Selected New Developments in Broadband – through June 16
The Trump Administration has again voiced support for a $2 trillion stimulus and infrastructure package (that would presumably have a broadband component), but Senate Republicans are not there yet. In May, the House passed the Democrats’ multi-trillion dollar Heroes Act on a party-line vote. This is the next installment of COVID-19 response legislation and contains several multi-billion dollar broadband spending programs. Some of the broadband pieces of the Heroes Act have been introduced as standalone bills which, along with other bills of interest, are summarized below:
- Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act (Senate version). This act would appropriate $1 billion to establish an Emergency Higher Education Connectivity fund at the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to directly help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices to students.
- Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act (House version). This act would appropriate $2 billion in temporary Federal Communications Commission (FCC or the Commission) Rural Health Care (RHC) program funding and temporarily waive competitive bidding rules to allow health care providers to obtain funding to immediately upgrade their existing level of service from their existing provider.
- Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020 (Senate version). This act would appropriate $4 billion ($2 billion in House version) in extra temporary funding for the E-rate program to support Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices during emergency periods relating to COVID‑19, and for other purposes.
- Remote Learning During COVID-19 Act (developed by E-rate advocacy groups who recently asked Congress to introduce the bill). This act would appropriate $5.25 billion for the E-rate program to support home broadband service, broadband network equipment, end-user devices (such as laptops or tablets), and cybersecurity; explicitly allows schools and libraries to extend their existing E-rate-funded networks to serve the surrounding community (including for backhaul). The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition has a detailed summary of the bill here.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
On May 28, 2020, President Trump directed NTIA to submit a petition for rulemaking asking the FCC to propose regulations to clarify the precise scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. There has been growing criticism by both Democrats and Republicans of Section 230, but for different reasons. (Wikipedia has a historical overview of Section 230.)
The most recent NTIA monthly webinars were held on May 20, 2020 (Using Smart Technologies to Drive Regional Transformation) and June 17, 2020 (Utilizing Federal Data to Measure the Digital Divide). Information from past webinars is available in the webinar archive. The June BroadbandUSA Newsletter is now available.
NTIA hosts a searchable database featuring 50 federal broadband funding opportunities across a dozen federal agencies. The NTIA Broadband USA main page features a state-by-state summary of state broadband programs (scroll down to the map and click on a state). NTIA recently released the pilot results of its National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) which was authorized by Congress in 2018. The NBAM currently covers eight states: California, Utah, Minnesota, Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maine. The NBAM incorporates FCC Form 477 data along with broadband data from third-party sources including other federal agencies. Because the NBAM includes both public and proprietary data, coverage details are available only to state and federal partners and not the general public.
USDA – Rural Utilities Service
The official funding announcement for the next tranche of ReConnect Program funding (initially $550 million) is available here. The ReConnect application has closed but this year included an additional $100 million for ReConnect grant funding authorized by the CARES Act. Proposed ReConnect projects (published to facilitate overbuild challenges) are here; awardees are identified here; proposed and funded projects are depicted on an interactive map here. The Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grant Program received an additional $25 million in funding in the CARES Act and has opened a second application window which closes July 13, 2020.
The FCC’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Advisory Task Force met virtually on March 25, 2020; that meeting can be viewed here. (The April 2019 USDA report on rural broadband infrastructure and next-generation precision agriculture is available here.)
Federal Communications Commission
The FCC’s June 9, 2020 open meeting included a Public Notice regarding the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) phase one auction, an order proposing rules to reorganize the 70/80/90 GHz spectrum bands to support 5G point-to-point backhaul, and a Declaratory Ruling regarding so-called Broadcast Internet services. At its May meeting the Commission, among other things, adopted rules to reorganize the 900 MHz band (currently used mostly by utilities and industries for private-two-way radio) to create a 6 MHz broadband segment for commercial use (order). Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC between meetings has issued numerous emergency orders and waivers and launched the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. Some of these actions are addressed further below.
The unused spectrum between TV station channels or in places where channels are vacant are called “white spaces.” This vacant broadcast spectrum represents a resource for mobile broadband, particularly in rural areas. In March 2020 the FCC proposed updated rules to facilitate increased innovation in the white spaces area and comments are currently being filed.
Below are summaries of selected FCC spectrum proceedings that are active and which will impact the public availability of broadband.
L-Band (1.0GHz to 2.0GHz)
The FCC on April 20 unanimously, and with broad bipartisan support, approved a controversial and long-pending request by Ligado Networks (f.k.a LightSquared) to utilize a portion of the L‑band spectrum that it owns. Because Ligado’s spectrum is close to spectrum reserved for GPS, the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other interests strongly oppose this move. On May 22, NTIA (on behalf of DOD and DOT) formally challenged the FCC’s decision through a petition for reconsideration and a petition for stay.
2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window (formerly EBS)
The FCC last summer decided to auction remaining unlicensed Educational Broadband Spectrum (EBS) (2.5 GHz band) to commercial users. This spectrum is suitable for mobile and fixed point-to-point wireless services. Prior to the auction, tribal entities in rural areas have a limited opportunity to apply for licenses for available 2.5 GHz spectrum in their areas. This rural tribal priority window opened February 3, 2020, and closes August 3, 2020. The FCC has not responded to calls to extend the tribal window deadline due to COVID-19.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC has granted temporary (60-day) emergency access to 2.5 GHz spectrum for requesting tribal groups including the Pueblo Zuni tribe in New Mexico and Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. With the June 2, 2020, waiver for Harlan County, Kentucky, at least one poor Appalachian community is also benefitting from temporary emergency use of the spectrum. These temporary spectrum access grants do not affect the availability of spectrum for the 2.5 GHz rural tribal priority window.
C-Band (3.7-4.2 GHz)
Broadcast satellite operations are the current licensed users of the mid-band C-Band spectrum. The FCC in February 2020 voted (along party lines) to approve two orders to reorganize and reclaim 280 MHz of the band for flexible-use and to facilitate public auctions of the newly available bands. The public auction is slated to commence December 8, 2020, with the new spectrum slated to be in use by September 2025. On June 1, 2020, Chairman Pai announced that five of the major satellite operators had agreed on an accelerated timeline to vacate the first chunk of the airwaves they currently hold by December 2021. Smaller operators on May 1 filed legal challenges to the FCC C-Band order and have sought a stay.
The Commission recently approved an NPRM for Facilitating Shared Use in the 3.1-3.55 GHz Band (link fixed). The 3.1-3.55 GHz band is currently used by the Department of Defense (DOD) for fixed and mobile radar as well as secondary non-federal amateur and experimental users. The Commission’s goal is to relocate non-federal users to clear as much as 100 MHz spectrum for commercial 5G. The comment period is over but comments can be browsed here.
This spectrum is being used for naval radar and so away from the coasts much of the spectrum is unused. In recently deciding to reorganize the spectrum, the Commission allowed licensed use (through PALs), and General Authorized Access (GAA), which allows unlicensed access to available channels managed by a frequency coordinator called a Spectrum Access System (SAS). The FCC’s CBRS auction of PALs will go forward this summer but has been delayed by one month to July 23, 2020 – due to COVID-19. Each PAL will consist of a 10-year renewable license for a 10 MHz unpaired channel. According to the FCC this auction “will offer the greatest number of spectrum licenses ever made available for bidding in a single auction and is intended to further the deployment of fifth-generation (5G) wireless, the Internet of Things, and other advanced spectrum-based services for the benefit of the public.” The Commission Public Notice establishing the CBRS PALs auction procedures was approved at the February 2020 open meeting.
5.9 GHz Band
The Commission recently approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Promoting Innovation in the 5.9 GHz Band which would reorganize spectrum previously reserved for Dedicated Short Range Communications to support the development of next-generation “Cellular Vehicle to Everything” (C-V2X) technology as well as increase unlicensed utilization (e.g., more Wi-Fi channels). The FCC proposes to make the lower 45 MHz of the 5850-5925 MHz band available for unlicensed use and allocate the upper 20 MHz for C-V2X. The DOT and auto safety interests oppose the FCC plan – while Wi-Fi interests support it.
6 GHz Band
The recent 6 GHz Order and NPRM freeing new unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi are here. C-NET has reported that industry estimates that this spectrum will lead to supercharged Wi-Fi and create billions in value for the economy. Some claim this is the most important decision the FCC has made on unlicensed spectrum use in 25 years. Qualcomm recently released its plans for new products later this year that will take advantage of the spectrum.
E-rate & Rural Health Care COVID-19 Waivers
The Commission on March 18, 2020, waived the gift rules for both the E-rate and RHC programs through September 30, 2020. The Commission in both E-rate and RHC extended programmatic deadlines for filing funding applications, appeals, invoicing, service delivery, and information requests, as well as waived certain rules regarding contract extensions.
The Park Hill decision, released in late April 2020, is the first major FCC decision (by the Wireline Competition Bureau) addressing the contours of the rules governing self-constructed networks. Park Hill is a school district in Kansas City, Missouri, that partnered with the city to build its own self-constructed network. Of course, before moving forward, Park City had established that this self-provisioning partnership was significantly less costly than service-based alternatives. As part of a long-term cost-sharing agreement, the city received fiber strands in exchange for in-kind contributions including conduit and maintenance. The Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) objected to this arrangement. In reversing USAC, the Bureau clarified that “an E-Rate eligible entity may . . . share the services and equipment used to construct and/or operate a self-provisioned network supported by E-Rate funding with an ineligible third-party entity so long as the ineligible third-party entity pays its fair share of the costs, i.e., its pro-rata portion of the undiscounted costs of the network.”
Rural Health Care
USAC delays processing funding applications for 2019 are at the forefront, with many program participants still receiving 14-day information requests from USAC for funding applications submitted over a year ago. It is clear USAC is way behind the pace of processing applications in prior years and some are calling for the FCC to act.
On October 1, 2020, the DC Circuit upheld in significant part the FCC’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules, as well as the so-called transparency rule which requires carriers to disclose changes in their terms of service. The Court reversed the FCC on blanket state preemption and remanded several issues including jurisdictional questions over pole attachment regulation, impacts on public safety, and funding broadband through the Lifeline Program. In February 2020 the FCC sought public comment on the three remanded issues (comments here).