FCC Excludes Desktops, Smart Phones from Remote Learning Billions

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Acting FCC chair is looking to strike a balance in the commission's implementation of a multi-billion remote learning broadband Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) subsidy, an element of President Biden's American Rescue Plan COVID-19 package.

According to draft rules circulated to the other commissioners, the FCC is proposing not to allow the funding to be used either for the presumably immobile desk-top computers or for the hyper-mobile smart phones.

The FCC must still vote to approve the rules, but it is under the gun from Congress, which gave it only 60 days to stand up the program. Given that she has circulated the item and publicly released the draft, Rosenworcel likely has the votes to pass the rules, which will need at least one Republican vote since the commission is at a 2-2 political tie.

Also Read: Broadband Billions Flow from Just-Passed American Rescue Plan

Cable operators had argued that smart phones might not be "robust" enough to pass muster as eligible devices and the FCC appeared to agree.

Smart phones certainly fill the bill on the portability front, but, despite a push from the cellular industry, the FCC concluded that mobile phones, including smart phones, would also be excluded from the definition of connected devices because they "lack the full functionality students, school staff, and library patrons need to perform necessary remote learning activities, homework, or research," and in that way are not similar to laptops or tablets.

And while CTIA, the cellular association, had pushed for smart phones to be defined as eligible because they can be used as Wi-Fi hotspots, the draft rules said the FCC was unpersuaded that smart phones should meet the definition of covered hotspot "because some schools were forced to purchase smartphones to act as Wi-Fi hotspots due to supply chain issues at the start of the pandemic."

The FCC also decided the money should not be used for desktop computers.

The FCC pointed out that the language of the legislation creating the subsidy program talks about using the money for laptops, tablets and "similar" connected devices, but that it was "significant" that "identifying desktop computers or any other stationary devices as eligible connected devices Congress identified a set of portable devices as eligible 'connected devices' and gave us discretion to determine whether other devices are similar to those portable devices."

The draft rules exclude desktops because, while it recognizes their functionality and value, the lack of portability is both a drawback for many students and library patrons and are not similar to portable devices that are, well, portable.

In other potential victories for cable operators, the FCC concluded that except where there is no service, period, the money can't be used for laying dark fiber or new networks, agreeing with cable broadband ops and others that is inconsistent with an emergency program geared to immediate, pandemic-related needs.

The rules also do not set any minimum performance standards, like high speeds, no data caps or low latency. While the FCC is all for those things, to make them requirements "would penalize schools, libraries, students, school staff, and library patrons in places where slower speed, data capped, and/or high latency services are currently the only affordable options."

The ECF comprises $7.6 billion (minus $1 million to pay for FCC Inspector General oversight of the program) for eligible schools and libraries to pay 100% for the costs of equipment and/or advanced communications service for students and library patrons. The money is available until 2030.

The Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the FCC's ongoing USF subsidy program, will administer the emergency fund, which will be kept separate from USF subsidies. 

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.