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Biden Appoints Jessica Rosenworcel as Acting FCC Chair

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, by Pete Marovich

January 22, 2021—President Joe Biden appointed Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel to be the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission Thursday afternoon, making the lawyer hailing from West Hartford, Connecticut, the second woman to be appointed to that role in the commission’s 96-year history.

Rosenworcel became an FCC commissioner in 2012. She served in a Democratic majority during the Obama administration and in a Democratic minority during Donald Trump’s term.

“I am honored to be designated as the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden,” Chairwoman Rosenworcel said in a statement released Thursday. “I thank the President for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age.”

Rosenworcel—known for terming the “Homework Gap”— has been a consistent champion for connecting all Americans to reliable communications infrastructure. She coined the term in 2014 to describe a problem facing communities where schoolchildren can’t access the internet because infrastructure is inadequate, their families can’t afford it, or both.

As a commissioner, Rosenworcel has further supported net neutrality rules, common-carrier regulation of broadband providers, and pushed for increasing the FCC’s broadband-speed standard.

As the president’s choice to lead the agency, one of Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s first actions will likely be to reinstate net neutrality regulations, which received overwhelming bipartisan public support before the agency withdrew them, under Trump.

Over 22 million comments were submitted to the agency in response to the proposed removal of the internet traffic regulations, which declare internet service providers cannot block, throttle, or be paid to prioritize certain sites. “Let’s roar. Let’s make a ruckus. Let’s stop this plan in its tracks,” she tweeted in 2017, when former Republican Chairman Ajit Pai released his plan to rescind the net neutrality rules.

Designating Rosenworcel as the acting chairwoman means that she may not be the chair throughout Biden’s four-year term. Biden could upgrade her role to chairwoman on a permanent basis, or he could give the chair role to whomever he picks as the fifth commissioner.

With Pai having left the FCC yesterday, there is currently a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans. To form a 3-2 Democratic majority, Biden will have to nominate a new commissioner and secure confirmation from the Senate, which shouldn’t be difficult now that Democrats control the chamber.

Former 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. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

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 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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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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