Friday, March 27, 2020
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The $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill includes $125 million dollars to buttress the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) telemedicine and distance learning and broadband buildout loan and grant programs. The bill must still be passed by the House — a vote is scheduled for March 27, but that is expected to happen and the President to sign it the same day.
The RUS funding comes in two tranches: 1) The RUS' existing $600 million pilot program for rural broadband loans and grants will get an additional $100 million to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus," with the same restrictions as the pilot program. That means at least 90% of the households being served must be in a rural area "without sufficient access to broadband," which it defines as 10 Mbps downstream, 1 upstream, though the Secretary of Agriculture can review and update that definition annually. The money can't be used to overbuild or duplicate broadband expansion efforts by anyone entity that has already gotten a broadband loan from the RUS. The grants will be weighted toward previous applicants who are now eligible due to adjusted eligibility requirements. 2) Then there is an additional $25 million under RUS's "Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program" to, again, "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus." Both amounts are available until Sept. 30, 2021, though hopefully the pandemic will have ended before then.
The Senate approved the $2.2 trillion stimulus package titled Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides $150 billion to states and local government to respond to the pandemic and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. A breakdown of some of the key funding streams that are either directly related to technology or may incorporate technology as an allowable expense:
- Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT), and Broadband Program -- $25 Million: The DLT grant program supports rural communities’ access to telecommunications, audio and video equipment, as well as related advanced technologies for students, teachers and medical professionals.
- Telehealth -- $200 Million: For the Federal Communications Commission to support the efforts of health-care providers to address coronavirus by providing telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services.
- Public Health Data Surveillance and Infrastructure Modernization -- $500 Million: Funding to invest in better COVID-19 tools and build state and local public health data infrastructure.
- Elementary and Secondary Education -- $13.5 Billion: Over $13 billion in formula funding directly to states, to help schools meet the immediate needs of K-12 districts to improve the use of education technology and support distance education.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also received $75 million in emergency funds.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released the following statement after the US Senate passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which includes $200 million for the agency to support telehealth and telemedicine services:
“At a time when many of our nation’s hospitals are facing unprecedented challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic, telemedicine has never been more important to our nation’s healthcare system and the many patients it needs to serve. That’s why I urged elected officials to provide funding for the FCC’s connected care efforts and why I want to thank the U.S. Senate for agreeing to that request in the CARES Act. The CARES Act would support this critical shift in healthcare delivery by giving the FCC the money and authority to quickly fund telehealth programs across the country—programs through which patients can be monitored and treated outside of a healthcare facility, receiving quality care while freeing up inpatient resources for sicker patients. The FCC has already begun preparing for this bill to become law, and I hope that the U.S. House of Representatives will quickly send this legislation to the President’s desk.
“But that’s not all. The FCC has already acted to promote telehealth solutions for the patients of rural hospitals and clinics by making an additional $42 million immediately available through our Rural Health Care Program. The agency also waived so-called ‘gift rules’ so that participants in the Rural Health Care Program can solicit and accept improved connections or additional equipment for telemedicine. The FCC has a vital role to play in helping Americans connect with health care providers. Senate passage of the CARES Act and the proactive measures we’ve already taken are major steps forward in fulfilling that role."
The Federal Communications Commission took a number of actions to assist Rural Health Care Program participants, including extending the Rural Health Care Program application window until June 30, 2020, among other administrative deadlines. March 26’s actions are part of the FCC’s ongoing efforts to ensure that hospitals and health care providers have the resources they need to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic and keep Americans connected to critical services.
“The disruption to health care providers throughout the country as a result of this pandemic is indisputable and the FCC, alongside other federal agencies, is working to address these challenges head on,” said Chairman Ajit Pai. “Telemedicine continues to play a significant role in combating the ongoing pandemic, especially in rural areas. Today’s changes will allow health care providers to focus their attention on their immediate task at hand—addressing the influx of patients associated with the COVID-19 outbreak and continuing critical care for existing patients, thereby helping to control the spread of this serious pandemic. With our actions today, our hospitals and health care providers can devote more of their attention on continuing to meet the needs of their communities.”
On March 5 and 6, Sen Maria Cantwell (D-WA) wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge it to consider how the FCC's existing authority and programs, as well as temporary policies or rule waivers, may be used to secure the nation's safety and continued well-being. On March 20, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai responded by listing the steps the FCC has taken to protect its employees, monitor communications networks, and provide support to keep Americans connected.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools and workplaces to close all over the country, tens of millions of American children have started to attend classes online and tens of millions of American adults are now teleworking from home. This crisis has highlighted how many Americans lack high-speed wired broadband internet at home (approximately 141 million) and specifically how many school-age children are disconnected (as many as 12 million). This digital divide did not happen by accident. It is the result of years of scorched-earth deregulation and consolidation pushed by large cable and broadband companies and a government that, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, believes that somehow the so-called “free market” will take care of the unconnected. That is why, in this national emergency, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai was forced to beg broadband providers to sign up for his “Keep America Connected Pledge.” The Communications Act of 1934 gives the FCC a great deal of flexibility to ensure that the public is protected during a national emergency. But when it comes to broadband internet access, this FCC is powerless.
If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that we must remain connected when we are forced to be physically distant. Right now, millions of Americans cannot get broadband internet access, which is the primary way they can stay connected to their schools, workplaces, families, and friends. This alone is cause for Congress, the FCC, and the American people to take a long, hard look at our broadband policies now and in the future. Getting through this national emergency and being prepared for the next one depends on it.
[Sohn is the Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate]
Verizon announced an expansion of efforts to aid consumers dealing with work-from-home and shelter-in-place realities. Customers get access to Showtime, Epix, Quizlet, Chegg, Bookful and more to assist with new at-home realities. Verizon Wireless and Fios subscribers will have free learning and additional TV channels. Showtime and Epix offer premium entertainment for Fios TV subscribers. Students get free access for 60 days to valuable learning and interactive study tools. Fios TV extends access to dozens of top channels in news, entertainment and international content.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of a free and open internet. Our broadband connections are more critical than ever, and we must pay special attention to protecting the access of the most vulnerable and those on the front lines of the coronavirus response. That’s why the Commission’s net neutrality remand proceeding is so important – because it asks the public to comment on how the agency’s decision affects Lifeline participants and public safety. Given these extraordinary times, I wish that we’d granted the full extension sought by the requesters. Nevertheless, I encourage all Americans who care about an open internet to make their voices heard.
This spring the US government was planning to focus on its strategy for rolling out fifth-generation wireless networks, bringing faster internet connections to power movie downloads, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and more. Then the new coronavirus hit, sending workers and schoolchildren home to try to do their jobs and continue their education on laptops. Suddenly 5G took a back seat to a much more pressing problem: Tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to reliable internet connectivity, or can’t afford it, and will have trouble communicating, working, and attending classes online without it.
Advocates for expanded regulatory authority over broadband now see more need for it than ever. “The broadband companies used to attack me for utility-style regulation,” says former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. “We’re talking about critical services.” FCC Chairman Pai, a former lawyer at Verizon, has tried to minimize the government’s involvement in the broadband market. He’s argued in court that the FCC has far less legal authority to regulate broadband than his predecessors claimed. As a result, the chairman “doesn’t have anything more than arm-twisting ability right now,” says Benton Institute senior fellow and public advocate Gigi Sohn.
The newly signed Broadband DATA Act calls for the Federal Communications Commission to develop a more detailed and accurate map that reflects more granular and accurate data about broadband markets. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has complained that his agency would need more time and money to abandon its current mapping method and adopt a new one that fits the requirements of the bill. “At this point, it is vital for Congress to provide the FCC as soon as possible with the appropriations necessary to implement the Act,” Chairman Pai said recently. “Right now, the FCC does not have the funding to carry out the Act, as we have warned for some time. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel isn’t sympathetic. “The FCC has sat on this for a long time,” she said. “The FCC needs to get to work and stop hemming and hawing about how we need more money or about how it’s impossible.” “Congress has tasked us to do a job, so let’s get to work,” she said.
Even if the FCC gets to work on creating new maps immediately, it’s going to take a while to comply with the law, said Dan Hays, who is the corporate strategy leader for US technology, media, and telecommunications at PwC. “[I]t may well take several years to see a comprehensive solution,” Hays said. “From here, the FCC will need to determine the data that will need to be gathered, the systems that will be used to collect and present it, and the procedures and rules for gathering, updating, and distributing the combined information.”
The Finger Lakes Digital Inclusion Coalition is a group situated in the rural counties to the south and west of Rochester (NY). The experience here demonstrates the specific barriers faced by rural communities, giving a face to national data. The coalition also proves how communities cannot just wait for outside help—their success relies on bootstrap innovation and consensus-building to help attract support from their state and federal partners. Already, coalition members and partner groups in the region have begun experimenting with a host of creative solutions to expand broadband access. Some school districts have begun providing internet access on long bus rides that take kids to and from school. And libraries lend a limited number of 4G Wi-Fi hotspots to residents, granting at least temporary in-home internet access. However, these interventions are patchwork solutions, and more work is needed to connect the region in a sustainable way. As individual actors, advocates in Finger Lakes are limited. However, working together, the coalition members believe they can more strongly advocate for rural broadband needs. This is a crucial step that many rural communities can take in order to build the power necessary to institute change.
The Donald Trump re-election campaign told TV stations they could lose their operating licenses for airing an ad criticizing the president’s actions in the coronavirus crisis -- a challenge that may be more bluster than actual threat. President Donald Trump’s campaign, in a letter on March 25, told stations in five battleground states to stop showing the ad from Priorities USA, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Failure to remove the ad “could put your station’s license in jeopardy” before the Federal Communications Commission, the campaign said. “Your station has an obligation to cease and desist from airing it immediately to comply with FCC licensing requirements.”
A license revocation would not be likely under any scenario, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. Eventually a license renewal could be challenged before the FCC, but “such a petition would get nowhere.”
The digital divide in the most isolated parts of the United States is reinforced by risky economic propositions and geographic barriers to connectivity, but a technology in its infancy — TV white space broadband — may help communities clear these hurdles. “The attractiveness of it was this was prime spectrum that was not being used, and it opens up a second Wi-Fi band with significant improvements in coverage, range and bandwidth,” said James Carlson, CEO of hardware manufacturer Carlson Wireless Technologies.
Declaration Networks CEO Bob Nichols believes that white space can help fill a gap in the digital divide that other technologies can’t fix. “The primary reason there is a digital divide is because the traditional approaches, fiber or cable, are very expensive, and the business case associated with deploying those types of technology in lower-density areas just doesn’t make sense,” Nichols said. “There’s a tremendous need,” Nichols added. “Some of this recent activity with COVID-19 has really highlighted where people are able to go home and do teleworking and where they can’t.” Other stakeholders see how white space can bring other benefits as the technology advances. “The coverage of this would be… quite useful for drones compared to Wi-Fi,” Carlson said.
Benton (www.benton.org) provides the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events. While the summaries are factually accurate, their sometimes informal tone may not always represent the tone of the original articles. Headlines are compiled by Kevin Taglang (headlines AT benton DOT org) and Robbie McBeath (rmcbeath AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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