has been a difficult adjustment, participants agreed. The abrupt transition has made it challenging to accommodate students from low income and rural communities who do not have easy access to broadband internet service, a problem that disproportionately affects black students.

Citing a Pew Research study, Starks stated that 34 percent of black people in America do not have a home broadband connection, and only 58 percent of black individuals own a computer. To end this disparity, Starks said, the FCC must expand and raise awareness of the Lifeline program, which attempts to increase broadband access by discounting rates for low-income individuals.

“Lifeline is severely undersubscribed,” Starks said, “with only approximately seven million people enrolled out of thirty-eight million that are eligible.”

Dr. Adebisi Oladipupo of Morgan State University echoed Starks’ comments, adding that the FCC and HBCUs need an ongoing partnership, as the lack of broadband internet access in low-income communities “is not a one-time issue.”

Alabama State University President Quinton Ross pointed to the Broadband DATA Act, signed in March, that attempts to increase the granularity of broadband network location information. He said that the universities needed increased guidance from the FCC in developing distance learning programs for affected students.

When asked what would help universities to “not only survive but thrive” during the pandemic, HBCU representatives agreed that funding was crucial.

Butterfield repeated the need for increased funding to assist rural communities in building broadband network access and infrastructure. In addition, Adams called on the federal government to provide $10 million of additional funds and urged the FCC to close the digital divide.

“We can no longer say that this is simply a digital divide,” Starks said. “The same people in the same neighborhoods have been left behind, over and over again.”

Elijah Labby was a Reporter with Broadband Breakfast. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now resides in Orlando, Florida. He studies political science at Seminole State College, and enjoys reading and writing fiction (but not for Broadband Breakfast).

Education

American Library Association Concerned With Burdensome Infrastructure Bill Reporting Requirements

The organization is concerned that access to federal money will come with burdensome reporting.

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Screenshot from the SHLB event on Thursday.

WASHINGTON, February 28, 2022 – Michelle Frisque, a consultant for the American Library Association, said at a webinar on Thursday that reporting requirements required for access to federal broadband infrastructure funds should not be burdensome or else it will harm the success of the program.

“While libraries understand and appreciate the need to gather data for assessment, to measure for impact, and promote accountability, we also ask that it’s not overburdening stakeholders with the intrusive and burdensome reporting requirements,” Frisque said at an event hosted by the Schools, Health, Libraries and Broadband Coalition, a nonprofit organization that aims to close the digital divide through the help of anchor institutions.

The ALA is concerned that it will be forced to breach privacy policy if it is required to report the effectiveness of money coming from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act. Because of this fear, the ALA has requested that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration ensure their reporting requirements don’t call for things like specific searches citizens may have used while on a federal computer funded by the IIJA, as that act would be unconstitutional.

The NTIA has fielded hundreds of comments since it released a request for input from the public about how it should implement the $42.5-billion purse allocated for broadband infrastructure under the IIJA.

One formal question, which drew Frisque’s response, was, “What types of data should NTIA require funding recipients to collect and maintain to facilitate assessment of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs’ impact, evaluate targets, promote accountability, and/or coordinate with other federal Start and state programs?”

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Education

Coalition Says FCC E-rate Portal Proposal Could Create More Problems

Industry officials say the commission’s approach to E-rate competition would burden applicants.

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John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2021 – The executive director of a broadband coalition for anchor institutions said the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to force providers to bid for school and library services through a new portal will burden those applicants.

The agency proposed Thursday to force service providers to submit applications through a bidding portal overseen by the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the E-rate program that provides broadband subsidies to schools and libraries. The current approach is that libraries and schools announce they are seeking services and service providers would apply directly to those institutions.

By giving USAC the ability to see service provider applications before they go to the institutions, the agency said this would eliminate at least some forms of abuse or fraud, including participants who may misrepresent their certification or circumvent competitive-bidding rules.

But John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said that while he applauds the effort to listen to consumer needs, the portal’s one-size-fits-all approach would ultimately burden E-rate applicants and service providers.

He also claimed that there is not enough evidence to show that a new portal is needed and that it “would add a lot more federal bureaucracy on a program that is running pretty well right now.

“You would have federal employees at USAC trying to make determinations about what’s…in the best interests of the schools or libraries,” said Windhausen, “And we don’t think they’re really qualified to do that.”

Windhausen also sees potential conflict between the new bidding portal and some state laws already governing E-rate bidding. In a scenario in which state law and FCC policy conflict, it is not clear which policy would take precedence.

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Education

FCC Commits Another $603 Million in Emergency Connectivity Fund Money

The agency has now committed $3.8 billion from the $7.17-billion program.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission’s latest round of Emergency Connectivity Fund money will disburse $603 million to connect over 1.4 million students in all 50 states, the agency said Monday.

The FCC said it has now committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17-billion program, which provides funding for schools and libraries to buy laptops, tablets, WiFi hotspots, modems, routers and connectivity to help students stay connected off school premises. The money comes as a new Covid-19 variant sweeps the nation again, putting face-to-face interactions at risk once again.

The agency also said Monday that it has allocated an additional $367 million in its first commitment and nearly $236 million in the second commitment.

The agency in October said that previous rounds had committed $2.63 billion from the fund since its launch in June.

The total amount committed to go to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries, and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and over 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency said in a Monday release.

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