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Eighty Civil Society Groups Ask for Swift Confirmation of FCC, NTIA Nominees

The groups sent a letter emphasizing the need for internet access expansion ahead of Wednesday confirmation hearings.

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Photo of Alan Davidson from New America

WASHINGTON, November 16, 2021 – Eighty civil-society groups have penned a letter to Senate leadership requesting a swift confirmation process for President Joe Biden’s nominees to the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Groups representing interests spanning civil rights, media justice, community media, workers’ rights and consumer advocacy highlighted to Senate leadership the need for the agencies to shepherd internet access expansion on the heels of newly signed bipartisan infrastructure legislation.

Biden last month nominated Jessica Rosenworcel as chairwoman and Gigi Sohn as a commissioner of the FCC, as well as Alan Davidson for director of the NTIA. Rosenworcel and Sohn’s confirmations would make a full slate of commissioners at the FCC, ending the potential for 2-2 deadlocks.

Key Senate Republicans have since expressed concern over the nomination of Sohn, citing her liberal views on communications policy.

Signees of the letter emphasized that an ongoing global pandemic and “worsening climate crisis” raise the stakes for FCC and NTIA action, and that connectivity access issues are even further exacerbated among poor families and people of color.

Organizations on the letter included the American Library Association, Color of Change, the Communications Workers of America, Greenpeace USA and the Mozilla Foundation, among others.

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for Rosenworcel on Wednesday.

Reporter T.J. York received his degree in political science from the University of Southern California. He has experience working for elected officials and in campaign research. He is interested in the effects of politics in the tech sector.

FCC

FCC Eliminates Emergency Broadband Benefit Enrollment Freeze

The commission says an enrollment freeze is no longer necessary as the Infrastructure Act’s Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect.

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FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it is axing rules requiring a freeze on enrollment at the initial end of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

That’s because the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law two weeks ago, extends the program indefinitely and rebrands it to the Affordable Connectivity Program. The FCC is currently gathering comments on how it should manage the transition to the new program.

The freeze was initially planned to avoid claims volatility and to allow for more certain financial projections in the EBB’s final months when funds were running low. Based on current budget projections, there is no longer concern that the EBB will run out of funding before the Affordable Connectivity Program takes effect, the FCC said.

In its announcement on Friday, the FCC also waived requirements for customer notice on the end of the EBB, which mandated 15- and 30-day consumer notices.

These mandates were eliminated to prevent any alarm or confusion over the EBB Program ending, as consumers will continue to receive service for 60 days following the program’s end due to provisions of the IIJA.

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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

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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