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Republican Congressmen Criticize NTIA, FCC Absence at Farm Bill Hearing

‘Their absence is noted, and it illustrates their indifference towards the needs of rural Americans and our rural communities.’

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Photo of Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, obtained from House.gov

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2022 – Two Republican congressmen criticized the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission for their absence at Thursday’s Agriculture committee hearing on the dispersal process for federal broadband funds.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., said that the NTIA and FCC were invited to testify before the committee but declined. “Their absence is noted, and it illustrates their indifference towards the needs of rural Americans and our rural communities,” said Thompson. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Georgia, also panned the NTIA and the FCC for failing to appear.

“The question is: Are they dodging coming here today because they don’t want to be accountable for their flawed record?” Thompson told Broadband Breakfast, adding a Republican-controlled Congress may be more aggressive in its oversight of the two agencies. The midterm elections are in November.  

“If given the opportunity to chair this committee…should that happen, the next time we ask them to come here it will be with a subpoena,” Thompson said. “We’ll put some teeth behind it.”

In addition, Thompson said during the hearing that the United States Department of Agriculture – which runs the ReConnect broadband program – is the best-suited agency to administer rural broadband deployment – not the NTIA or FCC. “I don’t have a lot of trust in NTIA or FCC. They received significant dollars back under the stimulus [act] back in 2010 and they failed to bridge the digital divide,” he said during the hearing.

“I remain disappointed that USDA was largely excluded from playing in its essential role, a role that it plays very effectively…in bringing broadband…into rural communities,” Thompson added. “It is the best situated agency to help rural providers serve their communities.”

Contacted by Broadband Breakfast, the NTIA and FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

The NTIA was allotted $42.5 billion by the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to distribute to the states for that end. The federal government has also been rolling out American Rescue Plan Act funding to the states, which are actively being used to address gaps in connectivity. 

At the hearing, Xochitl Torres Small, Agriculture’s undersecretary of Rural Development, and Chris McLean, acting administrator for the Rural Utilities Service, emphasized the importance of interagency information and best-practice sharing in mapping, funding, and network deployment efforts.

“We meet with the FCC, NTIA, and the Treasury on a biweekly basis – and frankly, regularly more often – both to establish a regular cadence of communication and to work through those sticky issues,” said Small.

Farmers need broadband

The hearing was held as the committee prepares the 2023 “farm bill,” which will be the latest in a series of agricultural investment packages that originated in the 1930s. Farm bills are often passed at five-year intervals, and exact provisions of each farm bill vary as time passes and circumstances change. The latest farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, included funding for conservation initiatives, crop subsidies, crop-insurance support, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Agriculture committee must shepherd the 2023 farm bill to President Joe Biden’s desk before the 2018 package expires in September 2023.

Garrett Hawkins, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, testified to the broadband needs of farmers. “Today’s farmers and ranchers, we use precision [agriculture] techniques to make decisions that impact everything from fertilizer to the amount of water that’s needed for our crops to the amount and type of herbicides that are applied,” Hawkins said. “These are just a few examples of how farmers are using connectivity to bump yield, improve environmental impact, and increase profitability.”

Eric Slee, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association’s vice president of government affairs, issued a statement Thursday supporting the Agriculture Committee’s work. “WISPA strongly encourages Congress to work toward a Farm Bill that among other things targets broadband funding to truly unserved locations on a tech-neutral basis, and avoids duplication of services financed by private and federal resources,” the statement said.

Spectrum

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chair Takes FCC to Task for Communication With Tribes

‘You need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities,” the chairman told the FCC.

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Screenshot of Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2022 –Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Brian Schatz on Wednesday urged the Federal Communications Commission to consult more regularly with Tribal leaders on the spectrum-licensing processes.

“Some of [the problems voiced native panelists at the roundtable] could simply be avoided by better, more aggressive, more continuous, more humble consultation, and you’re going to save yourselves a ton of headache,” said Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. “I’m wondering if you need to get a little better about talking to and listening to native communities at every step in the process.”

“Chairman, I think you put that extremely well,” responded Umair Javed, chief council for the office of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Tyler Iokepa Gomes, deputy to the chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, told the committee of difficulties faced by native Hawaiians in obtaining spectrum licenses. Since the DHHL is a state entity, not a Tribal government, Gomes said, it was forced to compete against two local, native communities in a waiver process. Gomes said that his agency’s competition with the other waiver applicants caused considerable friction in Hawaii’s native community at large.

Low digital literacy is also a problem for some native communities attempted to secure spectrum licenses. “When it comes to technology, a lot of people seem to be scared of it,” said Keith Modglin, director of information technology for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, a federally-recognized Indian Tribe.

Modglin argued that education initiatives to raise digital literacy and explain the intra- and intercommunity benefits of spectrum would benefit his band greatly.

The land of the Mille Lacs Band is a “checkerboard,” meaning that Tribal lands are interspersed with non-tribal lands, said Melanie Benjamin, the tribe’s chief executive officer. According to Benjamin, navigating government’s failure to account for this status caused substantial delays for her tribe.

In addition to improving communication, Schatz called on the FCC to take affirmative actions to ease regulatory burdens on small tribes. “There are some really under resourced native communities, and it shouldn’t be a labyrinth to figure out what they’re eligible for,” he said. “Try to figure out some one-stop shop, some simple way to access the resources that they are eligible for under current law.”

Javed acknowledged a need for the FCC improve its communication with native communities, but he said the FCC is making strides in other areas. “While spectrum is one piece of that puzzle, I think we are making a lot of progress in some of our programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, updates to the E-Rate program, some of our mapping efforts as well,” he said.

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Rural

FCC Commits Additional $800 Million From Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

The authorization comes three weeks after the commission denied funding to Starlink and LTD Broadband.

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Photo of rural area from BroadbandNow

WASHINGTON, September 1, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday it is authorizing just under $800 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund for six providers to expand broadband in over 350,000 locations in 19 states.

The six providers are NextLink Internet, California Internet L.P., Connect Everyone LLC, GigaBeam Networks LLC, Safelink Internet LLC, and Shenandoah Cable Television LLC. The states in which the winning bids will serve are Virginia, West Virginia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Louisiana, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota.

The largest amounts will go to Illinois with $212 million, Arizona with $140 million and Iowa with $130 million.

“This round of funding supports projects using a range of network technologies, including gigabit service hybrid fiber/fixed wireless deployments that will provide end-user locations with either fiber or fixed wireless network service using licensed spectrum,” the FCC said in a press release.

The announcement means the FCC has committed over $6 billion from the $9.2-billion fund, which initially announced winners under a different-look commission in December 2020, but which was scrutinized over the past year-and-a-half due to claims that the winning bids would go to areas that don’t need the connectivity promised. Under new Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC has been purging the fund of what it sees as potential wasteful spending and provided those winning bidders with opportunities to let go of those bids.

The new commitment comes three weeks after the commission denied RDOF money to two such winning providers – broadband satellite service provider Starlink and the largest winner in the reverse auction process, LTD Broadband. The former was said to have a still-developing technology with a high-cost upfront commitment, while the latter had issues with getting certification from certain states by the time it was spurned.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr challenged the denial after saying he only learned about them in a press release.

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FCC

Library and Education Technology Groups Pan FCC Proposal for New E-Rate Procurement

Responders fear that updating the E-Rate process will increase complexity for applicants.

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Photo of John Windhausen of Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2022 – Responders to the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rulemaking to force internet service providers to bid for school and library services through a new portal expressed concern that the proposal would needlessly complicate the process.

The FCC’s E-Rate program supplements schools and libraries securing affordable telecommunications and broadband services through the Universal Service Fund. Earlier this year, the FCC released a proposal that would “streamline program requirements for applicants and service providers, strengthen program integrity… and decrease the risk of fraud, waste, and abuse.”

The proposal suggests implementing a central document repository, called a bidding portal, through which internet service providers would submit bids to the program administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company, instead of directly to applicants at a state and local level. Currently, libraries and schools announce they are seeking services and service providers apply directly to those institutions.

With the adoption of this proposal, applicants would be required to submit competitive bidding documentation that would enable applicants to compare competing bids and the USAC would establish timeframes on when applicants are able to review the bids that providers submit.

The proposal is in response to a September 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office which addressed what the GAO considers the E-Rate program’s key fraud risks. It reported that E-Rate participants could easily misrepresent self-certification statements by violating competitive-bidding rules or processes. These violations could occur without the Commission’s or USAC’s knowledge because they do not have direct access to the bidding information.

The GAO suggested that allowing the USAC direct access to obtain and monitor bidding information would improve security and strengthen program controls.

Proposal widely panned by CoSN and educational technology directors

However, response to the proposal was widely negative, with commenters raising concern that changing the process would needlessly complicate a system that, according to Verizon, is already promoting fair and open bidding on E-Rate contracts.

The Consortium for School Networking, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, and the National School Boards Association claimed that the Commission’s past reliance on state and local procurement requirements has been a success and has not led to an undue amount of fraud and abuse, negating the need to update the process.

Creating a national bidding portal could also interfere with existing state and local bidding requirements and unduly complicate the bidding process, hindering E-Rate participation, said the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors in its comment to the FCC.

“A bidding portal would interfere with existing state and local bidding and procurement processes, which would likely cause significant issues for applicants and may cause some to have to drop out of the E-Rate program,” read NATOA’s report.

The establishment of a national E-rate bidding portal would be “unnecessary, burdensome and will increase the complexity of, rather than simplify the E-rate program,” agreed South Dakota’s Department of Education in its statement.

National level or local level changes

Since the FCC’s announcement in December, the proposed changes have been subject to much debate. John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, wrote in April that the E-Rate changes would be detrimental, claiming that procurement decisions are best made at the local level, rather than a “one-size-fits-all system.”

Furthermore, John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said in December that the proposal will burden applicants, despite the potential benefits of eliminating at least some forms of fraud. Windhausen claimed that there is not enough evidence to show that a new portal is needed.

However, the proposal has not been universally dismissed. In a comment filed last week, the United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, which is responsible for enforcing antitrust laws, expressed support for the proposal saying that it would “enhance the ability of the FCC’s Office of Inspector General to detect and deter fraud in the E-Rate program.”

The DOJ added that the update would allow for more robust enforcement of laws, including investigation and prosecution of antitrust and related crimes that occur during E-Rate procurements. “All responsive service providers and applicants are in a position to complete the additional step,” said the DOJ in response to critics citing undue burden.

The proposal remains in consideration at the FCC.

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