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Carr, Simington Dissent on Wi-Fi on School Buses Ruling; Other Items Approved 5-0

The era of FCC agreement on most items appears to be over. In addition to the fight over net neutrality, and perhaps the longest statement yet at a meeting by Commissioner Brendan Carr (see 2310190020), Carr and Simington dissented Thursday on a declaratory ruling clarifying that the use of Wi-Fi on school buses is an educational purpose and eligible for E-rate funding. But an order approving changes to rules for wireless emergency alerts, a notice of inquiry on broadband and maternal health and an NPRM on connectivity in Alaska were approved without dissents.

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Dissenting on the Wi-Fi on school bus ruling, Carr cited objections last summer by House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas (see 2307310063). “When this item was placed on the agenda for this month’s open meeting, I asked some basic questions to understand what has worked with the billions of dollars already spent, what hasn’t, and what are some lessons learned for the funding of Wi-Fi on school buses,” Carr said: “But the information was not there.”

The FCC has dedicated more than $60 million in emergency connectivity fund (EFC) money to provide Wi-Fi on school buses so far, “but we lack an accounting of the number of students that have been connected or the ways in which these connections have been used,” Carr said. He said he would have supported an NPRM but not a declaratory order.

I’m disappointed that the commission has decided to pursue this unlawful course of action,” Simington said. The Telecom Act “could not state more clearly that E-rate may only be used to subsidize internet connectivity for school classrooms and libraries and a school bus is neither a classroom nor a library,” he said. The ruling “eviscerates … Congress’s restrictions on E-rate,” he said. Simington questioned whether students would really use time on the school bus to do homework. “I personally did extra math practice on the bus, but I may have been the exception here,” he joked.

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel disputed arguments by her Republican colleagues. “Section 254 of the Communications Act sets up the E-rate program and specifically provides us with authority to use it for additional services for educational purposes,” she said.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks noted students in places like Kansas, where he grew up, spend many hours traveling to and from school. “Students now could be using this time to and from school productively, to study, learn and do their homework,” he said. Starks cited as precedent a 2003 order by the FCC saying a school bus driver’s use of wireless services while delivering children to and from school was eligible for E-rate support.

The COVID-19 pandemic made clear “that not only is connectivity merely necessary for educational success, it is required for education, period,” said Commissioner Anna Gomez. Students who have to travel the longest distance to get to school are the ones least likely to have reliable internet access at home, she said. FCC officials said the only change from the draft was an update of some of the data from the EFC program.

Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., hailed the FCC for adopting the declaratory ruling. Lujan and Welch led a 2021 bill that would have codified the decision in statute. “The FCC vote” is “a critical win for students across New Mexico and the country -- especially in rural and Tribal communities,” Lujan said: “This has been years in the making” and shows “there is strong bipartisan, bicameral support to help schools afford to implement this technology.”

Senate Commerce Committee Republicans repeated their earlier criticism of the proposal. “The Biden FCC has made it clear that they intend to use every avenue possible to increase the federal government’s power over the internet and how Americans are able to access it,” a panel GOP spokesperson emailed. “Today’s votes” on the net neutrality proceeding (see 2310190020) and adoption of the declaratory ruling show the commission’s “main priority is mission creep resulting in increased costs on consumers. It strains credulity that some want to expand the FCC’s taxing power over the internet when it is engaged in such blatant overreach.”

The ruling “is an important and long overdue step toward giving schools the flexibility and resources to narrow the homework gap for their low-income students without adequate home internet access,” emailed Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Program at New America. As the ECF “runs dry, it’s critical to expand the use of E-rate and other sources to give all students the connectivity increasingly central to educational opportunity,” he said.

This ruling is a win for students, especially those in rural areas who face long bus rides and limited broadband access at home,” said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition.

Wireless Alerts

The WEA order was approved 5-0. The FCC made one significant tweak, as expected, giving carriers additional time to update a new FCC WEA database (see 2310170054). Instead of requiring an update on changes to the capabilities of mobile devices within 30 days of making a change, carriers will be required to file updates twice per year, officials said. The order requires participating wireless providers to transmit messages translated into the 13 most commonly spoken languages in the U.S., in addition to English and American Sign Language.

It will take time and work for these new requirements to come to fruition,” Starks said: “In some cases, we are breaking new ground, pushing on the limits of current technical feasibility. But it is our job to push those limits when it comes to protecting Americans and promoting public safety.”

These are important changes” to WEAs, Rosenworcel said. “They are among the most vital reforms we can make under existing law to make sure these warnings reach people when they need them most,” she said.

Today we take significant steps to ensure more people are able to receive life-saving emergency information in the language and format they understand,” said Gomez, also giving her comments on the item in Spanish.

We are proud of the work we’ve accomplished so far with the Commission, FEMA and alert originators that has made WEAs one of the most effective, efficient and reliable public safety tools,” said CTIA Vice President-Regulatory Affairs Amy Bender.

Health Mapping

Commissioners also approved an NOI on improving the mapping of the broadband health in America platform. The platform is "an important tool" and "there is more we can do with this data so that it provides policymakers, healthcare professionals, and groups advocating for better outcomes for mothers with information that can help save lives," Rosenworcel said.

"The integration of data to gain a deeper understanding of the nexus between broadband access and maternal health is critical," Carr said. The FCC’s broadband and health mapping platform will "help enable further insight into maternal mortality and morbidity rates as it relates to broadband access, and I am glad that the NOI before us seeks comment on ways to improve upon that platform," Carr said.

"In our endeavors to develop the health mapping platform and provide more precise information, we have the opportunity to expand our reach across the nation and move closer to our ultimate goal of closing the digital divide," Starks said. "I'm glad that Congress asked the commission to do our part," Gomez said.

Commissioners also unanimously approved an NPRM and order on the future of the USF high-cost support program for Alaska. The agency’s 2016 plan for supporting fixed and mobile connectivity in Alaska expires in 2026, and the NPRM seeks comment on a replacement. “Now is the right time to look back on the progress made and look ahead at what more can be done to support the last frontier state,” said Rosenworcel. “What is important to remember is that the people of Alaska need connections to the digital age like everyone else. And it is just as important to recognize that the state’s contours, rugged terrain, and cold climate present special challenges when it comes to deploying high-speed broadband service.”

The NPRM seeks comment on the “most effective methodologies and uses” for future USF for high-cost fixed and mobile services in the state, and on possible changes to broadband funding in Alaska since 2016. The FCC will also “leverage data” from the agency’s broadband coverage and funding maps in the proceeding, said an FCC news release. Wireline Bureau staff said the item was little changed from the draft.

The order accompanying the NPRM makes administrative modifications to the high-cost program, including annual reporting requirements and streamlining the merger processes for rate-of-return local exchange carriers. It includes increased reporting on performance testing, eliminates waiver exceptions for study area boundary changes, and creates a notice requirement for carriers relinquishing their eligible telecommunications carrier designations. Alaska is “unique because of its rich culture and long history of storytelling,” said Gomez. “Without reliable, affordable, high-speed connectivity, this rich culture is in danger of being lost.”