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Federal Communications Commission Seeking Black Hires, Geoffrey Starks Says

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Screenshot from the webinar

March 13, 2021 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said Wednesday that he is making recruiting from historically black colleges and universities a priority as Black Americans increasingly fall in low-income demographics.

Speaking at a Wednesday forum on combatting systemic inequality before the Internet Innovation Alliance, Starks said there are a number of technical jobs, including engineering and legal, at the FCC.

In order to alleviate financial strain – and to tackle the problem of low-income Black Americans from taking on free internships for experience — Starks said he restarted paid internships at the agency to make sure that Blacks can both work and get the training they need.

“I’ll never forget that I sat down with a single mother of three,” Starks said as he recounted a story of him visiting the historic Selma, Alabama, community where he met a single mother of three children.

The mother shared with him her gratitude for broadband as it helped her complete assignments that eventually led her to get an online degree. Her children were also able to finish their homework safe at home instead of wandering the streets alone trying to find a Wi-Fi connection like others did, he said.

Starks also said that bold advocacy for reliable and affordable broadband in low-income communities, particularly for Black, Latino, and tribal households.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly reminded people of the shared commonality in healthcare, economic, and education opportunities. With no adequate broadband, such opportunities could be dashed.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a supplement to Lifeline, is now the only program now designed to connect low-income individuals, said Starks. He said it will obviously “lift the boats of a number of people of color.”

While many people suffer in the digital divide, Starks said that those same people likely also suffer from food insecurity and may be on the government’s supplemental nutrition program. In passing the Emergency Broadband Benefit, Congress has specifically targeted food and digital support to ensure children’s daily needs and digital needs are being met, he said.

Starks also recounted meeting Willie Brewster, a principal from the Brenda Scott Academy in Detroit, Michigan – a school where more than 88 percent of the students there are Black. Among all students, 80 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Regarding historically black colleges and universities, Starks said he believed they need to have tools to continue shaping the leaders of tomorrow. “It is HBCU students, faculty, and alumni who continue to push for justice,” he said. According to the commissioner, 75 percent of students at such universities qualify for Pell grants, fulfilling a requirement making them eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

The discussion concluded with a lightning round “getting to know you” questions. When asked whether he prefers self-driving or flying cars, Starks replied, “a flying car is two deviations away from what I know.” He sided with self-driving cars.

He also prefers a phone to a tablet, and his favorite superhero is Black Panther.

Born in China and adopted to American Fork, Utah, Reporter Derek Shumway graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's degree in political science and a minor in international strategy and diplomacy. At college, he started an LED lightbulb company. word

Lifeline

FCC Launches Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is designed to help economically disadvantaged households get reliable broadband at a subsidized rate.

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May 12, 2021—Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced the official roll out of the Emergency Broadband Benefit to close the digital divide and address the homework gap facing students.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit kicked off Wednesday and is the nation’s largest broadband subsidy program to ever be enacted. The benefit is slated to last until the $3.2 billion allocated for the benefit runs out. 6.5 million Pell Grant recipients alone would qualify for the program, in addition to every household with students who qualify free school breakfast and lunch program.

The fund would provide $50 a month to qualified households and $75 a month for households on tribal land, in addition to a one-time reimbursement of $100 towards securing a laptop or tablet that can access broadband.

More than 824 broadband providers have committed to participating in the benefit. “We’re going to have a lot of competition,” Rosenworcel said. “That will allow households to choose the services that work for them.”

Additionally, Rosenworcel added that as many as 17 million students do not have broadband access at home. “These are the students who sit in fast food restaurants and do their homework with a side of fries,” she said. “These students are disproportionately black, Latino, and American Indian or Alaskan native, but you’re going to find them in every community in this country—rural and urban alike.”

She stated that connecting these students will be a crucial step in addressing the homework gap, and more broadly, the digital divide.

“This program, any successor program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund—they are all designed to help us reach that goal,” Rosenworcel concluded. “It is my hope that we do not stop until we reach 100 percent of our nation.”

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Expert Opinion

Matthew Johnson: Digital Divide Solution is Right Here with Lifeline. Why is No One Paying Attention?

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The author of this Expert Opinion Matthew Johnson, co-founder and co-CEO of TruConnect

Over the past year, COVID-19 has upended lives and livelihoods and revealed the troubling breadth and scope of the digital divide. Despite the positive turn the pandemic is taking, millions remain unemployed and struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. They cannot afford basic broadband to apply for jobs, participate in telemedicine, and complete schoolwork and are consequently trapped in a Catch-22 situation where the lack of internet keeps them locked in their current economic state.

The good news is that a solution already exists. Back in the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration conceived the federal Lifeline program to bring subsidized phones into every household. Since then, the program has evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

Today, 33.5 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized – even free – cell phones and internet access courtesy of Lifeline. The problem is that almost 80 percent are not getting them. Why?

Fundamental Lack of Awareness

Over the past four decades, the Federal Communications Commission and Congress have slowly chipped away at Lifeline’s budget, regurgitating the now-common “waste, fraud, and abuse” refrain. Most of those concerns from over five years ago have been remedied; however, the program continues to be overly politicized.

The result is that government agencies at state and federal levels have dedicated scant resources to educate the public about this lifesaving benefit – and COVID-19 has exposed the ramifications of that neglect in the form of abysmal enrollment numbers at a time when they should be record-breaking.

According to our data, Lifeline enrollment is particularly egregious in predominantly non-urban states such as Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and New Hampshire. This is not surprising considering that the U.S. has invested very little in rural internet infrastructure over the past two decades.

What is alarming is that states with the best enrollment numbers do not fare much better. Oklahoma – the state that boasts the highest Lifeline sign-ups – barely breaks 40 percent, and the next best three states – Louisiana, Alaska, and Maryland – hover at only 30 percent registration.

Compounding the situation, overzealous and opaque advertising rules by Big Tech entities like Google block eligible Lifeline service providers from reaching low-income users. Meant to protect vulnerable Americans, these ad policies, while well-intentioned, actually further exclude and alienate them from participating in programs designed to rescue them from their economic situations.

Costs to Low-Income Americans

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 80 percent of low-income Americans cannot afford smartphones, computers, and home broadband services together. Nearly half do not have home internet or a computer, and roughly 30 percent do not own a smartphone. When faced with a choice, many opt for mobile devices because it allows them to seek employment, connect virtually with healthcare providers, research government services – like Lifeline, ironically enough – and engage in remote learning.

On the subject of Zoom schooling, the pandemic has laid bare another facet of the digital divide: the homework gap. Nearly 50 million students were forced to go online when the country went under lockdown a year ago. Approximately 20 percent lack home internet and are, thus, unable to consistently complete homework assignments. Many find themselves piggybacking off free WIFI from fast food joints and school footsteps, and approximately 45 percent entirely rely on cellphones to attend classes and complete assignments.

We should not be putting our children in danger amid a public health crisis, especially when the remedy is an already existing program that allows them to use free mobile devices as hotspots that connects devices to the internet from the comfort and safety of home.

Opportunity to Correct the Course

First and foremost, the government at every level needs to go where those who need help most are: churches and grocery stores as well as trusted community centers like libraries, housing authorities, and schools. They must also take advantage of in-person sign-up events to cross-promote Lifeline alongside other benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid.

Importantly, agencies should work hand-in-hand with a spectrum of Lifeline stakeholders – from philanthropies and nonprofits to healthcare providers, social workers, and internet service providers – to deliver clear and straightforward information about the federal program.

Finally, agencies should send eligible participants periodic email notifications with information about Lifeline accompanied by links to local service providers. As government entities, they can bypass the Big Tech ad policies that hinder Lifeline providers from spreading the word about the program.

For far too long, the chasm dividing the internet haves and have-nots has widened to the point of absurdity. Right now, we have a golden opportunity – and an already existing antidote – to bridge the digital divide. Let’s finally take it.

Matthew Johnson is a co-founder, board member, and co-CEO of TruConnect, the fourth largest wireless Lifeline company in the United States. He is also a member of Young Presidents Organization and a two time finalist for E&Y’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Lifeline

Strong Demand for Emergency Broadband Benefit Means All Funds Will Be Spent

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March 15, 2021 – Demand for the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program of is likely to strong, said Jodie Griffin, deputy division chief in the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau at, said during Wednesday’s Broadband Breakfast Live event.

Griffin said she saw the program’s funds being spent in one of two ways: First, by six months after the Secretary of Health and Human Services declares the COVID-19 pandemic over. Alternatively, when all $3.2 billion of the funds appropriated by Congress have been spent. Griffin said she saw the latter reason being the likely path of the program’s future.

The program’s outreach to all broadband providers — who will receive a reimbursement for providing $50 and $75 subsidies and a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a device – was praised by Griffin and other panel experts during the Broadband Breakfast Live Online event.

Brian Hurley, vice president of regulatory affairs at America’s Communications Association, said Congress made a wise decision in allowing all providers to participate, including providers that don’t carry telecommunications carrier status, so that the funds reach the largest number of Americans.

The FCC adopted rules for the program in late February and plans to launch the program 60 days after that, which lands somewhere in late April.

The EBB is a continuation and replenishment of funds at a higher level of support than has traditionally been available through the Lifeline program.

On February 24, the FCC released a waiver that would allow additional time for low-income consumers to continue having access to needed communications services for telemedicine, telework, and online learning during the ongoing COVID-10 health emergency. It is important to note that the existing waiver for subscriber usage requirements will only be extended through May 1, 2021.

Providers accessing the Universal Service Administrative Company’s National Lifeline Accountability Database can now reference the recertification reports in NLAD for the latest information on their subscribers’ recertification status. The NLAD database “allows service providers to check on a real-time, nationwide basis whether a consumer is already receiving a Lifeline Program-supported service,” according to USAC.

Also speaking at the event were Marijke Visser, senior policy advocate at the American Library Association, and Reggie Smith, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association. Visser said universal access to affordable broadband is as essential as electricity. Smith said that addressing the digital divide has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that USDLA aimed to provide the tools to help overcome that gap.

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place every Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the March 10, 2021, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021, 12 Noon ET — “The Emergency Broadband Benefit: What’s Included, and How Will the $3.2 Billion Program Work?”

  • In record time, on February 25, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission rolled out details behind the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which provides discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband services, or $75 a month for those on tribal lands. How does the $3.2 billion federal initiative work? How will it help those at risk of digital disconnection? In this special breaking Broadband Breakfast Live Online, our panelists will explore the program and how it will make a difference.

Panelists:

  • Dr. Reggie Smith III, CEO of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA)
  • Marijke Visser, Senior Policy Advocate at the American Library Association (ALA)
  • Brian Hurley, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, America’s Communications Association (ACA Connects)
  • Jodie Griffin, Deputy Division Chief of the Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau at the FCC
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Dr. Reggie Smith III currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA). In this current capacity, he provides leadership to the association, members, and partners. The USDLA is a 501(c) 3 non-profit association that promotes the development and application of distance learning for education and training and serves the needs of the distance learning community by providing advocacy, information, networking, and opportunity.

Marijke Visser is Senior Policy Advocate at the American Library Association’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office in Washington, D.C. Her portfolio includes issues related to youth and technology as well as telecommunications policy and equitable access to information. Her advocacy raises federal decision-makers’ awareness of the role of libraries in education, employment and entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and individual empowerment. She leads ALA’s work on the federal E-rate program which ensures public libraries have access to high-capacity broadband. Most recently Ms. Vissir has lead two initiatives for preparing the workforce and supporting small businesses through libraries with a focus on equity of opportunity.

Brian Hurley serves as Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for ACA Connects — America’s Communications Association (ACA Connects). Before joining ACA Connects in 2018, he served as Special Counsel in the Competition Policy Division of the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from DePauw University and Juris Doctor degree from Duke University.

Jodie Griffin is a Deputy Division Chief in the Telecommunications Access Policy Division in the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau, where she leads the Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit Program teams. Prior to joining the FCC, Jodie was a Senior Staff Attorney for Public Knowledge, where she advocated for consumers on telecommunications and copyright issues.

Panelist Resources

WATCH HERE, or on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.

SUBSCRIBE to the Broadband Breakfast YouTube channel. That way, you will be notified when events go live. Watch on YouTubeTwitter and Facebook

See a complete list of upcoming and past Broadband Breakfast Live Online events.

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