Democratic congressional staffers are signaling fresh optimism that some money for broadband will make it into another coronavirus relief package long mulled on Capitol Hill. Republicans are “proceeding politically a little more cautiously right now” in deference to GOP leadership, but “we know privately that there are Republicans that would be very supportive of spending more money on E-Rate or Lifeline or Rural Healthcare,” said Joey Wender, senior policy adviser to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
The Trump administration is signaling a broader crackdown on the Chinese communications sector — well beyond the companies that have already come under harsh US scrutiny. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey said that the government’s past objections to powerful Chinese telecommunications players operating in the US may provide a blueprint for the Federal Communications Commission to pursue other firms as well. “We’re concerned about providers that are subject to the undue influence and control of the Chinese government,” said Hickey.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is making calling and video visitation free for inmates after the coronavirus forced a halt to in-person visits, the agency said in a letter to Congress. “Effective April 9, 2020, telephone calls were made free for the inmate population,” Bureau Director Michael Carvajal wrote to Sen.
The great American lockdown that put the economy on ice is fueling hopes of a 5G boom. US mobile carriers were already planning to spend big on deploying superfast wireless internet in the coming years. Then the coronavirus pushed a massive nationwide adoption of Zoom video conferences, distance learning, online doctors’ visits and daylong Netflix binges — and the top internet providers are ready to spend a lot more. Verizon announced it was boosting its estimated capital investment for this year by $500 million, to as much as $18.5 billion, to accelerate its 5G efforts.
Capitol Hill is locked in a fight over how much money to funnel to help students and teachers sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic get access to online learning, creating uncertainty for school districts as lawmakers and the White House rush to finalize a package of emergency measures. Millions of students are currently stuck at home as schools across the nation close, some without access to broadband internet and other tools needed to engage in remote learning.
Local government officials are grappling with how to keep communications flowing for the millions of people who have retreated to their homes. “This is a true test of all of our connectivity, whether it's through a satellite provider, cable provider, cellphone provider,” said Rita Reynolds, the chief technology officer for the National Association of Counties. Her trade association is in the middle of assessing how local chief information officers and IT directors are processing the logistical challenges prompted by COVID-19.
President Donald Trump says he wants America to win the race to the fast new wireless future. He took it seriously enough to sign a presidential memorandum setting a deadline of July 2019 for a new national strategy on allocating the airwaves. That deadline came and went with no strategy in sight. In September, a Commerce Department undersecretary promised that the strategy was still on the way, telling a gathering of government officials that it would be released in the fall. A Commerce official said that the department did indeed deliver a draft to the White House.
A Q&A with Robert Blair, senior advisor to the White House Chief of Staff. His new challenge: help further Trump’s global aims on 5G, including an ongoing campaign to prevent America’s allies from relying on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. “One of the messages that I want to bring to people is: Take a breath,” Blair says. “The Chinese are not winning this race.”
It’ll be years before most people have 5G phones and a super-fast network to connect them, but the future of mobile technology is shaping up right now. Behind the promises lie some big government decisions about what to prioritize, how to compete, and how fast to move. As citizens and consumers, whether they know it or not, people are being asked to weigh convenience against privacy, national competitiveness against national security, and speed against price.