FCC Tees Up Broadband and Telehealth Updates for First Meeting under Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel

The FCC released the agenda for its next Open Meeting, scheduled for February 17, 2021, which will be the first with Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the helm. The FCC plans to kick off the meeting with three presentations detailing the Commission’s progress in implementing programs designed to support broadband access and deployment. First, the FCC will hear a presentation on the creation of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which will allow low-income consumers to receive discounted broadband services and devices. Second, the FCC will hear a presentation covering the agency’s next steps for its COVID-19 Telehealth program, which provides funding to health care providers to offer telehealth and connected care services to patients. Third, the FCC will hear a presentation on the agency’s efforts to improve its broadband mapping data, including through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection. Rounding out the meeting agenda, the FCC will consider proposed rulemakings that would modify the agency’s supply chain security rules and address 911 fee diversion in line with recent legislation.

The February meeting begins what is expected to be a busy 2021 for the FCC’s agenda. You will find more information about the meeting items after the break.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act (“CAA”), 2021, which included Section 904 authorizing the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program. The Program will reimburse up to $50 per month per eligible low-income household to discount broadband service and certain connected devices during an emergency period. To participate, providers must have offered broadband internet access service as of December 1, 2020 and must either be an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier or be approved by the FCC pursuant to an expedited approval process. Congress gave the FCC 60 days to promulgate regulations to implement the EBB program and the FCC released a Public Notice establishing a comment cycle on January 4, 2021. Comments were filed on or before January 25, 2021 and reply comments are due by February 16, 2021. The Commission is also holding a roundtable discussion on the EBB implementation on February 12, 2021.

COVID-19 Telehealth Program: The FCC will hear a presentation about the agency’s plans for the next stage of the COVID-19 Telehealth program. The agency already approved $200 million in funding under the program for health care providers in 2020, exhausting the initial funding appropriated by Congress to support connected care services to patients. But Congress recently provided an additional $249.95 million for the program and the FCC already has sought comment on the appropriate metrics for evaluating requests for this funding and potential program improvements and taken action to streamline the process for disbursing future funding.

Improving Broadband Mapping Data: The FCC will hear a presentation on the agency’s work to improve its broadband maps, including through the Digital Opportunity Data Collection (DODC) that will require service providers to submit granular data regarding their current and potential broadband service territories. Among other things, the FCC will use this information to determine the areas eligible for the second round of support under the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will provide at least $4.4 billion over ten years to spur broadband deployment in unserved areas. The DODC enjoys bipartisan support at the FCC, but has received criticism for its complex reporting requirements, crowdsourcing and challenge processes, enforcement standards, and lack of exceptions for smaller providers.

Supply Chain Security: The draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“FNPRM”) would align the FCC’s supply chain security rules with the recently-enacted CAA, which allocated $1.9 billion to reimburse providers for the costs of removing, replacing, and disposing of network equipment and services posing a national security risk. In particular, the FCC plans to: (1) raise the cap on reimbursement eligibility to encompass providers with 10 million or fewer customers; (2) seek comment on allowing providers to use reimbursement funds to cover the removal, replacement, and disposal of all network equipment and services provided by Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE that were deemed a national security threat last year; (3) request input on allowing providers to use reimbursement funds to cover the removal, replacement, and disposal of unsecure network equipment and services obtained on or before June 30, 2020; (4) prioritize reimbursement funding to smaller providers with two million or fewer customers and non-commercial educational broadband service (“EBS”) providers as well as core” network transition costs; and (5) expand the definition of advance communications service providers eligible for reimbursement to explicitly include EBS providers, libraries, and health care providers, in line with the CAA.

911 Fee Diversion: The draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) would implement section 902 of the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2020, which requires the FCC to take action to address the diversion of 911 fees by states and other jurisdictions for purposes unrelated to 911 operations. Section 902 specifically directs the FCC to issue final rules within 180 days of defining what uses of 911 fees by states and taxing jurisdictions constitute 911 fee diversion. The NPRM seeks comment on proposed rules to implement these provisions. Notably, fee diversion was a key focus area for former FCC Commissioner O’Rielly and remains a controversial issue within the agency.