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Federal Agencies

USDA Announces Broadband Infrastructure Grants for Rural New Mexico Towns

Elijah Labby

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Screenshot of Agriculture Sec. Sonny Perdue from the webinar

May 6, 2020 – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced $23 million in grant investments for rural broadband infrastructure in New Mexico on Tuesday.

The three recipients, Pueblo of Acoma, Penasco Valley Telephone Cooperative and ENMR Telephone Cooperative, will receive the funds through the ReConnect Pilot Program, which seeks to develop broadband access in underserved areas.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now,” said Secretary Perdue. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

Pueblo of Acoma will receive a $942,955 grant for repairing existing infrastructure and bridging access gaps. 1st Lt. Governor Pierson Siow expressed gratitude for the grant, saying that it would enable them 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.”

Additionally, Penasco Valley Telephone Cooperative Inc. and ENMR Telephone Cooperative will receive grants of $3.1 million and $19.2 million respectively. Together, they will use this money to develop fiber broadband networks that will serve more than 1,500 households across more than 4,500 square miles of rural New Mexico.

The USDA has allocated several other grants aimed at expanding rural broadband access. On Sunday, the agency announced that it would extend the Rural Utilities Service Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program, which provides technology grants to organizations such as local governments and private corporations, for a second window.

“As we moved through the 60-day application window,” said the USDA Office of Rural Development’s  Richard Anderson, “we had a growing number of e-mails and calls from educational and medical folks who wanted to apply for the program, but due to other demands on their time…were concerned that they wouldn’t have enough time to devote to the application.”

The webinar reviewed eligibility requirements of the program, explained the application process, and highlighted some of the changes to the program, including an available fund of over $24 million for grants and an updated application due date of July 13, 2020.

See the complete webinar, as well as detailed application information.

Federal Agencies

Chairs Of FCC and FTC Point To Achievable Common Grounds Amid Political Discord

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from FCBA event

March 30, 2021 – With a change in administration comes a change in the party leadership structure for federal agencies, but that won’t sway the bipartisan tradition at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission, according to the acting chairs of those agencies.

At a Federal Communications Bar Association event held Monday to celebrate Women’s History Month, the all-female panel of leaders spoke on the important bipartisan work their commissions were doing during the new Biden administration’s first few months in office.

“When we all work together, we go further and get more done,” Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting Chairwoman of the FCC, said in response to a question about political discord. Turning down the volume and finding ways to work in harmony will lead to success, she said.

Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, acting chairwoman at the FTC, expressed similar sentiment. There is a difference between strongly-held policy disagreements and personal vitriol, she said. Although we’ve had disagreements on policy, we maintain good relationships, she said, and those relationships are important to identifying where consensus is possible.

Both the FCC and FTC are comprised of five commissioners, selected by the president and approved by the senate. Three of the five members always share the current president’s political party. Because Joe Biden won the 2020 election, the majority party on each commission shifted from Republican to Democrat.

Challenges ahead

That’s not to say there aren’t disagreements, however, and how we see remedies and approach rulemaking at the FTC is “likely to change,” Slaughter said. She focused on a “whole-of-agency” approach to the challenges that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic, entering on racial justice and equity. Focus on COVID response and racial justice don’t need to be mutually exclusive, she said.

Slaughter added other challenges to that list, including ensuring small businesses have a fair competitive opportunity against big companies, issues with data privacy and telehealth, and fraud.

Congress has not been quiet about giving the FCC new responsibilities and challenges, Rosenworcel said, and we need to make those challenges a priority. Over $10 billion in funding has been appropriated for broadband programs for the agency to disburse, including the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and the Emergency Connectivity Fund. “We’re going to make a meaningful dent in the digital divide,” she said.

For Evelyn Remaley at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, they have the challenge of distributing three new grant programs funded through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the Broadband Infrastructure Program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, and the Connecting Minority Communities Program, aimed at expanding broadband for underserved Americans, including tribal lands, rural areas and minority communities.

A focus on female leadership

As a key component of the FCBA event was celebrating Women’s History Month, the three panelists were asked what it means to be a woman in their leadership positions.

Working during the pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home life, Remaley said. Men and women need to find ways to balance work and home and to be more productive in both, she said.  We need to continue expanding our definition of leadership and bring in more diverse voices, she said, and that’s not unique to just women — men recognize this as well in leadership.

Slaughter, who gave birth to a child within days of getting her job at the FTC in 2018, said it’s an exciting challenge to balance work and family life, and provided her a unique opportunity to exemplify that the FTC is a workplace that values personal life as well. Having a personal life outside of work is important, and contributes to being a better at work, she said.

Being the only female commissioner at the FCC, that’s something you notice, Rosenworcel said. She expressed desire to see greater diversity at the agency, saying that more diversity leads to better decisions. She quoted Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” That’s great professional advice, Rosenworcel said.

Both Remaley and Slaughter said they thought of the many unheard-of women who have paved the way for them to be where they are now, including Slaughter’s grandma who worked as a secretary in the senate and whom she had never met.

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FCC

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr Optimistic About Finding Common Ground at Agency

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr from C-Span

March 24, 2021 — Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said the regulator has since 2017 seen what he wanted: Broadband speed increases and lower prices.

“The approach we adopted in 2017 is working,” he said at the Free State Foundation’s 13th annual telecom policy conference on Tuesday. “Speeds have increased, prices are down, and we see more competition than ever before; we need to keep it that way,” he said, stressing the importance of reinforcing the good work the previous administration did and continues to do.

Carr, who has been a part of the FCC since 2012 in various capacities and through different compositions, said the transition into the new administration is going well.

In contrast to before, when it seemed as though the “sky was falling” and there were many problems with net neutrality, today’s reality is quite different, thanks to Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, he said.

The chairwoman contacted him almost immediately after she asked him to participate an event together on telehealth. There have been a lot of conversations and compromises since that moment, he said.

He said elections do bring some consequences, and undoubtedly have shaken some of the agency’s previous standards with a different party in leadership. However, he said the FCC has been finding common ground, something that “has been all too rare in the past couple of years.”

He added that, in 2016, experts and analysts weren’t painting a very rosy picture for the US future leadership when it comes to 5G. One of the primary reasons cited was the cost and length of time to build out the Internet infrastructure in this country, he said.

“We went from 708 new cell sites in 2017 to over 46,000. The progress is astounding, and not only with towers but with fiber, as we built 450k miles of fiber in just one year alone.”

Spectrum auctions driving the agenda, Carr says

Optimistic on spectrum, he pointed out that at present, there is a lot of it available. “In 2017, the FCC had previously voted in a lot of higher band spectrum options.”

The work of initial prioritization was completed by us before 2017 when we moved in and noticed the lack of midband spectrum in the pipeline. We had to move fast, and we had the first auction for the midband in 2020, with frequencies ranging from 3.5 to 5.5 gigahertz.

Over the last couple of years, he said the FCC has opened that band to intensive use, pushing the midband spectrum a great deal. The future holds the need to create a spectrum calendar with a rough outline of spectrum auctions, including which bands are available for auction and when, he said. “I have already filled in that calendar.”

He said the regulator’s challenge is not with a lack of communication but with coordination.  “We need the FCC to take a step back and consider the public interest, how the agency can best achieve the federal missions and how it can best do this. Even if there are going to be disagreements, it is paramount to ensure that the American economy stays competitive.”

Looking ahead, Carr said the 5.9 gigahertz project, which last year was on trial to expand rural broadband access, would be a great beginning to prove that good leadership and compromise are possible between both parties.

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FCC

The $3.2 Billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: What’s In It, How to Get It?

Tim White

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Pool photo of FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel by Jonathan Newton

March 5, 2021 – Just shy of the 60-day deadline set by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order on February 25, detailing how the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program would work.

The $3.2 billion program was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 that passed Congress in December 2020 and is allocated to the FCC to help low-income households with broadband access during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Broadband Breakfast Live Online will focus on the program on Wednesday, March 10, 2021: “The Emergency Broadband Benefit: How Will the $3.2 Billion Program Work?

The funding will provide up to $50 per month for eligible low-income households, increased to $75 per month for those living on native tribal lands. Rather than disbursing directly to consumers, the funds will be distributed to participating broadband providers, who in turn will grant the discounted internet access to qualifying households who apply.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program is not to be confused with the Emergency Connectivity Fund currently being considered by Congress.

The Emergency  Broadband Benefit program also has a one-time reimbursement option of $100 for purchasing desktops, laptops or tablets for connecting to the internet, with a co-pay of between $10 and $50.

Households do not receive the reimbursement for buying a device separately: That is provided by the service providers through which the funding will be disbursed.

To qualify for the program, households must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Qualifies for the FCC Lifeline program
  • Is approved for the free or reduced-price school breakfast/lunch program
  • Demonstrates substantial documented loss of income since February 29, 2020
  • Received a federal Pell grant in the current award year
  • Qualifies for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 relief program, subject to FCC approval.

To receive reimbursement for services and connected devices, participating service providers must register with SAM.gov, cannot be listed on the Department of the Treasury’s “do not pay” list, and must register with the FCC to receive a registration number. Similar to the Lifeline program, the EBBP will be provided to companies who participate through the Universal Service Administrative Company.

To participate, companies are not required to be eligible telecommunications carriers through Lifeline, but must apply through an “election notice” with USAC. They must also get prior approval from the FCC before filing their notice.

The application window for service providers to apply to the program opens on Monday, March 8, 2021, and ends March 22. The program should begin approximately April 25, or 60 days after the FCC published the order.

The service provider’s broadband plan must have been in place by December 1, 2020, to receive the discounted rate.

Unlike the FCC’s Lifeline program that has been in place for several years, this new funding is temporary and set to expire, either when the $3.2 billion are exhausted or six months after the Health and Human Services secretary declares that COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency.

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