FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks Keynote
9:27PM Jan 26, 2021
FCC Commissioner Jeffrey Starks. And that should start I believe the commissioner is ready to start live in just a few minutes, maybe maybe 10 or 15 minutes. So in the meantime, just stand by and we'll be right back with Commissioner Jeffrey Sachs.
And I am both honored and very, very delighted to introduce our next speaker, FCC Commissioner Jeffrey Starks. Commissioner Starks is a passionate and an effective champion for universal connectivity and digital equity. For him broadband policy isn't just a debate among walks like us, he gets why this matters to everyone. When the commissioner speaks about the need to accelerate telemedicine, he's drawing from the experience of his family who practice medicine in South Dakota in Kansas and are experiencing firsthand the impact that telemedicine is having on patient care. And when he talks about the digital divide, it's from the perspective and understands how, as he's put it, our democracy economy and the personal dignity of our fellow Americans are partially dependent on robust and affordable access to broadband. We appreciate the opportunity to work with Commissioner Starks on our shared goal of advancing universal connectivity. So I am really proud to introduce this leader who is working to make the internet a transformative force for equal opportunity and shared prosperity Commissioner Jeffrey Starks.
Well, thank you so much for that kind of generous introduction, Rebecca, so glad and honored to be joining all of you here today. And so of course, thank you as well to the internet Education Foundation, for inviting me to speak with you all here at what I understand is the close of the very first day of this year state of the net. And so we are gathering at an exciting moment at the beginning of a new administration, a new Congress. And so to those of you who have taken on new roles in these last few weeks as well, I extend my sincerest sincerest welcome. I share your passion, your excitement, your energy, and most of all, of course, your hope. And so to address the unprecedented challenges that we face today, we're going to need all of that energy, all that passion and more And so today, I want to focus my comments on one critical aspect of moving our country through and forward through this difficult time. And that is bringing high quality affordable broadband into every American home. And so early on in the pandemic, many of us quickly recognize how critical home broadband access was going to be to our Coronavirus response. months of staying home of course has meant that taking our daily lives, our activities, work in school medical care, connecting with loved ones, all of that online. For every one of course, even before the pandemic in the economic devastation that it's caused 10s of millions of Americans did not have adequate home broadband connections. And so our long standing digital divide has morphed into a monstrous COVID-19 divide. But let us speak even more plainly. In 2021. Black Americans and other people of color are still by a wide margin, significantly less likely to have a home broadband connection than their counterparts. This cannot stand we can no longer defer the hard work on digital equity and believe that a future group in some distant time will solve this issue. This is the time this is the moment. When we focus on broadband in America we must focus on the smoldering front, that communities of color constitute in our battle against internet inequality as we look to our shared future, an unprecedented crisis and an unparalleled opportunity. Leaving households disconnected will hurt our ability to rebuild the economy and our workforce, diminish our ability to keep Americans and our healthcare system safe by advancing telemedicine and dim the educational horizons of young learners everywhere who fall further and further behind. With widespread vaccination on the horizon, we are all beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And we also know as the president and his medical advisors have emphasized this week, that we have many difficult challenging months ahead. And that's why my top priority for the coming weeks is getting emergency broadband access to as many Americans as possible. Late last year, Congress passed Omnibus appropriations Emergency Coronavirus relief legislation ultimately rolling into nearly $7 billion for broadband Internet access that funding will cover amongst several important priorities a new $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit for low income families. The goal is to connect low income households, especially households with school aged children to broadband networks at affordable rates, broadband providers will be reimbursed up to $50 each month per low income household that they serve. And if the household is on tribal land, some of the most disconnected lands, the reimbursement goes up to $75. And so the providers can also be reimbursed up to $100 for providing the household with a connected device, like a computer or a tablet, if the household also contributes toward that device, and so Congress created several eligibility criteria to ensure that the program reaches those most in need, especially during this coronavirus crisis. And so the emergency broadband benefit supports people who are eligible through the FCC existing Lifeline program, which is generally for those of you who are unfamiliar households that are added below 135% of the federal poverty Poverty Guidelines. Also, those who are on free or reduced price lunch programs, breakfast programs, people who have received Federal Pell Grant, and those who have experienced unemployment related loss of income, and work due to COVID. And so I have great expectations for this program. And if we are successful, the emergency broadband benefit will reach more disconnected low income people and households of color than any previous FCC effort to close the digital divide. Congress has quite reasonably under the circumstances, given us only 60 days to set up the program. And so there are lots of details to work out and I am focusing most immediately on two issues first, how will we get the word out? Many of you know I have long been exasperated about the poor job the SEC has done in recent years to get the word out about the lifeline program, only about 20% of people that are Lifeline eligible actually subscribe. And so for the emergency broadband benefit, we're going to have to do better. If we are going to succeed, we have to do better. And so that means a broad collaborative outreach effort that is going to have to coordinate across the federal government, but also includes state and local governments, broadband providers, nonprofits, philanthropy, educators, direct service providers, we need all of you. And I've heard from many organizations and companies that are planning to get involved and I'm eager to support and amplify all of those efforts. The second issue is encouraging broadband providers to participate voluntarily. Last year, I was heartened by the large number of providers that participated in the keep America connected pledge. And so we know that providers want to get out there help their communities through this difficult time. And so in the coming weeks, I will be working to make sure the rules for the emergency broadband benefit are as clear and as simple as possible. And that providers can get their questions answered quickly. I've also started outreach to those providers and their associations, something we all can do. If you care about getting emergency relief to every eligible American reach out, reach out to your broadband provider reach out to companies reach out to folks and their constituents and let them know that participation is important. Making the emergency broadband benefit work well will make a huge difference to many families. But I am mindful that this is a temporary solution to a long term problem. Internet inequality holds millions of Americans back from their full potential and that happened long before COVID-19. In recent years, the FCC has focused almost exclusively on rural access and deployment. And now I'm from Kansas, and that's an important part of addressing internet inequality. But the Census Bureau surveys also show that nearly three times as many American households live in urban areas densely populated, and they remain unconnected as those in those rural populations. So for example, in Detroit, Michigan, close to half of the population lacks broadband access in the city alone, approximately 29,000 students lack access to adequate broadband services and that is a startling figure which demonstrates the urgent need For connectivity.
But don't get me wrong, many communities are working tirelessly to close the digital divide. And they should know that help is on the way. For the pandemic, I visited Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, I had the chance to sit down with the Selma Mayor Daario Melton to discuss what his historic treasure of a city needs to continue to develop a to continue to grow, continue rebounding, and we had a great dialogue. And most importantly, though, I met with members of the Selma public housing authority, who have a special project there to get people living in low income housing, free broadband, and a tablet. And so I'll never forget, when I met with a single mother of three, who lived in the George Washington Carver homes, and benefited from this program, she was a living example of the power to transform lives with broadband. She told me with great pride, how the at home broadband access program enabled her to complete assignments for her online degree program while her children finished their homework, all without requiring her to make trips to the local library or restaurants to find an adequate connection. And we need to bring that transformative experience to millions more households and beyond the emergency broadband benefit. Here are a couple of additional thoughts on concrete steps that the Commission should be taking first. Lifeline does need an update. And as I noted earlier, only about 20% of eligible households take advantage of the benefits. So I proposed that the Commission enter memoranda of understanding mo use with other federal agencies that administer programs with similar eligibility criteria. Ideally, if someone is enrolled in a qualifying program like snap, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, they should learn about lifeline. If you are having food insecurity, you are likely having digital insecurity. And so we need to better understand what works and what doesn't the Commission has never completed its planned study of the lifeline program. We need to do this so that the program can be updated to reflect today's needs. Second, we need to make sure that the FCC investments in infrastructure lead to service that American families in the millions of them that are struggling can actually afford. And so our controlling statute here is explicit quality services should be available at just reasonable and affordable rates, period. If we use our finite universal service funds to build out broadband infrastructure without any regard, given to whether people can afford the service once it arrives, I don't think we've done our job assigned to us by Congress. And so I was the first on the commission to call for consideration of requiring USF recipients to provide an affordable option as a condition of receiving our high cost support. And so I'm eager to work with stakeholders around the country to incorporate the lessons of this year's affordability challenges into a long term commitment to affordability in our USF high cost program. Third, we need to update our E rate program with badly needed flexibility for too long. Our ability to respond to the educational challenges posed by COVID-19 has been hamstrung. By the prior administration's cramped interpretation of the Iraq statue we should move quickly to make ERate meet the moment, including giving schools flexibility to spend the funds to support students who are required to learn at home much like my young child is learning here in our home. This is an important step for the current school year during which many students will continue to distance learn. making this change will also make the program ready for future extenuating circumstances, natural disasters, health crises and more. It's taken far too long to make earache meet this moment. And we need to be better prepared for our future. And so finally, I am eager to work with congressional leaders to expand the Commission's ability to respond to this affordability challenge Congress should build on the bipartisan support for the emergency broadband benefit accelerate efforts to make broadband affordable, the accessible affordable internet for all act led by with Cliburn Senator Klobuchar includes many great ideas and an infusion of funding. That legislation would of course codified the proposal, my proposal that I've mentioned, to require providers that received USF high cost funding to provide consumers with that affordable option should they qualify, it would also require that study on the extent to which affordability contributes to the lack of broadband adoption, and on ways for us to improve our federal subsidies to households to make broadband more affordable. And so in closing, it was, of course, the late congressman john lewis, who said, and I quote, access to the internet is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, close quote, this challenging year across our country, and going forward has brought internet inequality to the forefront of our technology, technology and telecommunications policy discussions. Let's keep it here. No family should have to decide between keeping the lights on or getting their household connected, no family should miss out on the benefits of broadband, because of cost. And so I look forward to working with all of you, as we make universal, high quality, affordable broadband, a reality for all Americans. Thank you so much for the time, and I look forward to the ongoing work and the ongoing dialogue. Thank you. Rebecca, I'm going to kick it back to you tell me tell me where we go from here.
unmute yourself? Could you talk a little bit I know that the FCC has been doing a lot of work on on within one of the advisory groups about digital equity that's coming up. And and do you have any thoughts on where that might productively go? And what some of the important opportunities and challenges are there?
Yes, it is. It is mission critical work. And I do know that there and I look forward I've spoken with to that committee a number of times, there are a number of challenges that they're facing. Obviously, I do think that, you know, continuing, you know, the universal service program is about $10 billion program. The what I mentioned here today, this emergency broadband benefit is about 3.2 billion. So that gives you that gives you some signage, some signposts on what Congress wants us to focus on right now. And so I think, you know, focusing on this emergency broadband benefit is going to be a huge undertaking a huge production for the FCC, but there are continuing issues, like we talked about digital equity is is reverberating throughout the needs of everyday Americans. And so focusing on Lifeline, focusing on how we're going to make our young learners and the E re program all of these are digital equity issues that I think we have got to make sure we are we are leading the way because you know, 2020 hit all of us and a lot of ways kind of in the mouth. In 2021. Now, we need to have a better understanding a better plan. And for us to execute on how to make sure we're making we're helping the most vulnerable of our Americans that are that are falling behind.
And I know that one area that you are particularly committed to and and and we've talked about in the past is future of work and lifelong learning and broadband to making sure that we have a range of educational opportunities, as well as training opportunities for a range of job prospects out there, and just want to know if you could maybe comment on your thoughts and hopes on
that as well. Yes, thank you, Rebecca. And you and I have shared our our thinking and our focus on this issue, because it is also critically important. You know, when you and I started talking about this, you know, years ago, a lot of us we're seeing reports that we're talking about automation is on the way, and what is that going to mean for the workforce? And so it's an issue that I started to think about conceptually about how are we going to retrain? How are we going to upskill our workforce as work starts to change. But then we know the pandemic, of course, has changed everything. And so we have millions of Americans who have been displaced from their jobs. Unemployment obviously has soared, I don't you know, the numbers are truly devastating. And so we are now thrust in how are we going to also make that pivot but also retrain rescale upskill. And this dovetails Of course, with with connectivity issues and digital equity, as so much of this is intersectional because how are we going to retrain folks, the odds that we're gonna pack people into into a room to have them learn new skills is not likely certainly not for, you know, the next foreseeable future while we deal with The pandemic, we're going to need folks to be able to remote or to remotely learn. And so that means making sure that folks can can get retrained, get re skilled get education, remotely and safely. And so the future of work has changed, because so many folks find themselves out of work. And so we're going to need to think about how are we going to get them into those future jobs. But then it's also like I said, very much reified with some of the issues that we're talking about here with making sure that connectivity is more ubiquitous so that folks for equity and for opportunity aren't left further behind.
So Commissioner, I know I'm sure I speak for everybody who is is tuned into this closing session that we we stand ready to partner with you and partner with your colleagues to bring to bring that as close to the truth and the real life as we possibly can. And Godspeed to you all. Tim, I'll turn it over back to you unless, unless, Commissioner, you have something that you wanted to close with.
No, as always Everyone, please be safe, be well, and do look forward to the continuing partnership. These issues are so big and so complex, that it's going to take all of us to make sure that we really can get help where it's needed. So look forward to working with you and with all.
Thank you, Commissioner. Thank you Rebekah for finishing up that I really appreciate it. So that ends our first day of say the net. And tomorrow. We'll start back up at 11am with first panel on resilience, resiliency and network performance with Nick teamster and Matt Tooley. Then a discussion on how COVID-19 has impacted communities of color, tribal communities and students nationwide, which the commissioner spoke a bit about. And then we'll have a fireside chat with former FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell. With National Urban League's Clint Odom, then we'll have lunch, then we'll do more content moderation which people can't get enough of, and some cybersecurity with Congressman catco along with the geopolitics of the internet later in the afternoon, and then antitrust