Tag Archives: e-rate

U.S. house democrats propose $50 monthly broadband subsidy for low income homes, AT&T and Comcast will be happy to take it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

With covid–19 pandemic lockdowns continuing in most states, albeit with gradual loosening underway, democrats in the house of representatives in Washington, D.C. want to pump $5.5 billion into broadband access subsidies to ensure that people and institutions can remain connected to the online resources they will be depending on, likely for months to come. It’s one of the opening shots in the negotiations over what might be a second stimulus bill in the trillion dollar range to keep the U.S. economy afloat.

It’s a big leap from the $375 million for broadband that was included in the first, $2 trillion pandemic stimulus bill approved by congress in March. But it’s also broadband funding of a different sort. In March, the money went to supply-side uses, such as $100 million for broadband infrastructure via the federal agriculture department’s ReConnect program. This time around, house democrats want the money to feed the demand side – $4 billion is earmarked to subsidise monthly Internet bills for low income families, up to $50 per month per household. The remaining $1.5 billion would go to school and libraries to pay for mobile network-enabled WiFi devices and service, and other expenses necessary for keeping kids connected to school lessons.

Ultimately, that money will hit the bottom lines of major, monopoly model incumbent Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, Charter and the rest. If the bill sets a de facto base price of $50 per month for Internet service, then that’s what those companies will charge. It’s a lot easier to up sell customers from what are, in effect, low income loss leader promotions such as the $10 per month Comcast Internet Essentials or Access from AT&T packages, and move them into expensive long term contracts when someone else is picking up the tab. But $4 billion only lasts so long. When the subsidies run out, those households will be stuck with higher bills for a long time.

The odds of this latest proposal making it into law as is are pretty slim, though. What house democrats seem to doing is setting up for negotiations with U.S. senate republicans and the white house. The D.C. beltway sausage machine is about to crank into high gear.

With new money and gear now committed, California might close student connectivity gap. If

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Home schooling

More money and in-kind donations are on the way from companies, foundations and the California Public Utilities Commission to close the divide between school kids who can get online and stay in school, and those who can’t. According to a press release from governor Gavin Newsom’s office, when previous announcements are added in, a total of $42 million has been pledged, along with 100,000 mobile network-enabled hotspots, 24,000 tablets and 13,000 Chromebooks.

Using the same guesstimated back-of-the-envelope and egregiously rounded math I used earlier this week, that will just about take care of the 200,000 or so Californian kids that the state education department says need a laptop or tablet and an Internet connection to do their school work.

If.

If my assumption of two students per household isn’t too high, and my guesstimates for average costs (see below) are in the ballpark.

If the money is used for the dreary purpose of buying equipment and service, and not diverted to backfill schools’ and non-profit organisations’ budgets or to fund the training programs that occupy them in normal times. Training is important, but when the ship is sinking the first priority is making sure everyone has a lifeboat. You can teach the kids celestial navigation and certify their parents as sailing masters once they’re safely aboard.

If similarly priced connectivity solutions can be found for rural school districts where baseline mobile broadband service is thin or non-existent.

If the restrictions on CPUC money don’t scupper the whole plan. Most of the money – $25 million – comes from the California Teleconnect Fund, which will only pick up half the cost of equipment and service, at most. In very round terms it’s in the ballpark, but that money will have to be creatively managed to make sure nothing is left on the table. Same with the $5 million earmarked from the California Advanced Services Fund – AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Frontier and friends did their best in Sacramento to make sure that piggy bank doesn’t benefit anyone other than themselves.

There might even be help coming from the federal government, which could solve any remaining funding problems or gaps. Efforts are underway in congress to loosen restrictions on the E-rate program managed by the Federal Communications Commission and to funnel more dollars into it. Those rules are likewise written and loved by the monopoly model incumbents that deploy battalions of lobbyists with bags of cash for friendly lawmakers.

Item                 Unit costTotal needed (@ 2 students/home)In kind donationsTo be purchasedCash needed
Mobile hotspot$8494,000100,0000$0
Mobile service$26094,000094,000$24,440,000
Laptop/tablet$275101,50037,00064,500$17,737,500
Total$42,177,500

But us two space cadets are doing this by eyeballing it, using Tennessee windage, an aerospace almanac, a Mickey Mouse watch, and an SR–50 Pop discarded years ago. RAH.

The $2 trillion covid-19 stimulus bill is not a broadband bill, but it helps. A little

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Salinas windmill cell site

Update, 27 March 2020: president Trump signed the bill, it’s a done deal.

Update, 27 March 2020: the U.S. house of representatives approved the bill, it now goes to president Trump.

A vote on the $2 trillion federal covid–19 stimulus bill is expected in the U.S. house of representatives later today, and president Trump says he’ll sign it immediately. I also found the full text of the bill, as published by the U.S. senate’s appropriations committee. Assuming it’s really the final-final version, it’s not going to do very much at all to fill the broadband gaps that separate many people, particularly in California’s rural counties, from the online business, education, health, information and entertainment services that we now rely on.

But there are a couple of sparks of good broadband news in the text. In the short term, it authorises the federal veterans affairs department to…

Enter into short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, complimentary or subsidized, fixed and mobile broadband services for the purposes of providing expanded mental health services to isolated veterans through telehealth or VA Video Connect.

It also pumps $50 million into grants to libraries (and museums) for “digital network access”, “internet accessible devices” and “technical support”, and waives matching fund requirements.

The bill doesn’t address the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. There’s no extra money and no prescribed changes in eligibility, or allowed uses of existing funds.

The language that pumps an extra $200 million into the FCC’s telehealth subsidy program is flexible, though. The FCC will have a lot of discretion regarding how it spends the money. There are no significant changes to the Rural Utilities Service’s (RUS) ReConnect broadband infrastructure grant and loan program or its telehealth and distance learning subsidies, except of course for the extra money – $100 million for ReConnect and $25 million for telehealth/distance learning.

Long term, the bill will speed up the migration of health care and other essential services to online platforms. Legacy rules and bureaucratic inertia are a barrier to increased adoption of telehealth technology, so in several places the bill has language that, as one section puts it, is aimed at “encouraging use of telecommunications systems for home health services furnished during emergency period”. It also redefines the mission of some federal telehealth programs as, for example, funding “evidence-based projects that utilise telehealth technologies” instead of “projects to demonstrate how telehealth technologies can be used”.

In other words, stop screwing around with pilots and just go live.

Federal covid-19 stimulus package doesn’t seem to stimulate broadband, much

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Frontier verizon pole santa barbara county 10oct2015

Even by Washington, D.C. standards, $2 trillion is a lot of money. By those same standards, though, $325 million isn’t much and that appears to be the extent of direct broadband assistance in the $2 trillion covid–19 “stimulus” bill approved by the U.S. senate late last night. If there’s indirect broadband help, it’s buried in the bill’s yet-to-be-published text.

According to a summary obtained by Bloomberg Law yesterday, the bill adds $100 million to a broadband infrastructure program run by the federal agriculture department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), as well as $200 million to the Federal Communications Commission’s telehealth subsidy kitty and $25 million for a telehealth and distance learning program, also managed by RUS. That’s not the final word, of course. We’ll have to wait for the full text of the bill to surface before we know what’s in it.

There’s no extra money for the FCC’s E-rate program, which pays for broadband service to schools and libraries. That’s a disappointment for many, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see the actual bill. If, as has been urged, it loosens restrictions on how the money that’s already in the program can be spent, then it’ll be an immediate win. Under current rules, infrastructure and bandwidth bought through the E-rate program can’t be opened up to the public. Just taking that restriction off, even temporarily, could help close the gap between broadband haves in California’s urban areas and the have nots in rural communities. If it doesn’t do at least that much then, yeah, it’s a disappointment.

The RUS infrastructure money will go into the ReConnect program, which pays for new broadband infrastructure in rural areas. It probably won’t be much help to California, though. It’s designed for the business models and demographics of the midwest and south, and so far hasn’t funded any systems here. But it’ll help the people it’ll help, and to that extent it’s well timed. The application deadline for the current round of grants is next Tuesday, 31 March 2020, which means there should be plenty of project proposals that can be funded immediately.

The next step for the bill is the U.S. house of representatives.

School bus WiFi and take home mobile hotspots for students funding in proposed California bill

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Jet school bus2

A placeholder bill that originally targeted the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program – was gutted, amended and turned into a subsidy program for after school Internet access for elementary and high school students. Assembly bill 1409 is carried by assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Los Angeles), who made a tech policy name for himself last year when he authored California’s new online privacy law.

As originally submitted, AB 1409 made what amounted to an inconsequential typographic change to the law that rewrote the CASF program in 2017. The usual purpose of such bills is to get something into the hopper ahead of the legislature’s annual deadline for introducing new legislation, with the intent of maybe doing something with it later.

That something turned into subsidies for “homework gap projects”, which are defined as projects that provide “pupils in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 12, inclusive, with after school access to broadband, such as Wi-Fi enabled school buses or school or library Wi-Fi hot spot lending”. The money would come from the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF), which pays for broadband service for schools, libraries and some non-profit organisations, usually to help close the gap left by the federal e-rate program, which funds most, but not all, of the cost of such service.

It’s an incremental change. Both CTF and the federal e-rate program are already used to pay for free broadband access, via WiFi at schools and libraries, and some school districts have toyed with the idea of extending some kind of wireless service to students at home. Hotspot lending – allowing students to, say, take home an active 4G wireless router – and WiFi on school buses are already arguably eligible for CTF money, and some districts or libraries might already be doing it.

AB 1409 would clear up any doubt, and potentially create a whole new category of publicly subsidised broadband service. It could also open the door to boondoggles: there’s already an ecosystem of companies and organisations that push projects of dubious value to educators with little knowledge of technology and no experience as service providers. The bill scheduled for its first hearing in the telco-and-cable-friendly assembly communications and conveyances committee ton Wednesday. It’s worthing keeping an eye on.

Subsidising AT&T fiber to boost bandwidth for schools could be a net loss for rural areas

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

More federal subsidies for fiber build outs and connections for schools in rural areas, as FCC chair Tom Wheeler has suggested in a recent speech is a fine idea as far as it goes. But unless the money is used to create infrastructure that’s available on a competitive basis to all users – residents, businesses and local governments, as well as schools – the net result could be more expensive and less capable access for people in rural areas.

The FCC’s E-rate program picks up part of the monthly Internet service bill – as much as 90% in some cases – for schools. That bandwidth can only be used by schools – it can’t be resold or even offered for free, for example, to low income families. Anyone else who also wants to take advantage of infrastructure that’s installed to provide that subsidised service has to do business with the company that built it, on that company’s terms.

In California, as in many other states, that company is usually AT&T, which doesn’t sell dark fiber or other broadband building blocks – it will only sell fully packaged and managed bandwidth at rates it sets and in a manner it chooses. And for consumers and businesses in many rural areas – indeed, anywhere that’s not a high potential area by its standards – AT&T has chosen to cap legacy DSL capacity and not upgrade to the higher speed VDSL-based Uverse service it offers in more affluent markets. Instead, it’s trying to sell rural customers higher priced, less reliable and capacity constrained wireless service using its mobile network.

Giving AT&T public money to build fiber to schools and, along the way, its cell sites without requiring some level of open access to that infrastructure will lock rural areas into a single provider that won’t invest in upgrading broadband service for the rest of the community. Except at extortionate mobile data prices.

FCC’s E-rate program trading up to WiFi and a gig

by Steve Blum • , , ,

By Jim Warner
Network engineer, U.C. Santa Cruz
Chair, Central Coast Broadband Consortium technical expert group

This is arguably a badly timed note about an FCC proposal due for decision on Friday, July 11. Any opportunity to comment – and have your comments count – ended months ago.

A year ago the commission put out a Notice of Proposed Rule Making that reviewed this history of changes to the E-rate program that provides about $2.3B/yr subsidies to educational uses of telecommunications services:

Click here for the NPRM

The big headline – when the rules come out – is that the FCC will be shifting the E-rate program to make Wi-Fi service ubiquitous in the nation’s schools. And press releases carrying that message have been put out starting on July 1. The reality is more complex than just funding a few cartons of 802.11 access points. Wi-Fi will be the user visible front face of the shiny new program. But under the hood, most of the money will go to provide back haul and switches to make the Wi-Fi do something useful.

President Obama proposed that schools should have 100 Mb/s for each increment of 1000 students. That should ratchet up to 1000 Mb/s in five years. Other proposers recommend 1000 Mb/s now with a 10 Gb/s target in 2017–8. Of course, this was a proposal a year ago. The recommendation could have shifted. The good news is that if the FCC makes any ruling on Friday, we will have K–12 and library standards for broadband services.

The E-rate program appears to be wildly successful. To be sure there have been isolated reports of fraud but in major part, the program is credited with propelling schools from dial-up to modern broadband. One thing that has not been proposed is to give the program more funding. The FCC believes that some reallocations and rule changes can provide a jolt both school and library broadband services. It is hard to believe in a zero sum world that the program can be adjusted to have major new impacts. In large part, E-rate support for libraries is an untouched project. There is lots of work to do. So, who are the losers?

The e-rate program of 1998 permitted schools to subscribe to pager service. And there is still $1M/yr being spend on them. A proposed change will reserve Priority E-rate funds for broadband services. So cell phones for staff will be on the out. Not clear how much is spent on this, but the rules still provide that schools can have subsidized subscriptions to e-mail services that most of us get now for free. Remember Compuserve? That will probably go away, too. There will also be rules changes that might have the effect of spreading the money more broadly than it is today. But that won’t, by itself, expand funding. Some tinkering with competitive bid rules have been proposed that could reduce paperwork burdens on small school districts. That could result in some real savings.

Other changes are in the wait til Friday category. The proposal last year asked whether it would be good to revise the rules to make it easier for school and library districts that want to build their own dark fiber networks to get more support. This would be excellent news for the recently funded Soledad fiber build in the Salinas Valley.