01.17.20

SCHUMER, GILLIBRAND REVEAL: FEDS PLOTTING TO EXCLUDE NEW YORK FROM VITAL $20 BILLION POT OF FUNDS TO EXPAND RURAL BROADBAND CONNECTIVITY; SENATORS SAY RURAL BROADBAND ACCESS IS ESSENTIAL TO THRIVE IN THE MODERN ECONOMY, CALL ON FCC TO REVERSE COURSE AT ONCE

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Will Allocate +$20 Billion For States To Connect Rural, Unserved Communities To High-Speed Internet; New FCC Proposal Would Unjustly Prevent New York From Participating In Fund

FCC Disqualifying NYS Due To Its Participation In Previously Established Federal Rural Broadband Programs; Senators Call Decision Unfair And Urge Agency To Let All 50 States Access Vital Funding

Schumer, Gillibrand To Feds: Treat Upstate New York Fairly And Do Your Part In Closing Our State’s Gaping Digital Divide

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today sounded the alarm on a misguided plan from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would exacerbate the digital divide in numerous Upstate New York communities and called on it to reverse course at once.

The FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will allocate $20.4 billion to connect millions of rural homes and small businesses to high-speed, broadband internet. However, the senators explained, under a recent proposal from the FCC, New York would be excluded from this vital pool of federal funding, stripping the state of resources that could have a positive impact on educational, economic and health outcomes.

In explaining the decision, the FCC sited New York’s participation in other programs to fund rural broadband projects, such as the Connect America Fund (CAF). Schumer and Gillibrand called this justification entirely insufficient, as New Yorkers in unserved communities require access to broadband to succeed in the 21st century economy, and urged the FCC to allow all states to participate in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

“The federal government should be investing—not divesting—in Upstate New York rural internet access. Just because New York participates in certain federal rural broadband expansion programs certainly doesn’t mean it should lose access to others. It makes absolutely no sense to punish New York for taking positive steps to address broadband access,” said Senator Schumer. “Our rural communities need and deserve top-notch high-speed broadband, and we must not accept anything less from the feds. That’s why today I’m urging the FCC to reverse course on this unfair proposal to keep New York out of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and instead provide it with the opportunities it needs to close the far-too-large digital divide in rural communities throughout our state.”

“I am disappointed that the FCC chose to exclude millions of New Yorkers from potentially accessing vital broadband internet services. Families, workers, and businesses who can’t access broadband are cut off from critical services and economic opportunities,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The FCC’s justification for this is unacceptable. New York shouldn’t be penalized for helping its rural communities get online, and this proposal will only make it harder for rural residents to do just that. That’s why I’m calling on the FCC to immediately abandon this proposal, allow New York to access the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and ensure that New York is included in any future federal funding opportunities that would increase access to high-speed, broadband internet for rural communities.”

Schumer and Gillibrand explained that the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was announced to allocate $20.4 billion through a reverse-auction format to bridge the digital gap in rural communities. Specifically, this fund was designed to target “unserved” areas that do not have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. The senators maintained that access to reliable, fast internet service is a necessity for communities to thrive in the digitally-oriented, modern economy, and said that the absence of such broadband service can be detrimental to the education, health and well-being, and economic standing of Americans in rural communities.

The senators explained that the decision to leave New York State out of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was due to “previously established programs to fund rural broadband” in the state, like the Connect America Fund (CAF). In 2017, following extensive advocacy by Schumer and Gillibrand, the FCC abandoned a plan to prevent New York State from accessing unclaimed CAF funds that were declined by Verizon in 2015. In agreeing to abandon that effort, the FCC entered into an agreement with New York to supplement the New NY Broadband Program with the millions in federal dollars originally allocated to expand rural broadband services across the state. Schumer and Gillibrand argued that in vacating that effort, the FCC acknowledged that it would be particularly unfair for New Yorkers to lose access to that critical broadband funding opportunity. Additionally, the partnership between the FCC and New York State created under the new CAF agreement perfectly lined up with the Commission’s goal to empower states to address their own broadband needs, making the decision to exempt New York from future funding opportunities such as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund even more unjustifiable.

Schumer and Gillibrand expressed their utmost concern that in its recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund proposal, the FCC is undermining New York State’s due process and penalizing New York for proactively creating a program to address unserved communities across the state. The senators argued that New York’s previously established CAF agreement should have no bearing on its ability to participate in future funding opportunities created by the Commission. Furthermore, the FCC's own data in its 2019 Broadband Deployment Report demonstrates New York State's continued need for broadband investments particularly in those areas most under- and unserved. According to that report, close to 20% of New Yorkers on tribal lands lack access to fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband. In addition to 13% of rural New York, that's hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses that still lack access to fixed 25/3 Mbps. The senators maintained that limiting access to vital funding in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund could cause untold harm to New Yorkers counting on this funding opportunity as a means to revitalize their communities and improve services for residents.

In 2017, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand called on the FCC to approve a waiver submitted by New York State to use funding provided through the CAF in an effort to make high-speed internet service available to all New Yorkers. These funds were made available when Verizon declined to accept the allocation through the last CAF disbursement, denying the rural areas through New York State that are served by Verizon the CAF funds needed to build out improved broadband service. For nearly a year, Senator Schumer made numerous efforts to push the FCC to reverse course and keep money designated for New York in New York, including a personal call to the Chairman to urge him to allow other companies to use these funds to improve broadband access across the state.

A copy of Schumer and Gillibrand’s letter to the FCC appears below.

Dear Chairman Pai,

We write today to express our serious concerns with the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) recent draft proposal to exclude New York from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In doing so, your agency threatens to exacerbate the digital divide in multiple communities across New York State.

As you are aware, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund was announced to allocate $20.4 billion through a reverse-auction format to connect millions of rural homes and small businesses to high-speed broadband networks. The fund was specifically designed to target “unserved” areas that do not have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. As you know, access to reliable, fast internet service is crucial to success in today’s modern economy. The absence of such service can have a severe effect on educational, economic and health outcomes.

It is our understanding that your draft decision is due to “previously established programs to fund rural broadband” in the state, including the unclaimed Connect America Fund (CAF) funds that the Commission recently redirected to New York. As you know, the release of those funds was the result of the Commission abandoning its efforts to shift funding originally dedicated to and allocated for New York to other parts of the country. In vacating that effort, the FCC acknowledged that it would be particularly unfair for New Yorkers to lose access to that critical broadband funding opportunity. In addition, the partnership between the FCC and New York State that was created by the new CAF agreement was in line with the Commission’s goals to empower states to address their own broadband needs.

We are concerned that with this most recent proposal, your agency threatens to penalize New York for doing the right thing and proactively creating a program to address unserved communities across the state. As a longtime significant contributor to Universal Service Fund programs, we believe New York’s participation in CAF should have no bearing on its ability to participate in funding opportunities from other federal broadband initiatives. Furthermore, the FCC’s own data in their recent 2019 Broadband Deployment report demonstrates New York’s continued need for broadband investments particularly in those areas most under and unserved. According to that report, close to 20% of New Yorkers on tribal lands lack access to fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband. In addition to 13% of rural New York, that’s hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, which still lack access to fixed 25/3 Mbps.

Limiting access to these vital federal funds may cause untold harm to our constituents who were counting on this funding opportunity as a chance to revitalize their communities and improve services for those residents. Given the grave impact this threatens to have on New York State, we urge that the FCC abandon its proposal to exclude New York from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, and allow all states to participate. We thank you in advance for your serious consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

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