Monday, March 23, 2020
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From Boeing to Verizon Communications, scores of US companies and industries are furiously lobbying Congress to add measures to the Trump administration’s massive stimulus package to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, some of which address issues that long predate the outbreak. For some lobbyists, the package provides an opportunity to score wins for corporate clients and breathe new life into stalled policy proposals unrelated to the crisis. A Senate proposal drafted by Democrats includes billions of dollars in financial support to help companies provide broadband service to school, rural areas and underserved areas. Senate Democrats say they will attempt to add the broadband spending to the Republican bill.
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. That's put sudden pressure on the Federal Communications Commission in its role as lead regulator providing connectivity subsidies to schools and libraries.The Trump administration and congressional leaders are in dialogue trying to land a stimulus package likely exceeding $1 trillion with the intention of proceeding to votes as soon as possible. But they remain odds over how to address the so-called digital homework gap, tussling over whether to slate money directly to the FCC’s existing E-Rate subsidy program or a new pilot program floated by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. He is seeking $50 million to implement this "off-campus connectivity pilot" aimed at expanding federal subsidies for wireless devices used outside of schools, according to a March 13 letter to congressional appropriators. He also requested $200 million for a telehealth pilot program aimed at expanding the availability of remote medical treatment nationwide. “This particular proposal is both timely and necessary,” Chairman Pai wrote in the letter. “Given schools are shuttering for weeks, our most important national asset — our young students — need online, in-residence access. Employees in many cases also must work from home in order to stem the spread of the disease, making clear the need for broadband access to support essential businesses and our overall economy.” Pai's letter also asks for $65 million to fund broadband data mapping efforts and $2 billion to help small US carriers replace gear made by Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE. While those funding requests are less directly tied to the coronavirus pandemic and follow two recently enacted laws on those matters, Chairman Pai said they've taken on new urgency amid a national emergency. But Democrats, who have placed a premium on addressing the digital Homework Gap in recent days, may want more money than the $50 million Chairman Pai is floating.
Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Edward Markey (D-MA) led a letter with 10 of their colleagues in urging leadership to address the digital divide and the homework gap within the phase three coronavirus funding package. As more and more schools transition to online learning due to the impact of the coronavirus, students without access to internet risk falling significantly behind their classmates. The homework gap – which refers to students who do not have access to internet at home and are therefore unable to complete online homework – is estimated to impact over 12 million students across the country. In Maryland, studies have shown that 16 percent of students do not have access to broadband internet and 12 percent do not have computers at home. Senator Van Hollen has also introduced legislation to address this systemic issue.
This is a war. And in war, strategy is important. Learning from experience from around the world, we recognize a third phase of the Covid-19 response: suppression of episodic outbreaks. In this new third phase, extensive testing and alert clinical systems can identify cases and clusters promptly, intervene extensively and suppress spread before widespread societal harms occur. There are five priorities essential for successful implementation of the third phase of this strategy: 1) Extensive testing and contact tracing, 2) Prepare for health care to surge safely, 3) Preserve health and routine health care functions, 4) Learn intensively, and 5) Adapt to a new normal. The Covid-19 pandemic will change our world forever. Until it is controlled, we will all need to change how we wash our hands, cover our coughs, greet others and how close we come to others. We will rethink the need for meetings and conferences. We will need broadband for all as a public utility like mail or water. We will need to support the vulnerable, even if only because their illness can risk our health.
[Dr. Tom Frieden is the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and former commissioner of the New York City Health Department. He is currently president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global non-profit initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and part of the global non-profit Vital Strategies.]
The rift between the experience of Americans able to work from home and those in the service sector, now out of work, underscores how dramatically the crisis is separating the haves in the U.S. economy from those who don’t have much. When a crisis strikes, it’s the latter who bear the brunt of the damage. That’s going to play out this time with particular ferocity in the United States for several reasons. One is that since the last recession we’ve become increasingly dependent on low-income jobs with poor benefits and fragile guarantees of continued employment. For many salaried, white-collar employees, the coronavirus crisis will be burdensome, scary, even painful, but financially survivable. Most have the security of a home with all the services they need to remain productive while telecommuting, assuming their employer allows it--and they don’t fall ill themselves. Their 401(k) plans are taking a hit, but the lights are on, the larder is stocked, the internet is working. The next mortgage and credit card payments are scheduled. They will have received emails from the banks and retailers they patronize, assuring them that the firms stand ready to serve them online if they can’t shop in person for whatever reason. Working-class Americans have less access to child care, healthcare and digital services such as internet connectivity that middle- and upper-income workers have come to take for granted. As a result, even if they have jobs that could be performed from home during the American lockdown, they don’t have the resources to get the work done. They can’t rely on the internet.
Over the long term, we are better off with as much experimentation and as many leaders as possible, not only to spur the kinds of innovations that will protect us from the virus (vaccines, treatments, cheaper and better medical equipment) but also to guide our transition to a very different world. All of this innovation will require universal access to fast, affordable broadband. Our government has an obligation to provide public education; it must now provide the broadband to make that education possible. It can certainly be done, but the government will have to better regulate private internet service providers and move to more accountable municipally owned internet service utilities, like the one that offers the nation’s fastest broadband.
[Dr. Slaughter is the chief executive of New America]
AT&T’s networks have seen a surge of usage since companies around the United States have asked employees to work from home and schools have moved online following the COVID-19 outbreak. CEO Randall Stephenson said that “mobile volumes are up 40 percent,” and “Wi-Fi calling volumes are up 100 percent.” Stephenson added the network infrastructures are “performing quite well,” but noted the company is seeing some stress as more people work from home. Stephenson added that considering how many people are working from home, and how this will change the future of work once the crisis is over, AT&T will “come out of this crisis [and] continue investing in 5G and new technology.” “I think it’s going to cause every business to evaluate how we do business,” Stephenson told CNN when asked about what happens when things start to return to normal. “I think when we come out of this, this is exactly what we’re going to see.” AT&T itself currently has approximately 90,000 employees working from home, according to Stephenson.
For the next 60 days, AT&T will waive all of its domestic wireless overage fees for customers nationwide, and making it retroactive. AT&T says that any overage past March 13 will not entail a charge. The company had already waved the overages for home internet, but now it applies to wireless voice, text, and data, both residential and small business.
Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Richard Blumental (D-CT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote a letter urging the Administration to waive phone charges for incarcerated people to help families and loved ones remain in contact during the pandemic. As in-person visits at federal prisons have been suspended during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Senators also called on Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Michael Carvajal to allow for confidential phone calls or video conferencing and email communications with legal counsel for the duration of BOP’s suspension of in-person visits at federal prisons. Currently, calls can cost up to 25 cents per minute in addition to fees charged each call, and calls are monitored by prison officials.
China has forced local staff to quit their jobs at a number of US media organisations operating in the country, dealing another blow to news groups caught in a diplomatic stand-off between Beijing and Washington. Apparently at least five Chinese citizens working for the New York Times and Voice of America have been fired this week by the Beijing Service Bureau for Diplomatic Missions.
Benton (www.benton.org) provides the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events. While the summaries are factually accurate, their sometimes informal tone may not always represent the tone of the original articles. Headlines are compiled by Kevin Taglang (headlines AT benton DOT org) and Robbie McBeath (rmcbeath AT benton DOT org) — we welcome your comments.
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