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FCC Votes on E-Rate, 6 GHZ and Emergency Alerts at October Meeting

The commission took action on expanding E-Rate, maternal health data, and opening the 6 GHz band.



Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the Commission's open meeting on October 19.

WASHINGTON, October 19, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to proceed with several measures, including expanding school Wi-Fi subsidies, using broadband data for maternal health research, and allowing low-power devices to operate in the 6 gigahertz band.

The commission also voted to move forward with its net neutrality proposal

Expanding E-Rate

The commission voted to adopt a rule allowing money from its E-Rate program to fund Wi-Fi connectivity on school buses. Starting in 2024, that will include discounts on internet plans and devices.

E-Rate provides subsidies to schools and libraries for broadband connection and devices through the Universal Service Fund. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to broaden the program since June.

Like the net neutrality proposal, the E-Rate expansion measure passed on party lines, with the commission’s two Republicans voting against it. Taking the same tack as Republican politicians, they argued that since buses are not themselves classrooms or libraries, the beneficiaries outlined in the law creating the program, E-Rate funds cannot be used for school bus Wi-Fi.

All other measures put forward passed unanimously.

Broadband access and maternal health

The FCC voted to launch a notice of inquiry into adding maternal health data to its Mapping Broadband Health in America platform.

At the direction of the Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Live Act, the commission updated the platform in June to include CDC data on maternal mortality and maternal morbidity – severe complications in labor and childbirth.

The latest notice of inquiry will seek comment on other data points to include and how to do so while protecting patients’ privacy. It also looks to hear from the public on current broadband-enabled maternal health services, common barriers to accessing those services, and what the commission might do to address them.

“The United States is the only industrialized country with a rising level of maternal mortality,” said Rosenworcel. “If there are ways this data can further assist efforts to address the maternal health care crisis, we want to know.”

Very-low-power devices in the 6 GHz band

The commission adopted a rule opening parts of the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use by very-low-power devices.

A total of 850 MHz in the band is now open for use by VLP devices both indoors and out, with no frequency coordination system. The commission first opened the band for unlicensed use in 2020.

The move is aimed at enabling new Wi-Fi-connected technologies and keeping the U.S. competitive ahead of the World Radiocommunication Conference in November.

The adopted rule also seeks comment on opening the entire 6 GHz band – another 350 MHz of spectrum – to VLP operation and allowing higher power levels with a geofencing system to prevent interference with incumbents.

Wi-Fi activists have pushed for the FCC to move faster on those two items, citing a growing need for Wi-Fi capacity as the nation looks to close the digital divide.

Alaska Connect Fund and USF updates

The commission voted to seek comments on how to set up an Alaska Connect Fund, which would continue USF support for Alaskan broadband. 

Alaskan broadband and mobile providers can currently receive support from the FCC’s Alaska Plan in the form of fixed payments from the USF. The FCC took the measure in 2016 because of the difficulties in deploying and maintaining infrastructure in Alaska’s harsh climate and large area.

The Alaska Connect Fund proposal seeks comments on what changes to the Alaska Plan would allow more Alaskans to get connected. The commission is also looking to hear about including ACF participation requirements, like Affordable Connectivity Program participation and cybersecurity standards, as well as how to include Tribal governments in the program.

In adopting the measure, the FCC also streamlined aspects of the Universal Service Fund, which it administers through the Universal Service Administrative Company.

Changes to the fund include removing certain filing requirements, modifying reporting deadlines, increasing performance testing requirements, and clarifying merger rules.

Emergency alerts

Commissioners also voted to update the Wireless Emergency Alerts program, which allows government entities to distribute emergency alerts to mobile devices.

Participating mobile providers now have to support multilingual alerts by enabling devices to display alert messages in each of the 13 most commonly spoken languages in the U.S., as well as including maps that show users’ locations relative to emergency areas in alerts.

The adopted rules establish a WEA database to display information about which carriers participate in which geographic areas. Carriers will be required to submit information to the FCC in order to participate.

Alerting authorities are also now allowed to send two localized test alerts per year.

Reporter Jake Neenan, who covers broadband infrastructure and broadband funding, is a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School. Previously, he reported on state prison conditions in New York and Massachusetts. He is also a devoted cat parent.

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Broadband's Impact

Missouri’s BEAD Initial Proposal, Volume Two

The state is unsure if any of its $1.7 billion allocation will be left over after funding new infrastructure.



Photo of the Missouri River by Robert Stinnett.

Missouri released a draft volume two of its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment initial proposal on November 15.

It was part of a wave of states and territories that began seeking public comment on their drafts in recent weeks. All 56 have now done so.

After a 30-day comment period, states and territories are required to submit their proposals to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by December 27. The proposals come in two volumes: volume one details how states will ground-truth broadband coverage data, and volume two outlines states’ plans for administering grant programs with their BEAD funds.

The Missouri Broadband Office is “not yet able to determine” whether it will have any of its $1.7 billion in BEAD money left over after funding infrastructure projects.

The state is planning to administer two rounds of funding, something the state’s broadband director BJ Tanksley has flagged as being potentially difficult given BEAD’s one year timeframe for grant awards. The MBO said in the proposal a “sub-round” might be necessary if some undeserved and underserved areas receive no applications, and the state might seek an extension from the NTIA.

Missouri is looking to release multiple “advisory figures” for its high-cost threshold, the price at which fiber becomes expensive enough for the state to consider other technologies not favored by BEAD. Cost modeling data will be used for an initial figure before the first round of grant applications, and the number will be updated based on the applications the state receives in each round.

The state will also be using the NTIA’s updated financing guidance, which gives states more options to ensure the financial viability of a project. The new guidance makes room for performance bonds and reimbursement milestones, which tie up less money than the 25 percent letter of credit required by initial BEAD rules.

The agency made the change on November 1 after months of pushback from advocates and lawmakers, who warned small providers could be edged out by the letter of credit.

The public comment period for Missouri’s volume two is open until December 15.

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Broadband Updates

Alabama’s BEAD Initial Proposal, Volumes One and Two

The state is asking for a waiver to open up RDOF areas to BEAD applications.



Photo of an Alabama field, used with permission.

Alabama released a draft of its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment initial proposal on November 14.

It was part of a wave of states and territories that began seeking public comment on their drafts in recent weeks. All 56 have now done so.

After a 30-day comment period, states and territories are required to submit their proposals to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by December 27. The proposals come in two volumes: volume one details how states will ground-truth broadband coverage data, and volume two outlines states’ plans for administering grant programs with their BEAD funds.

Volume one

The state is planning to adopt the NTIA’s model challenge process to accept and adjudicate claims of incorrect broadband data. The Federal Communications Commission’s largely provider-reported coverage map was used to allocate BEAD money, but is not considered accurate enough to determine which specific locations lack broadband.

Local governments, nonprofits, and broadband providers are able to submit those challenges on behalf of consumers under the model process. 

Alabama is also electing to use one of the NTIA’s optional modifications to the model process. The state’s broadband office will designate all homes and businesses receiving broadband from copper telephone lines as “underserved” – and thus eligible for BEAD-funded infrastructure. The move is an effort to replace older technology with the higher speed fiber-optic cable favored by the program.

The state will administer two optional challenge types the NTIA laid out: area and MDU challenges. States are not required to use these, but most are planning to do so.

An area challenge is initiated if six or more locations in a census block group challenge the same technology from the same provider with sufficient evidence. The provider is then required to show evidence they provide the reported service to every location in the census block group, or the entire area will be opened up to BEAD funds.

An MDU, or multiple dwelling unit, challenge is triggered when three units or 10 percent of the total units in an apartment building challenge a provider’s service. It again flips the burden of proof, requiring providers to prove they give the reported service for the entire building, not just units that submit challenges.

Alabama’s broadband office is requesting a waiver from the NTIA’s rule around enforceable commitments from other funding programs. The state wants areas set to get broadband from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to be considered unserved for the purposes of BEAD.

That fund, the state argues, has a deployment deadline too far in the future – six to eight years to BEAD’s four years – and is too prone to defaults to be a reliable alternative to BEAD.

Volume two

Alabama does not expect to have any of its $1.4 billion BEAD allocation left over after funding broadband infrastructure.

The state is planning to award that money in a single round of grant applications, but may administer a second, according to its proposal.

Like most states, Alabama won’t be setting a high-cost threshold before looking over all BEAD grant applications. That’s the price point at which the state will look to non-fiber technologies to serve the most expensive, hardest to reach areas.

Alabama’s broadband office is seeking comment on using the NTIA’s updated financing guidance, but plans on implementing it.

That updated guidance allows options which tie up less capital, like performance bonds. BEAD rules initially required a 25 percent letter of credit, which advocates and lawmakers warned could prevent small providers from participating in the program. 

The public comment period for Alabama’s initial proposal is open until December 14.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Connect20 Summit: Data-Driven Approach Needed for Digital Navigation

The NTIA’s Internet Use Survey doesn’t delve deeply enough into why people choose not to adopt broadband.



WASHINGTON, November 20, 2023 – Better data about broadband adoption is necessary to closing the digital divide in the U.S., a broadband expert said during a panel at the Connect20 Summit here.

Speaking on a panel about “The Power of Navigation Services,” the expert, Jessica Dine of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said states lack comprehensive data on why some residents remain offline. This information is essential for digital navigator programs to succeed, she said.

She highlighted the need for standardized national metrics on digital literacy and inclusion, and said that federal surveys – including the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – provide insights on barriers to technology adoption. But more granular data is required.

She also said that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Internet Use Survey doesn’t delve deeply enough into why people choose not to adopt the internet. For instance, understanding the nuances behind the ‘not interested’ response category could unveil targeted intervention strategies.

In particular, Dine praised Louisiana and Delaware for surveying communities on their connectivity needs, including overlaying socio-economic indicators with broadband deployment data. But she said more work is required to quantify the precise challenges different populations face.

Other panelists at the session, including Michelle Thornton of the State University of New York at Oswego, emphasized the importance of tracking on-the-ground efforts by navigators themselves.

Bringing in her experience from the field of healthcare navigation, Thornton underscored the value of tracking navigator activities and outcomes. She suggested a collaborative model where state-level data collection is supplemented by detailed, community-level insights from digital navigators.

The panel was part of the Connect20 Summit held in Washington and organized by Network On, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and Broadband Breakfast.

The session was moderated by Comcast’s Kate Allison, executive director of research and digital equity at Comcast.

To stay involved with the Digital Navigator movement, sign up at the Connect20 Summit.

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