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Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Weighting System Favors Low Latency Technology

Jericho Casper

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Photo of Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel by ITU Pictures used with permission

June 9, 2020 — The Federal Communications Commission adopted procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, or Auction 904, at their open meeting Tuesday.

The auction, scheduled to begin October 29, will award up to $16 billion in federal support to existing and prospective broadband providers over the course of 10 years, for the development of broadband networks to unserved areas across rural America.

The most significant change in bidding procedures for Auction 904 is the change in bid assignment rules. The agency settled on a weighted system that will favor bids which provide higher speed, or lower latency, service.

The RDOF grants define four performance tiers Internet Service Providers can fall into, in order to rank them by latency. For the Phase 1 auction, a new “baseline” tier of 50/5 Mbps was added.

Providers’ success in the auction relies on their ability to deploy lasting, low latency networks at the lowest possible price.

ISPs seeking bids are tasked with identifying and utilizing optimal building strategies and cost-effective low latency technology, as efficient network construction will ensure their applications are well positioned to benefit from available funds.

The new Phase I procedures will likely impact the type of internet infrastructure technology ISPs choose to deploy, as they hope to increase their chances of securing funding.

For example, satellite-based services have been adversely impacted by the agencies’ weighting system. Initially, it was questioned whether satellite services would even be allowed to bid to provide low-latency service, as providers do not have a track record of delivering advertised speeds.

Fiber infrastructure is extremely high speed, but its utilization will be affected by its high deployment costs. In order to secure funding, it will be necessary for fiber ISPs to strategize with possible partners to drive down the overall infrastructure costs, preserving their competitiveness for bids.

Fixed wireless providers have an advantage in securing federal funding. They hold the potential to deliver rapidly built, robust, and cost-effective high-speed broadband networks to unserved areas.

The American Communications Association and the Rural Broadband Association expressed their support for the effective use of government funding with the adoption of Phase I at the commission meeting.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented in part to the auction rules, arguing that the commission should have acted sooner to correct known issues with broadband mapping data. Further, she objected to a rule that prevents recipients of state-level broadband funding from participating in the RDOF auction.

The $16 billion Phase I budget will likely exceed any other federal broadband funding program for the next decade.

Phase II of RDOF will award $4.4 billion for census blocks considered partially served, based on data to be collected through a new process that aims to be more accurate than the agency’s past mapping. The commission will reconsider which technologies are categorically prohibited from bidding in the second phase of the auction.

Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

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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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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FCC

What You Need To Know About the More-Than-$7 Billion Emergency Connectivity Fund

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Kamala Harris proceeding to break the deadline on coronavirus relief deliberations from the Los Angeles Times

March 5, 2021 – The Senate on Thursday voted to begin debate on the $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is part of the House-passed $1.9-trillion coronavirus stimulus bill.

Most of the 591-page bill adheres closely to what President Biden called for in his relief proposal in January 2021, as reported by CNN. The $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund includes funds for internet service, hot spots, and other devices to use at home. The larger coronavirus bill includes new rounds of stimulus checks, unemployment assistance, and healthcare support.

This comes after a coalition of education advocates in January 2021 petitioned the FCC to add in a provision for emergency E-rate funding. On Feb. 9, 2021, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., announced the provision as part of the committee’s legislative recommendations for the COVID budget reconciliation legislation. The Federal Communications Commission would be tasked with implementing the $7.6-billion fund.

The potential fund of more than $7 billion fund in this Emergency Connectivity Fund is not to be confused with the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, a new pot of broadband money allocated by the consolidated appropriations bill passed in December 2021.

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

The magnitude of the pandemic has sent schools scrambling to connect students to virtual learning. The Emergency Connectivity Fund would help connect some more than 15 million children and as many as 400,000 teachers, according to Common Sense and Boston Consulting Group.

But passage of the additional more-than-$7 billion in funding is not assured. Even to begin debate on the broader coronavirus relief package, Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast a tie-breaking vote because the Senate is even split with 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats and 50 Republicans.

Major tech priorities included in an earlier Senate draft of the bill appear unchanged in the official version of the bill introduced to the Senate yesterday. Funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund is part of larger funding for the Technology Modernization Fund, as well as for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other proposals.

President Biden originally proposed $10.2 billion of funding for the modernization fund and cybersecurity, but the Senate’s version includes just $1 billion. Additional, the Senate’s version includes  $7.17 billion for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which was reduced by more than $400 million from the original $7.6 billion proposed figure.

Still, the fund represents the a very large tech investment to support broadband capabilities and remote learning in schools.

As Broadband Breakfast noted on Monday, the Emergency Connectivity Fund, previously signed into law in December 2020, secured $3.2 billion to expand broadband coverage to underserved communities and households in need. This internet service discounts of up to $50 per month for eligible consumers and up to $75 per month for those on tribal lands. Additional discounts on a computer or laptop device are also included.

As reported by MeriTalk, getting the Senate to bring its version of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill to a vote later this week is imperative, as both chambers are pushing to get the bill signed into law before March 14, when some unemployment assistance programs will expire.

Presuming the Senate passes its version of the bill, it goes back to the House for a vote and then onto the White House for President Biden’s final signature.

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