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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to Step Down on Inauguration Day, Saying ‘It’s Time for a New Adventure’

Jericho Casper

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Screenshot of Ajit Pai at the Columbia University Federalist Society event

November 30, 2020 — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday announced today that he would step down from his current role when President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve at the Federal Communications Commission,” said Pai of his eight years working at the United States’ telecommunications regulatory agency, in a statement issued Monday morning.

See what industry groups have to say about “Broadband in a Biden Administration” on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, during Broadband Breakfast Live Online

Pai was appointed to the FCC as a commissioner in 2012 by President Barack Obama and was promoted to chairman in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

The soon-to-be former chairman made an appearance in a webinar hosted by Columbia Law School’s Federalist Society on Monday, during which he expanded on his written notice and his time spent at the FCC.

Pai noted the tumultuous political environment he was thrust into, detailing what it was like to serve under two very different presidential administrations.

“With the exception of a few high profile matters, the FCC has been immune from the political partisanship” that effects other spheres of government, said Pai, who stood by his 2017 decision to repeal net neutrality, claiming that a market-based framework serves consumers best.

According to Pai, the day-to-day tasks of the agency have remained largely the same through fluctuations in government.“ The bread-and-butter work that we do has generally not been something that is politically affiliated,” said Pai, adding that the progress the agency has made on bipartisan matters is what he is happiest to consider a part of his legacy.

Pai touts his work on the digital divide

Pai said he was most proud of the agency’s efforts to close the digital divide, expressing it was the number one way he felt he impacted society. He recalled connecting tribal lands in the middle of a low-income region of Wyoming to high-speed gigabit broadband service.

Pai noted that under his leadership the United States set consecutive records for new fiber deployment in 2018 and 2019, with the number of homes passed by fiber increasing by 5.9 million, and then by 6.5 million the following year.

Spectrum auction accelerated

He further recalled that the agency has held five successful spectrum auctions in the past four years, after only holding one in the four years Pai served as a commissioner under the Obama administration.

Pai recognized that the work he and his fellow commissioners did to designate ’988’ as the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. He also touted his efforts to ensure that rates for interstate and international phone calls are reasonable for incarcerated individuals, will be some of his most impactful.

Pai recognized a change in the communications landscape over the course of his career at the FCC, adding that he believes communications regulation must change to meet the moment.

Social media enters the FCC maelstrom

As the first member of the FCC on Twitter in 2012, Pai watched social media sites develop into what they have become today, recalling that in 2012, “no one could criticize social media corporations.”

Yet today there is bipartisan recognition that change is needed. Pai said “it will be interesting to see what Congress will do to regulate big tech.”

Pai detailed the personal thought process behind his October statement on Section 230, which claimed that the FCC does have the legal authority to interpret the terms of Section 230, saying that “there is currently no transparency about how social media companies are making decisions when it comes to content regulation.”

Pai said “the rule making would have allowed the FCC to question broader things, like what it means for social media sites to regulate sites in terms of ‘good faith.’”

Pai offered advice to his successor, whomever it might be, urging that the future FCC chair make efforts to spend time with the FCC’s staff.

“I’m proud to say I’ve done that, and it enabled us to work better as a unit,” said Pai, who referred to the FCC’s staff as the agency’s best asset.

As for what lies ahead, Pai said he is still considering his options and “taking time to think about it.”

“It’s been a great run but it’s time for a new adventure,” said Pai, who joked about potentially replacing Judge Judy or becoming a slot receiver for Kansas City Chiefs.

Plaudits received from industry groups

“Throughout his tenure, and never more so than during these challenging days of the pandemic, Chairman Pai has prioritized bridging the digital divide and connecting all Americans everywhere to 21st century communications networks,” said Jonathan Spalter, US Telecom CEO. “Our nation’s broadband providers who invest in innovation, dig the trenches, pull the fiber, and climb the poles share that commitment.”

“We commend Chairman Pai for his exceptional stewardship of the Federal Communications Commission,” said NCTA CEO Michael Powell, himself a former FCC chairman. “He set a clear vision for his tenure and the industry and pursued it with purpose, transparency, scholarly rigor and courage.

“During his time as chairman he frequently faced overheated criticism and personal attacks that have become sadly common in the sphere of policymaking,” said Powell of NCTA, which also goes by the name of Internet and Television Association. “During his tenure, Chairman Pai pushed for policies that spurred investment and innovation in our nation’s communications networks while also expanding the benefits of broadband to all Americans.”

“Chairman Pai has been a huge champion of the fixed wireless industry, with his FCC’s tireless efforts to identify, free-up and share spectrum that would otherwise have gone fallow,” said Claude Aiken, CEO of the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association. “He helped keep regulation low, and worked to remove other related burdens, which was especially helpful for our small WISP members.  And his dedication to reducing the digital divide, in particular in rural America, is without parallel.” 

See what industry groups have to say about “Broadband in a Biden Administration” on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, during Broadband Breakfast Live Online

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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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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