This holiday season once again may look a little different than many of us might have imagined. But with vaccines widely available in the United States, many more of us have been able to reunite with family and friends during the past year. The personal networks that have supported us through these days have been important, as have the communications networks that make it possible for so many of us to stay in touch, stay working, stay healthy, stay informed, and stay entertained.
With so much of our lives moving online, the pandemic has shown that high-speed internet service is no longer just nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have for everyone, everywhere. I’m grateful that during the past year the staff at the Federal Communications Commission have done more than just acknowledge this basic truth but have been able to stand up not one, but two historic programs to connect people across the country to the broadband that they now need for everyday life.
The new Emergency Broadband Benefit program was set up in record time and provides eligible households with discounts to pay for monthly broadband service, in addition to a one-time discount off a computer or a tablet. This effort is historic. With a $3.2 billion budget, it represents our nation’s largest-ever program to help families afford internet service. The program was authorized by Congress in December 2020. We started accepting applications in May. As of the end of this year, 9 million households facing economic hardship were benefiting from the support. That’s 9 million households that might not otherwise be online. It’s a big deal.
The new Emergency Connectivity Fund reimburses schools and libraries for the purchase of laptop and tablet computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as broadband connections for students, school staff, and library patrons. For years, I’ve talked about the need to close the Homework Gap, and this program’s $7.17 billion budget makes it the largest-ever effort to bring connectivity and devices to students who lacked internet access at home. As of the end of this year, we have already committed over $3.8 billion of this funding to school and library applicants, enough to support connectivity for 10 million students. And there’s more on the way.
Our efforts to expand connectivity did not stop with these two programs. We’ve done more in the past year to expand telehealth than in any year in our history. As the impact of new variants continue to present a challenge, the FCC has announced more than $208 million to health care providers in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia through what is known as Round 2 of our COVID-19 Telehealth Program. This is on top of committing more than $350 million for the current funding year through our traditional rural healthcare program under the Communications Act and selecting more than $69 million in applications to enhance telemedicine for patients through our Connected Care Pilot Program.
While these initiatives were underway, other big efforts took place at the agency.
We kicked off a mapping initiative. For too long the agency has relied on data that overstates where broadband is across the country. This should have been addressed years ago. But the second-best time to take this on is right now. So for the first time, the agency has put serious effort into remedying this situation and improving the data used for decision-making, consistent with the requirements of the Broadband DATA Act. We have made substantial progress, with the agency already having released a mobile LTE broadband and voice coverage map that is a preview of what is to come and the kind of data we will use to support our federal, state, and Tribal and partners so we can all work together to bring broadband to 100 percent of us. Plus, we set up a first-of-its-kind consumer portal to take in information about broadband deployment—the highs and the lows—that we can use to inform our future efforts.
We stepped up our crackdown on unwanted robocalls with record enforcement actions, requiring carriers deploy new technology to authenticate calls, and setting up a database to ensure compliance. On top of this, we deployed a new tool of our own—cease and desist letters—that tell carriers facilitating illegal robocalls that they have 48 hours to knock it off or we will have all other carriers refuse their calls. We’ll use these tools and more to keep up the fight against robocalls in the coming year.
We made more room for 5G in our airwaves in order to help secure American leadership in the next generation of wireless service. To do this, we launched a successful auction of 100 megahertz of prime, mid-band spectrum in the 3.45 GHz band. This auction will benefit consumers by introducing new competition, meeting the increased demand for wireless data, and improving service to rural areas. In addition, the build-out requirements for these airwaves are stronger than any recent auction in our history, which means we’ll see them put to use in record time.
We reached beyond our atmosphere to help ensure America’s future success in communications endeavors in space. We launched a new window for low-Earth orbit broadband satellite applications, proposed updates to our rules for processing these applications, and for the first time ever, dedicated specific spectrum for the growing amount of commercial space activity.
We took 988, the new national three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, that is scheduled to go into effect in July 2022, and expanded it beyond voice calling to also support text messaging. This will make it easier for those in need to contact a crisis counselor. This is especially helpful for at-risk communities, including young people, the LGBTQ+ community, Veterans, and the deaf, hard-of-hearing, and those who have speech disabilities that affect communication.
We reinvented key advisory committees. We reestablished our Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council with a special focus on 5G network security and software vulnerabilities. For the first time, it is being co-chaired by our colleagues at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. We set up a new Communications Equity and Diversity Council with an expanded mission to look not only media matters but also more broadly at important diversity and equity issues across the technology sector.
We also kicked off an Equal Employment Opportunity initiative to collect information about the composition of the broadcast workforce, mindful of the fact that our data show that women and people of color still only own a small number of broadcast stations across the country. We have long had an obligation to do this under the law but efforts to do so have been stalled—until now.
We also took steps to increase media transparency. When foreign governments and their agents lease time to broadcast content on our airwaves, we made clear that information should be made publicly available.
We made network security a priority. With the help of Congress, we put in place a $1.895 billion fund to remove, replace, and dispose of communications equipment and services that pose a national security threat. Plus, we have made clear that we will take action to revoke and terminate authority to provide telecommunications in the United States when a carrier presents a national security and law enforcement risk that cannot be mitigated.
Our security efforts also included work to make our communications supply chains more diverse and resilient. To help foster it, we launched the nation’s first-ever inquiry into Open Radio Access Networks and held a showcase to improve understanding of this technology. This technology will increase security, drive down costs, and help build a bigger and more competitive market for secure 5G equipment.
We turned our attention to public safety, to make sure our rules and policies help those who help us in danger. We recommitted to public safety opportunities in the 4.9 GHz band. We took concrete action to address the problem of 911 fee diversion. We held nationwide tests of the Wireless Emergency Alert System and the Emergency Alert System, and, for the first time, developed local partnerships to get better results.
We focused on network resiliency. We did something long overdue and made it possible for the agency to share critical outage information with public safety from state, federal, and Tribal authorities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, we also started a broad effort to rethink network resiliency, so that the communications networks we rely on are there when we need them most.
It’s a lot! Here’s to everyone at the Commission who worked to make all of this happen during 2021 and here’s to a healthy next year with even bigger, brighter, and bolder efforts.