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Tribes Have Many Government Programs Available for Supporting Broadband Amid the Coronavirus, Say Officials

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Photo of Acoma Pueblo by Ethan Kan used with permission

May 12, 2020 — Education officials catalogued the many government broadband programs devoted to bridging the digital divide affecting tribal communities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, during the Tuesday teleconference of the Universal Service Administrative Company, speakers from the Department of Education and the Institution of Museum and Library Services also discussed their educational responses to the coronavirus and the availability and uses of funds for distance learning through high-speed internet services.

Further, the recently-passed CARES Act provides American workers, families, and small businesses with direct assistance.

And the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program assists with affordable broadband for rural and underserved communities.

“There are a lot of uses for funds [including] mental health services or curriculum developments for educators abroad,” said Jake Steele, Deputy Director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology.

Cynthia Landrum, Deputy Director for Library Services at IMLS, said that a provision in the CARES Act designates funds for tribal libraries and educational systems, such as increasing library and museum bandwidth.

The FCC and other organizations have provided numerous grants to communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. Last week, the USDA announced $23 million in grant investments for rural and low-income communities like Pueblo of Acoma, a tribal community of the kind that the E-rate program seeks to assist.

First Lt. Governor Pierson Siow said that the grant would enable the tribe to “provide high-speed broadband to 95 percent of the community and establish a tribally-owned service provider … helping the Pueblo bridge the digital divide.”

USAC is the FCC’s arm for implementing the E-Rate program that is supported by universal service fund charges on telecommunications services.

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).

FCC

FCC Watchdog Finds Evidence of Fraud in Emergency Broadband Benefit

Inspector General report finds “dozens” of cases of EBB abuse across the country.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 24, 2021 – The watchdog that monitors fraud and abuse of Federal Communications Commission programs said it has found evidence that service providers are enrolling into the Emergency Broadband Benefit program more students than exist at some schools.

The Office of Inspector General said in a Monday report that service providers, who are reimbursed from the program for offering subsidized broadband services to schools, and their sales agents have been abusing the program by enrolling more “households that claimed they have a dependent child” than students “who are actually enrolled in those schools.”

The report found “dozens” of eligible schools across the country are overenrolled six months into the program. That includes schools in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New York and Florida.

The most “egregious examples” of such abuse, the OIG said, came out of Florida, with one example of a school that had enrolled 1884 households in the EBB program, when OIG research showed that “no more than 200 students attend” the school. Another school with 152 students had 1048 households enrolled in the program. The OIG said it will not disclose which schools to preserve its on-going investigation.

The report notes that additional households were blocked from enrolling in the program “by other program safeguards.”

Majority of abuse done by “handful” of providers

“Evidence shows this is not consumer-driven fraud – enrollment data directly links certain providers and their sales agents to these enrollments,” the report said, adding the same sales agents who overenrolled students in the aforementioned schools also did the same in other state schools.

“Sales agents who work for just a handful of EBB providers are responsible for the majority of this fraudulent enrollment activity,” it added.

Other examples of abuse, the report said, includes failure to identify the dependent child, the repeated use of the provider retail address as the address of homes served, and more than 2000 EBB households were noted as being more than 50 miles from their schools.

“As EBB providers incentivize sales agents to maximize enrollments by providing commission-based compensation, many of the abuses that once plagued the FCC’s Lifeline program have reappeared in the EBB program,” the report concluded, adding these providers will be liable for violations.

“If providers discover enrollment problems, OIG reminds them of their obligation to take appropriate remedial measures,” the report added. “Providers who defraud FCC programs by violating program enrollment rules and claim support for those households will be held accountable and may be subject to civil or criminal sanctions.”

The $3.2-billion EBB program, which launched in May, provides a subsidy of $50 per month to eligible low-income households and $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands, as well as a one-time reimbursement on a device. The program has enrolled over five million households so far.

The FCC is currently asking the public for comment on how it should handle the program’s expansion into a permanent fixture as a result of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden last week.

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FCC

FCC Requires Telecom Companies to Let Subscribers Text to Suicide Prevention Hotline

The measure would increase access for those seeking emergency mental health assistance.

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WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to require providers of telecommunications to permit individuals to text directly to a three digit number, 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The suicide prevention lifeline is a national network that offers free and confidential support in Americans in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The move increases access for individuals in crisis by  routing text messages sent to 988 to the group’s 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

The vote to establish text-to-988 comes after Americans spent months isolated under stay-at-home orders in 2020. The CDC reported that last year, 44,834 individuals died by suicide in the United States. Experts have suggested that the pandemic has increased mental health struggles for Americans.  The FCC has repeatedly recognized suicide’s impact on at-risk communities, including youth, the Black community, the LGBT community, Veterans, and the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, and people who have speech disabilities that affect communication.

The FCC required text providers to support three digit dialing and text messages to 988 by July 16, 2022. “This uniform deadline will help to prevent confusion and facilitate unified outreach campaigns,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, who described 988 as “life-saving work.” “I am pleased to approve today’s decision because Text-to-988 will save lives in vulnerable and underserved communities by taking advantage of this vital communications channel,” he said.

Commenting on her vote to approve the measure, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel noted that LGBT youth are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. “These young people deserve a future,” she said. “They deserve support. And that support should be simple to access. Today we help make that possible.”

Americans sent an estimated 2.2 trillion text messages in 2020. Texting to 988 may be an especially important option for young people, who may prefer the anonymity and convenience of texting a crisis counselor instead of engaging in a phone conversation, said the FCC.

The agency urged Americans who need help during the transition to 988 should contact the Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) and through online chats.

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FCC

Senators, Citing Funding Influx, Press Need to Confirm Rosenworcel

Senators pointed to FCC’s initiatives on mapping, which will need to be good to maximize federal funds for broadband.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2021 – Senators tasked Wednesday with questioning Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel as part of her confirmation hearing urged the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee to hurry her through the process so she can focus on implementing critical initiatives, including better broadband maps that will be used to effectively implement the billions allocated in the infrastructure bill passed into law this week.

Rosenworcel was selected by President Joe Biden to be the permanent head of the agency late last month after being selected as the interim head following his inauguration as president. She now must get confirmation from the Senate.

Wednesday’s largely welcoming hearing included members expressing urgency to confirm Rosenworcel to the FCC before her term expires on January 3, 2022.

“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to nominate someone who will effectively implement the infrastructure law to address the digital divide’s impact on disadvantaged communities,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

“[Rosenworcel] has been a distinguished champion, energetic and compassionate champion on a number of issues, including robocalls, net neutrality, and providing spectrum coordination.” Blumenthal, who said he was “honored to introduce [Rosenworcel] as the nominee,” has worked closely with Rosenworcel since her confirmation to the FCC as a commissioner in 2012.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said it was “important” that Rosenworcel’s nomination goes through the committee’s markup process to expedite her confirmation.

The warm reception at committee was in line with a previous request from lawmakers representing 17 states urging Biden to nominate Rosenworcel as the permanent head of the agency.

Rosenworcel addresses mapping

Rosenworcel answered a number of questions from Senators about the FCC’s progress on completing its broadband mapping ahead of more federal funding to deploy broadband.

Rosenworcel told Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, that to overcome challenges in funding broadband programs from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – which became law this week – funding communities “requires good execution to do it well.

“We need to make smart decisions about where to fund and deploy,” she said. “All of the funding for the infrastructure bill depends on the mapping.” By confirming her nomination to the FCC, Rosenworcel says she would “get the money out quickly after getting mapping” and focus on “putting a premium on the projects we can complete fastest.”

The FCC released a statement of objectives this month to commission mobile wireless and fixed broadband data for better mapping. Mapping faults, such as that from relying on less-than-reliable internet service provider data, was most prominently seen from the fallout of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s reverse auction. The new initiative is part of the  Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, which became law last year.

“We need to make sure 100 percent of us in this country have access to fast, affordable, and reliable broadband—every household, every business, every consumer, everyone, everywhere,” she said. ‘If confirmed, it will be an honor to lead this charge,” Rosenworcel said.

“If confirmed, I pledge to listen to this Committee, which not that long ago I had the great honor of serving as counsel. And if confirmed, I pledge more broadly to listen to the Congress, those with business before the FCC and above all—the American people.”

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