Chairman Pai Announces Plan for $200 Million COVID-19 Telehealth Program

From the FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
today announced his plan for a COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support health care providers responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As part of the CARES Act, Congress appropriated $200 million to the FCC to support health care providers’ use of telehealth services in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. If adopted by the Commission, the Program would help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications, broadband
connectivity, and devices necessary for providing telehealth services. These services would directly help COVID-19 patients and provide care to patients with other conditions who might risk contracting the coronavirus when visiting a healthcare provider—while reducing practitioners’ potential exposure to the virus.
The Chairman has also presented his colleagues with final rules to stand up a broader, longerterm Connected Care Pilot Program. It would study how connected care could be a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund by making available up to $100 million of universal service support over three years to help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations, with an emphasis on
providing those services to low-income Americans and veterans.
“As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country. Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic. My plan
for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is a critical tool to address this national emergency. I’m calling on my fellow Commissioners to vote promptly to adopt the draft order I circulated today, so that we can take immediate steps to provide support for telehealth services and devices to health care providers during this national crisis,” said Chairman Pai. “I’d like to thank Congress for acting with bipartisan decisiveness to allocate funding for the COVID-19
Telehealth Program and Commissioner Carr for his leadership on telehealth issues, including the Connected Care Pilot Program.”
“I am grateful to Chairman Pai for his leadership in accelerating this important initiative and for fast-tracking a COVID-19 Telehealth Program. This decision will further strengthen the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans access high-quality
healthcare without having to visit a hospital in person,” said Commissioner Carr.
About the COVID-19 Telehealth Program: This $200 million Program would immediately support health care providers responding to the pandemic by providing eligible health care providers support to purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period. It would provide selected applicants with full funding for these eligible telehealth services and devices.
In order to receive funding, eligible health care providers would submit a streamlined application to the Commission for this program, and the Commission would award funds to selected applicants on a rolling basis until the funds are exhausted or until the current pandemic has ended.
About the Connected Care Pilot Program: This three-year Pilot Program would provide universal service support to help defray health care providers’ qualifying costs of providing connected care services. It would target funding to eligible health care providers, with a primary focus on pilot projects that would primarily benefit low-income or veteran patients.
The Pilot Program would make available up to $100 million, which would be separate from the budgets of the existing Universal Service Fund programs and the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The Pilot Program would provide funding for selected pilot projects to cover 85% of
the eligible costs of broadband connectivity, network equipment, and information services necessary to provide connected care services to the intended patient population. In order to participate, eligible health care providers would submit an application to the Commission for the Pilot Program, and the Commission would announce the selected pilot projects.
For updates on the FCC’s wide array of actions during the coronavirus pandemic, visit:
https://www.fcc.gov/coronavirus. For more information on the FCC’s Keep Americans
Connected Pledge, visit: https://www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected.

Rural WISPS (including MN) get access to 5.9 GHz Spectrum to expedite rural broadband

News Dio reports…

The FCC said Friday that temporary access that is approved for the 33 WISPs will help provide access to telehealth, distance learning and teleworking in rural communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

Here are some of the details…

The agency is giving access to the 33 WISPs for 60 days to help them bring broadband to rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Temporary access to the lower 45 megahertz of spectrum in that band is a kind of dry test for the FCC’s plan to free up this part of the 5.9 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use. In December, the agency voted to divide that spectrum band so it could be shared with providers, allocating the lowest 45 megahertz for unlicensed use. The top 30 megahertz is allocated for Qualcomm All Cellular Vehicle Protocol (C-V2X) use.

Community Use of E-Rate-Supported Wi-Fi is Permitted During Closures

This came up on a call today and will hopefully make it even easier for libraries and schools that are closed to keep their wifi networks open  to support local residents who don’t have access at home.

The FCC reports

By this Public Notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau reminds schools and libraries that are closed due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak that they are permitted to allow the general public to use E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi networks while on the school’s campus or library property.  Specifically, libraries may offer access to E-Rate funded services on their premises as well as services that are “integral, immediate and proximate to the provision of library services to library patrons”[1]—and because the mission to serve the public is ongoing, libraries are permitted to allow the public to access E-Rate funded services even when they are closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Similarly, closed schools may allow access to E-Rate funded services “to community members who access the Internet while on a school’s campus” so long as they do not charge for the use of the service.[2]  We hope

that this reminder will promote connectivity to Americans impacted by the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

We leave it to individual schools and libraries to establish their own policies regarding use of their Wi-Fi networks during closures, including hours of use.[1]  And we remind all parties that health and well-being are paramount, and to follow any applicable health and safety guidelines, including those on social distancing, as may be set out by relevant federal, state, local, and Tribal authorities.

For further information, please contact Joseph Schlingbaum, Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau, at (202) 418-7400 or (202) 418-0829 (TTY), or at Joseph.Schlingbaum@fcc.gov

 

[1] Cf. id., 25 FCC Rcd at 18775-76, para. 25 (finding that “the decision about whether to allow community access rests with the school, and we thus leave it schools to establish their own policies regarding specific use of their services and facilities, including, for example, the hours of use”); id. at 18776-77, para. 27 (“We emphasize that the revision of our rules [to allow community use of school’s E-Rate funded services] creates an opportunity for schools, but not an obligation.”).

[1] 47 CFR § 54.500.

[2] See Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, Sixth Report and Order, WC Docket No. 02-6, 25 FCC Rcd 18762, 18775-76, paras. 25-26 (2010) (E-Rate Sixth Report and Order).  Additionally, schools that choose to allow the community to use their E-Rate funded services “may not request funding for more services than are necessary for educational purposes to serve their current student population.”  Id. at 18775, para. 24.

FCC is working on revised broadband mapping – MN is pilot state

BroadbandBreakfast reports…

Andy Spurgeon, chief of Operations at NTIA’s “BroadbandUSA” brand, discussed how NTIA’s revived mapping efforts will work.

He emphasized leveraging FCC data that already exists. His team was specifically “asked not to duplicate the results of the FCC,” referring to the roundly-criticized Form 477 Data that overreports the number of Americans with access to broadband.

What sets apart NTIA’s National Broadband Availability Map apart from other government broadband maps is that NBAM comprises technology that actually makes maps, he said, as opposed to existing as a digital data heap.

NTIA will pursue in its mapping strategy through pilot states that form representative models. States such as Minnesota, Utah, and California provide NBAM with the data it needs to refine the FCC’s Form 477 Data.

The BroadbandUSA Team has had one year to implement its work since it was funded with $8 million in 2019.

Andy Spurgeon presented at the MN Broadband conference last fall (Oct 2019):

How can the Feds make it easier for schools and libraries to connect the community to broadband?

Schools and libraries are closing in deference to strides to slow the spread of coronavirus. But kind of like the Giving Tree, even closed both have something to offer – access to broadband connectivity. The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition has outlined simple steps the FCC can take to make it possible for schools and libraries to share what they’ve got. For years, communities with poor connectivity have wondered why they couldn’t tap into the school network. This could open a door…

Today the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition asked the Federal Communications Commission to expedite affordable broadband solutions for unconnected Americans. The novel coronavirus is driving schools to online learning and increasing healthcare providers’ reliance on telehealth solutions. The SHLB Coalition letter proposes several practical, immediate actions the FCC could take to swiftly connect those without home internet access.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, and schools and libraries close across the country, the need to ensure everyone has affordable broadband at home becomes an urgent national priority. Unfortunately, approximately one-quarter of people, including 7 million students, do not have access to broadband service at home,’” said John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition. “The FCC can and should take immediate action to leverage the broadband capabilities of our nation’s community anchor institutions to make affordable broadband available to everyone.”

“The FCC can take several steps now to promote hotspot lending programs and allow schools, libraries and telehealth providers to increase their broadband capacity and share that capacity with the surrounding community,” Windhausen continued. “We cannot leave people on the wrong side of an education gap and a healthcare gap, especially with the Centers for Disease Control recommending school closures for at least 8 weeks. The SHLB Coalition urges the FCC to harness the power of community anchor institutions to protect our nation’s access to healthcare and education during this difficult time.”

SHLB urges the FCC to take the following actions in the next week:

  • Authorize emergency funding from the Universal Service Fund for hot-spot lending programs through schools, libraries, and community organizations.
  • Encourage internet service providers (ISPs) to expand their low-cost broadband service offers.
  • Provide a subsidy to ISPs offering free or low-cost broadband to students at home in areas that schools have closed.
  • Allow schools and libraries to extend their networks to the home, without losing E-rate money.
  • Adopt a final Order expanding funding for the Connected Care pilot program.
  • Extend the deadline to file RHC applications to June 30.
  • Approve technical rules to promote TV White Space broadband use and availability.
  • Allow rural schools and educational nonprofits to claim Educational Broadband Service licenses.
  • Authorize funding for wireless internet service providers to deploy broadband in unserved areas where schools are closed.

What I like about their suggestions is that they focus on making broadband affordable where it exists and making it available where it doesn’t. Making it available will be more difficult but at least as valuable in the short and long term!

Rep Colin Peterson running again – broadband is hot topic

Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on Rep Peterson’s decision to seek re-election. Broadband makes his short list of focal points…

The 15-term congressman was first elected in 1990 and chairs the House Agriculture Committee. On Friday, he said that in addition to agriculture, he wanted to focus on “helping our rural health care facilities, lowering interest rates on student loan debt, taking care of our veterans, and making sure we have good roads and good broadband access across rural Minnesota.”

The power of state broadband grants to match fed is building networks for the future

Doug Dawson (Pots and Pans) is a smart guy. Yesterday he wrote about the FCC’s latest brand of rural broadband grants (RDOF) and a clause that seems to disqualify recipients that receive other state or federal funding. That means (and Doug points out below) that communities that have received MN Broadband grants would not qualify…

It’s important to remember that the RDOF grants are aimed at the most remote customers in the country – customers that, by definition, will require the largest investment per customer to bring broadband. This is due almost entirely due to the lower household densities in the RDOF grant areas. Costs can be driven up also by local conditions like rocky soil or rough terrain. Federal funding that provides enough money to build broadband in the plains states is likely not going to be enough to induce somebody to build in the remote parts of Appalachia where the RDOF grants are most needed.

State grant programs often also have other agendas. For example, the Border-to-Border grants in Minnesota won’t fund broadband projects that can’t achieve at least 100 Mbps download speeds. This was a deliberate decision so that government funding wouldn’t be wasted to build broadband infrastructure that will be too slow and obsolete soon after it’s constructed. By contrast, the FCC RDOF program is allowing applicants proposing speeds as slow as 25 Mbps. It’s not hard to argue that speed is already obsolete.

I know ISPs that were already hoping for a combination of federal and state grants to build rural infrastructure. If the FCC kills matching grants, then they will be killing the plans for such ISPs that wanted to use the grants to build fiber networks – a permanent broadband solution. Even with both state and federal grants, these ISPs were planning to take on a huge debt burden to make it work.

If the matching grants are killed, I have no doubt that the RDOF money will still be awarded to somebody. However, instead of going to a rural telco or electric coop that wants to build fiber, the grants will go to the big incumbent telephone companies to waste money by pretending to goose rural DSL up to 25 Mbps. Even worse, much of the funding might go to the satellite companies that offer nothing new and a product that people hate. I hate to engage in conspiracy theories, but one of the few justifications I can see for killing matching grants is to make it easier for the big incumbent telcos to win, and waste, another round of federal grant funding.

Minnesota has had great success encouraging larger providers to use their federal funding (CAF 2) to build to higher speeds in communities such as Sunrise Township. CenturyLink is the provider there. The community, federal and state grants have built a better network with CenturyLink.

The recipe of state and federal funds worked well in Sunrise and Fish Lake Townships. While on the other hand, both CenturyLink and Frontier have reported that they “may not have met” statewide benchmarks set up for their CAF 2 funding.

Maybe the FCC should check out the Minnesota model. It seems that having the state support, which in itself requires more local support, is an asset to making it happen and happen as Doug notes above – so that government funding wouldn’t be wasted to build broadband infrastructure that will be too slow and obsolete soon after it’s constructed.