Acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel presided over her first public meeting Wednesday (Feb. 17), which was devoted primarily to presentations on, and implementation of, some key directives from Congress, the former including on broadband mapping, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, and a COVID-19-targeted telehealth program.''
Rosenworcel thanked the President for the opportunity to lead the agency and said they had work to do to expand the benefits of the digital age to all.
Rosenworcel also announced a new broadband mapping task force headed by Jean Kiddoo, former head of the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force. Getting "maps before money," has long been a Rosenworcel priority.
Vastly more granular and accurate maps, commission audits and enforcement will all be part of the new mapping regime.
The FCC has until the end of next week to come up with a framework for handing out $3.2 billion in broadband subsidies Congress allocated in the EBB program. It also has to stand up a $250 million (technically, $249.95 million) telehealth program created by the December COVID-19 relief package, and use $65 million to come up with better maps of where broadband is and isn't, also money allocated by Congress last year.
FCC staffers outlined the current status of the EBB, and telehealth and mapping directives, but voted on items on defining and cracking down on 911 fee diversion, and changes to the FCC's suspect tech rip-and-replace regime, also in response to legislation.
Commissioner Brendan Carr said the EBB program should be the top priority for the entire commission, particularly given the looming deadline. He said that remote learning should be the priority for that $3.2 billion, and said he thought that was basically baked into the law passed by Congress.
After the meeting, at her first press conference as acting chairwoman, Rosenworcel suggested that Congress had established multiple priorities.
She said the FCC would have to follow the law and its definition of eligible households, which defines who is eligible and, most noteworthy, includes a variety of categories that congress said were "equally eligible."
He also said that there needed to be "robust" participation and a range of providers, both eligible telecommunications carriers (ETXs) and non. He said the FCC should give those providers an equal and fair shot.
On mapping, he asked for an estimate on a timeline for final maps. Kiddoo said they were working hard on getting contracts out, but it was tough to give a good estimate. She said based on her experience with complex systems it is "going to take a while," probably "next year." Carr added his kudos to Kiddoo, as it were.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said the FCC needed solid data foundations and it was time for "thoughtful execution." On Telemedicine, he said the future of all medicine is telehealth--Starks' father is a doctor, as are two of his brothers. He said the FCC needed to be efficient and effective because "a lot is at stake."
He said he hoped they would be able to move quickly on EBB and the other congressional mandates. "Even now in 2021, communities of color are still by a wide margin are less likely to have a broadband connection." He said, "now, more than ever, this cannot stand," and the EBB money should reach more of those communities than any previous broadband subsidy.
Commissioner Nathan Simington sounded a collegial notes, actually several of then. He gave kudos to Rosenworcel for her work in teeing up all the issues. On EBB, he said he had talked about his talks with carriers about cutting red tape and rapidly "onboard" assistance. He said he spoke to a small cable carrier who said four of the five counties she served had serious need, but she did not have an easy way to interface with FCC systems.
On telehealth, he said the FCC could make a real difference in daily lives. He praised Rosenworcel's efforts to deliver specialized services whether it was remote or not, pointing out he had visited Children's National Hospital with her. He also praised the new mapping effort and said the better collected and audited the data, the better.
Acting chair Rosenworcel said those were three big tasks. Broadband is "no longer nice to have, but need to have," she said, finding a new way to say what the pandemic has made a truism.
"I believe in the urgency of now," she said of the EBB, and said the program should be open to every eligible household. She said the EBB program will need to be expansive, inclusive and transparent.
Rosenworcel said the FCC's broadband maps left a lot to be desired, but that it could do better, and will, in service of the goal of getting broadband to 100% of the country. Democrats have historically interpreted Congress' broadband buildout mandate as being incomplete until everyone has advanced telecommunications.
“We commend Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel for leading the FCC through the hard work of implementing Congress’ directives from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021," said Scott Bergman, SVP of CTIA, the wireless association. "The wireless industry stands ready to support the FCC’s efforts to quickly utilize the Emergency Broadband Benefit to keep low-income consumers connected, improve the Commission’s broadband maps, protect national security, and ensure that state and local governments continue to maintain and enhance 9-1-1 services."
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