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A New Broadband Policy Agenda for Schools, Health and Library ‘Anchor Institutions’

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Photo of students using computers at the Howard-Tilton Library of Tulane University, used with permission from Tulane Public Relations.

January 22, 2021—The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition released its 2021 Policy Roadmap on Thursday—an agenda to promote open, affordable, high-quality broadband to anchor institutions—as these establishments are key to connecting the estimated 42 million Americans without internet access today. The report, released one day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, makes nine broadband policy recommendations to the incoming administration.

Many at the SHLB Coalition see the presidential transition as a new opportunity to close existing broadband gaps, including Executive Director John Windhausen, who said “the Biden Administration gives us all a fresh opportunity to rectify the inequities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, especially the ever-present digital divide.”

In an interview with Broadband Breakfast, SHLB’s Communications Manager Alicja Johnson said SHLB and its strong community of allies share the same broadband goal: to make it far easier to enact change in broadband policy, at a time when all require its use.

The SHLB Coalition recognizes nine top priorities in the 2021 report. “Of the nine SHLB initiatives, each one feeds into the other,” said Johnson. “All are connected by the realization that people are increasingly aware of the need for broadband,” she added.

Underlying each recommendation is the need for reliable broadband “to-and-through” Community Anchor Institutions: nonprofit community organizations, such as schools, libraries, hospitals, community centers, higher education institutions, public housing facilities, and more, which facilitate greater use of broadband by vulnerable populations.

SHLB recommends the Biden administration consider policy to increase affordable residential broadband and adoption through CAIs, develop more accurate broadband maps that include CAIs, strengthen and broaden the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate Program, increase funding for and streamline operations of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program, include higher education institutions in broadband access initiatives, reform the Universal Service Fund contribution mechanism, promote greater spectrum availability for CAIs, streamline pole attachments and rights-of-way access, and fund broadband infrastructure deployment “to-and-through” CAIs to residential consumers.

The SHLB Coalition report recognizes broadband as key to education

In point three of the nine initiatives, which calls for strengthening the FCC’s E-Rate Program, the SHLB Coalition urges the agency to practice making more accurate funding decisions.

School districts need ways to extend broadband to their students, including Wi-Fi and broadband capabilities on school buses backed with strong security to prevent cyberattacks. In the report, SHLB recommends allowing E-Rate funding to cover fiber broadband to help bridge connection gaps between students’ homes and schools.

Farmington Municipal Schools, a large public school district in northern New Mexico, has successfully deployed a Kajeet broadband system on its now Wi-Fi-equipped school buses. Many students in Farmington come from rural, farming families. Being able to work on homework on the school bus has allowed students to spend more time with family, helping around the home in the evenings.

SHLB’s report recognizes that it’s not just K-12 students who need broadband. Higher education institutions contain many students who have inadequate or no access to broadband beyond the college campus.

When the pandemic caused school campuses to shut down, many students had to stay in their apartments with nowhere else to go. College students often lack the money needed to pay for internet beyond standard utilities and depend heavily on campus-strength broadband.

Sometimes up to eight college students are cooped inside one small apartment unit. When considering the bandwidth requirements across an entire student housing unit, it is easy to see why broadband is such a basic need.

In priority five, SHLB states broadband policy should prioritize the inclusion of higher education institutions in broadband access initiatives, and that the Coalition wants to work with policymakers to implement COVID-19 relief legislation that provides funding to connect recipients of Pell grants and minority-serving institutions and their surrounding communities to broadband.

The Connecting Minority Communities Act, introduced by Senator Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and Senator Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, would create a pilot program to provide grants to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-serving Institutions, and other Minority Serving Institutions, to expand access to broadband and digital opportunity in their communities.

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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