What will happen in broadband under a Biden Administration is at the top of everyone’s agenda. While we expect a large infrastructure/stimulus package (to include broadband) in the first 100 days, precise details are yet to emerge.
Turning to the lame duck session, emergency broadband funding as part of COVID relief and/or the government funding bill remains possible. Also, on November 24, 2020 two Republican Congressman introduced the Enabling Extra Time to Extend Network Deployment (EXTEND) Act that would allow unexpended CARES Act funding to be utilized by states for broadband connectivity. We have previously highlighted the bi-partisan Internet Exchange Act of 2019 (sponsored by Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)) which would create a grant program administered by NTIA to build or expand internet exchange facilities in areas where either one or none exist. The bill also would enable E-Rate and Rural Telehealth Program USF funds to be used for connection to exchange facilities. The bill was marked up in Committee on November 18.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
NTIA has launched a Digital Inclusion webpage that provides a clearinghouse of information about federal and state digital inclusion resources. There is no NTIA webinar scheduled for December. The November webinar addressed How Broadband Enhances Local Economies while October addressed Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators; archived webinars are here. The November BroadbandUSA Newsletter again has featured many articles about states using CARES Act funding to increase broadband connectivity.
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 has released pilot results of its National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) which was authorized by Congress in 2018. The NBAM initially covered eight states, but now includes 22 states total. Because the NBAM includes both public and proprietary data, coverage details are available only to state and federal partners and not the general public (contact email@example.com for more info).
USDA – Rural Utilities Service
The RUS Community Connect Grant program is open and accepting applications through December 23, 2020. Proposed ReConnect projects can be viewed here (must create free log-in to access); 2019 awardees are identified here; 2020 awardees are here; proposed and funded projects are depicted on an interactive map here. The Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grant Program is currently closed.
The Federal Communications Commissions (“FCC” or the “Commission”) recently-approved $9 billion 5G Rural Fund will include a $1 billion set-aside for agricultural use in Phase 2. Some claim the set-aside is counter-productive and will simply ensure traditional telcos capture this market. Meanwhile, farms are already using private LTE networks with CBRS spectrum, including greenhouse monitoring in Missouri and supporting drone-mounted cameras to make real-time decisions on herbicide applications in North Dakota. In the “miscellaneous” rural category, note the American Connection Project, which identifies existing open Wi-Fi networks in rural areas.
NTIA’s September webinar on precision agriculture is available here. The most recent meeting of the FCC’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Advisory Task Force was October 28 and can be viewed here. Background and links to prior meetings are available here. The April 2019 USDA report on rural broadband infrastructure and next-generation precision agriculture is available here.
Biden’s FCC transition team has been announced and includes John Williams, a House Judiciary senior counsel; former Commissioner Mignon Clyburn; and Obama-era agency veterans Smitty Smith and Paul de Sa. Chairman Pai has announced he will be leaving on inauguration day (the traditional departure date for Chairman when there is a change in administration and party). It is widely expected that Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will get the nod as Chairwoman. Therefore, unless the Senate confirms President Trump’s nominee Nathan A. Simington to fill the Republican seat being vacated by Commissioner O’Rielly, a President Biden would have two slots on the FCC to fill (one Democrat and one Republican).
Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellite
Elon Musk’s SpaceX in October 2020 launched its “Better Than Nothing Beta” test of its Starlink LEO satellite internet service. The beta has a $499 set up fee associated with the equipment needed to connect, and a $99 monthly fee. A Starlink spokesman explained: “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.” CNBC further reports:
To date, SpaceX has launched nearly 900 Starlink satellites — a fraction of the total needed for global coverage but enough to begin providing service in some areas, including in the northwest United States. The company has begun to work with a handful of organizations in rural regions that Starlink satellites in orbit currently cover, such as Washington state.
In addition, schools in one rural Texas community are getting free Starlink service for a year, thanks in part to grant funding. These announcements come on the eve of Starlink’s expected participation in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.
Amazon is also launching a massive LEO project, called “Kuiper.” Notwithstanding these well-funded LEO start-ups, skeptics remain.
Universal Service/Digital Equity
The current universal service construct, which is over 25 years old, is straining to address the equitable distribution of limited broadband resources – partly reflected in a universal service fund contribution factor that is currently over 27%. The next FCC will inherit this unstable situation and so we are adding this general universal service section to the update. Notably, the related concepts of universal service and digital equity seem to be merging, as illustrated by this recent comprehensive Benton Institute report: “Broadband for America NOW”.
Libertarian academics have floated a proposal to “voucherize” the high-cost program, which is the largest of the four universal service programs, designed to keep rural service available and affordable. The idea would be to give funding directly to rural consumers rather than to rural carriers. Rural broadband vouchers are apparently being used now in the UK with some success.
COVID-19: New Telehealth Programs and E-rate & Rural Health Waivers
The $100 million Connected Care Pilot Project application window opened in early November and closes on December 7. The linked public notice above has essential information, but here is the FCC’s Connected Care Pilot webpage with more background.
The Commission on March 18, 2020, waived the gift rules for both the E-rate and RHC programs through September 30, 2020. In September the Commission partially granted SHLB and other groups’ request for an extension, to December 31, 2020. If you intend to take advantage of any waivers, please consult these orders very carefully.
The FCC in April 2020 established the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in response to Congress appropriating $200 million in funding for telehealth to the FCC as part of the CARES Act. The FCC stopped accepting applications in late June and on July 8 announced it had fully committed to the program. The final list of awardees is available here (Excel; PDF). Under that program, successful applicants received funding commitments that they could claim by demonstrating the purchase of eligible goods or services by September 30, 2020. The FCC on September 28 extended that purchase deadline until December 31, 2020.
New America recently released a report addressing the digital learning gap in the age of COVID: The Online Learning Equity Gap – Innovative Solutions to Connect All Students at Home. The report strongly supports the FCC’s use of E-rate funding to support digital learning outside of the classroom, and highlights innovative efforts in Colorado and Virginia to address the “online learning chasm.” Funds for Learning has released its annual E-rate Trends Report for 2020, reflecting spending and survey data through July 17, 2020.
From September 16 to October 16, the Commission opened a special E-rate filing window to support Category 1 Internet Access or data transmission only – allowing schools to seek additional funding for funding year 2020 (July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021) without further competitive bidding. The FCC recently announced $1.3 million in funding was awarded to the first wave of second-window applicants (291 schools in 32 states). The State E-rate Coordinators Alliance (SECA) in November filed a further petition for reconsideration of the Commission’s new Category 2 rules focused on the narrow issue of the proper treatment of shared equipment that serves non-instructional facilities.
Rural Health Care
We understand the FCC has instructed USAC to clear the backlog of unapproved Rural Health Care (RHC) applications from FY 2019 and to release applications that have been unofficially held from prior years, assumed to be based on disputes over the appropriate “rural rate.”