WASHINGTON, December 14, 2021 – Local government advisors are concerned by delays in the confirmation process of Gigi Sohn, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the Federal Communications Commission, and what those delays will mean for broadband services in local communities.
At the moment, there are reportedly not enough votes from Democrats to confirm Sohn.
The panel of local advisors at a National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors on Monday said the FCC would likely remain split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans until at least February, when the panel says Sohn’s confirmation will probably pass the Senate.
Such a split would prevent the agency from making some major decisions that would ramp up programs to expand broadband access for Americans. For this reason, several civil society groups have asked the Senate for a swift confirmation process of Biden’s nominees.
The panel also said that Biden’s nominee to head the National Telecommunications and Information Association, Alan Davidson, will likely be reported favorably out of committee.
Logistical problems for the Affordable Connectivity Program
Panelists also spent significant time discussing what current regulatory agency efforts mean for connectivity.
The panel critiqued the FCC’s transition from the Emergency Broadband Benefit to the Affordable Connectivity Program provided for by the newly-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to continue providing students with internet access for e-learning. The program provides monthly subsidies for connectivity and devices for eligible students.
This transition is planned to take place with the start of the 2022 new year, and the agency is fielding comments on how to transition.
The panel stated that because this transition takes place during the school year, it has the potential to strand students without connectivity services. Panelists noted that they have been trying to communicate these concerns to the FCC.
The FCC recently eliminated an enrollment freeze in the EBB that was planned to take place during the transition to the ACP.
FCC Announces Largest Approval Yet for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund: $1 Billion
The agency said Thursday it has approved $1 billion to 69 providers in 32 states.
WASHINGTON, December 16, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced its largest approval yet from the $9.2-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, greenlighting on Thursday $1 billion from a reverse auction process that ended with award announcements in December but that the new-look agency has been scrutinizing in recent months.
The agency said in a press release that this fifth round of approvals includes 69 providers who are expected to serve 518,000 locations in 32 states over 10 years. Its previous round approved $700 million worth of applications to cover 26 states. Previous rounds approved $554 million for broadband in 19 states, $311 million in 36 states, and $163 million in 21 states.
The agency still has some way to approve the entirety of the fund, as it’s asked providers that were previously awarded RDOF money in December to revisit their applications to see if the areas they have bid for are not already served. So far, a growing list have defaulted on their respective areas, some saying it was newer FCC maps that showed them what they didn’t previously know. The agency said Thursday that about 5,000 census blocks have been cleared as a result of that process.
The FCC also said Thursday it saved $350 million from winning bidders that have either failed to get state certification or didn’t follow through on their applications. In one winning bidder’s case, the FCC said Thursday Hotwire violated the application rules by changing its ownership structure.
“This latest round of funding will open up even more opportunities to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband service,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Today’s actions reflect the hard work we’ve put in over the past year to ensure that applicants meet their obligations and follow our rules. With thoughtful oversight, this program can direct funding to areas that need broadband and to providers who are qualified to do the job.”
FCC Takes Stock of Telehealth Successes, But Acknowledges a Long Way to Go at Agency Event
Procedural hurdles lie ahead for the commission’s telehealth efforts.
WASHINGTON, December 6, 2021 – Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr and several leaders in healthcare said Monday the agency’s efforts to expand telehealth programs for Americans face procedural hurdles before Congress.
The cost of government telehealth expansion efforts is among key factors that create congressional hesitance to rubber stamp the FCC’s telehealth initiatives.
During panel discussions moderated by Carr at a commission event on Monday, experts also remarked that the commission’s efforts would require a good deal of regulatory flexibility that many members of Congress may not be willing to grant it.
Panel guest Deanna Larson, CEO of virtual health network Avera eCARE, testified before the Senate on the matter in October, urging Congress to extend or make permanent its regulatory flexibility toward telehealth.
The panels also spent time discussing the substantial success the FCC has had in expanding telehealth over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts emphasized accomplishments such as the employment of remote monitoring devices by physicians to physically examine patients when they cannot come into the office.
The panel stated that the move from fully in-person healthcare to telehealth can be compared to the significance of the move from “Blockbuster to Netflix,” referencing the at-home experience of the streaming platform.
Senate Committee OK’s Rosenworcel, Questions Sohn on Mapping, Net Neutrality, Broadband Standards
Gigi Sohn explained her positions on issues facing the FCC.
WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – As the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, it also questioned Wednesday agency nominee Gigi Sohn on issues including net neutrality, broadband mapping, and speeds.
Rosenworcel is already chairwoman of the FCC by virtue of being named to the position by President Joe Biden. The president picks the chair of the agency from among the commissioners. However, Rosenworcel’s term as commissioner is to expire unless the Senate confirms her appointment to another term.
The committee on Wednesday also approved Alvaro Bedoya, a staunch privacy advocate, as commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission and had rounds at questioning Alan Davidson, who was nominated as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which will oversee $42.5 billion in broadband funds from the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
On mapping, Sohn called for a “crowdsourcing” effort amongst states to improve the quality of broadband mapping, as the agency has started to do. “A lot of states have maps already and they are quite accurate,” she said. Though she could not commit to a timeline, Sohn said that there could be no “good policy without good maps” and that if she were confirmed, she would dedicate herself to improve the FCC’s broadband maps.
Sohn also voiced her support for municipal broadband. “I have supported municipal broadband for a very long time,” she said, adding she supports open access models that allow service providers to share the same network. Sohn pointed to Utah as an example, where the model has been implemented successfully. She stated that the model has led to “enormous competition” for service providers.
When pressed as to whether the FCC should be able to preempt states and dictate how they implement their broadband policy, Sohn said she would like the FCC to have a better relationship with states. “If I am confirmed, one of the things I would ask the chairwoman [to use me as] a liaison to the states, because I’ve really formed very good relationships with them,” she said. “In the past, we have not [reached out] to the states and made them partners. We have been more adversarial.”
Net neutrality, broadband standards and Big Tech
Sohn also came out in support of net neutrality. “What I am concerned about now, with the repeal in 2017 of the net neutrality rules and the reclassification of broadband, is that we have no touch,” she said. “[Net neutrality] is really much broader than [preventing] blocking and throttling. It is about whether or not bandwidth – which we all agree is an essential service – should have government oversight, and right now, it does not.”
Legislators also questioned Sohn on her perspectives regarding broadband standards. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Sohn what standard – whether it was 100 Mbps download with 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical service – would bridge the digital divide. Sohn stated that it would take more than just the deployment of infrastructure to bridge the digital divide.
“I have urged that Congress adopt a permanent broadband subsidy like the Affordable Connectivity Program – which is more money but is not permanent,” Sohn said. “You still always have the adoption problem as well, where people do not have the digital literacy, sometimes not even [actual] literacy, to be able to use the internet.”
Insofar that capacity and internet speeds are concerned, Sohn emphasized that the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act “does prefer scalable networks to meet the needs of tomorrow.”
“What we do not want, I would think – or I would not want – is to come back in five or ten years and say, ‘Oh, my goodness! We spent all this money, and we still have slow networks, and we still have areas that are not served,” she said. “The ability to have technologies that can grow over time.” Sohn stopped short of explicitly listing specific scalable technologies.
On Big Tech, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, described “a confluence of liberals advocating for censoring anyone with whom they disagree,” and a situation where “big tech [is] eagerly taking up the mantle to censor those with whom they disagree.” Cruz asked Sohn how she could guarantee she would not “use the power of government to silence.”
Sohn said that she would “make that commitment” to not act in such a way and added that she would “take any allegations of bias extremely seriously.” She said that she will continue to work with the Office of Government Ethics to dissuade any concerns people may have about her biases.
A date for a vote on Sohn and Davidson’s nominations has not yet been scheduled.
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