Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Headlines Daily Digest
FCC Chairman Pai: Stepping Up to the Coronavirus Challenge
Elections & Media
It might be hard to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but I’m happy to report that Internet access is proving to be one of the most valuable non-medical commodities right now. I’m committed to using every legal means at the Federal Communications Commission’s disposal to help Americans deal with the coronavirus pandemic. And so far, we’ve demonstrated that commitment in many notable ways. Most importantly, I developed the Keep Americans Connected pledge to make sure that nobody loses broadband and telephone service when they need it most. I also challenged our nation’s broadband and telephone service providers to go above and beyond the commitments in the Keep Americans Connected Pledge in order to meet the connectivity needs of the American people, and I’m grateful that many have done so. I’ve also been in touch with America’s television and radio broadcasters. As they long have done in times of crisis, they’ve committed to playing a key role in making sure the public is informed on how to respond to COVID-19.
Beyond the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, the FCC has done a lot to cut through regulatory red tape and free up resources to enable access to communications for those impacted by COVID-19.
- To promote telehealth solutions for the patients of rural hospitals and clinics, the FCC voted to make an additional $42 million immediately available through our Rural Health Care Program.
- To preserve vital communications for individuals who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or deaf-blind, or have a speech disability, the FCC has granted temporary waivers that will allow American Sign Language interpreters to work from home and maintain relay services.
- To promote connectivity for hospitals and students, the FCC temporarily waived so-called “gift rules” so participants in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs can solicit and accept improved connections or additional equipment for telemedicine or remote learning.
- To help low-income consumers stay connected, the FCC temporarily waived certain requirements from our Lifeline program, which will ease burdens on Lifeline subscribers and allow Lifeline carriers to focus their efforts on assisting customers.
- To meet increased consumer demand for mobile broadband, the FCC granted temporary authority to AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon to use additional spectrum in the 600 MHz, AWS-3, and AWS-4 bands.
- To prevent possible disruptions in service, especially for rural consumers, the FCC granted a temporary extension to hundreds of wireless Internet service providers in the 3650-3700 MHz band to transition their existing operations to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service rules.
- To accommodate construction and delivery delays for television stations transitioning to new channels after the incentive auction, the FCC has agreed to provide more flexibility under the Transition Scheduling Plan.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai writes: "It might be hard to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but I’m happy to report that Internet access is proving to be one of the most valuable non-medical commodities right now." Is he forgetting the people on the wrong side of the digital divide?
According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, approximately 21.3 million Americans lack a broadband connection speed of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC’s benchmark for high-speed broadband. In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, federal, local, and state governments, in addition to large and small businesses, are considering remote working or distance learning options to help abate the spread of the virus. As these decisions are made, some portion of the population will likely have the option and the capability to shift activities online, while others will not. COVID-19 mitigation efforts will likely reveal discrepancies in broadband availability and accessibility—termed the digital divide—across the United States.
In San Antonio, schools, under a state directive, now must provide “remote instruction” and many will start March 30. Although several districts are offering curbside pickup of paper packets, lessons largely will be given online — further exacerbating the digital divide in a city with one of the nation’s biggest income gaps. Even in better times, students who don’t have ready access to computers and the internet face greater challenges completing homework and college applications. But now that teachers are replacing their physical classrooms with virtual ones and a free public education increasingly involves a home computer and a high-speed internet connection, low-income children are on deteriorating ground. Almost a quarter of Bexar County households do not have desktop or laptop computers and about 21 percent don’t have broadband internet, 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show.
Large segments of the US workforce have shifted to remote work, but not all workers and communities are equally prepared for remote work or e-learning. Studies have found not all jobs/occupations are remote work friendly and internet access among school districts vary significantly. Two factors in particular affect workers’ ability to work remotely in their communities. The first is the availability of ubiquitous, adequate and affordable digital connectivity, which varies widely across the country. The second is the share of jobs that can be done via remote work. This too varies across the country, with remote work amenable jobs concentrating in large metros and tech hubs.
Our analysis looked at how America’s more than 3,000 counties are able to implement remote work in terms of two key variables—how limited their digital connectivity is (including access to internet and devices) and those that have a higher share of workers employed in industries and occupations least amenable to remote work. Nearly forty percent of counties had moderate to high vulnerability to remote work (27.7% moderate and 10.6% high vulnerability) compared to more than 60 percent which had lower vulnerability (34.3% low vulnerability, 27.4% of no vulnerability). The counties that are best positioned for success with remote work are more urban, have larger economies, more educated workers, and higher incomes. Conversely, those that are most vulnerable are smaller, more rural, suffer from high rates of unemployment and have less educated workers.That said, even the least vulnerable places across the country have some percentage of residents and workers who are not well suited for remote work, who suffer from inadequate connectivity, and work in occupations or industries that are far less amenable to remote work.
To ensure social distance, we have been asked to recreate work and school in our homes. Distancing ourselves is necessary to “flatten the curve.” But while we try not to overload hospitals, the success of home schooling and work from home rests on a misguided presumption of universal internet connectivity. This is not the reality for millions of Americans. The digital divide is acutely felt in rural and tribal communities, by minorities, low-income Americans, and newcomers to the country. Going online to get out of the COVID-19 line of fire will increase the chasm between the connected and the un- and under-connected.This is particularly true for students in both K-12 and postsecondary schools. Upwards of 70% of homework was assigned online before the move to online-only instruction, but 15% of all school-age children and 18% of school-age children in rural communities do not have a home internet connection. For those who are connected, there are concerns about the capabilities of their networks. Some of my students at the University of Virginia, for instance, expressed concerns that their home broadband networks cannot fulfill the expectations of live video classes. Three distinct misconceptions about the state of broadband in the US are being exposed again during this crisis: 1) broadband networks reach everyone, 2) all broadband technologies are equal, and 3) mobile can pick up the slack.
[Christopher Ali is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Farm Fresh Spectrum: Rural Broadband Policy and the Future of Connectivity (MIT Press).]
By most accounts, internet networks are holding up just fine in the face of increased usage due to the impact of the coronavirus, but that could change over the coming weeks. According to research by Nokia Deepfield that started the week of March 9, networks have seen an increase of 20% to 40% during peak usage in impacted regions. As the coronavirus has stretched across the globe, networks have seen increased usage due to total lock downs of citizens in some countries, more employees working from home and increased gaming and streaming by kids home from school.
"The real question," said Craig Labovitz, chief technology officer for Nokia Deepfield, is did we see "40% growth over last week in some places: what will this will look like next week? We've never seen this volume of network-wide growth before so we don't have a lot of data points. And what the real question is, what does this look like growth-wise week after week?"
Sens Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), along with colleagues, introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act to help small broadband providers ensure rural broadband connectivity for students and their families during the coronavirus pandemic. The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades—during the pandemic for low-income families who could not afford to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. The bill is endorsed by NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association, WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, and the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND).
Also introducing the bill were Sens Tina Smith (D-MN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Doug Jones (D-AL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Barrasso (R-WY), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Todd Young (R-IN), and Gary Peters (D-MI)
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, doctors around the country are turning to telemedicine as a safety precaution to contain the spread of the virus. Virtual visits also enable healthcare facilities to more efficiently handle issues not related to the virus. The Federal Communications Commission's Rural Health Care Program (RHCP) is critical for enabling internet connectivity for rural healthcare facilities that may otherwise not be able to afford it by subsidizing a discount for broadband services. Following Hurricane Katrina, the FCC loosened restrictions on the RHCP to allow non-rural providers to apply for support under the program. In 2005, the FCC’s rationale for this decision was that “Hurricane Katrina has also severely limited the ability of healthcare providers in the affected areas to respond effectively to both injuries caused by the hurricane and ongoing medical needs of the population.” Unfortunately, this statement applies almost perfectly to our current pandemic as well. For these reasons, we ask that you loosen the restrictions on RHCP to expand eligibility to all healthcare facilities nationwide as expeditiously as possible.
With the COVID-19 virus having unprecedented impacts on our society and keeping millions of students and teachers home for the foreseeable future, AT&T* is stepping up to enable virtual classrooms across America. AT&T is offering schools a way to save on unlimited wireless broadband connectivity for students. Through May 22nd, qualified schools activating new lines on qualified data-only plans for school-issued tablets, 4G LTE-enabled laptops and hotspot devices will get the wireless data service at no cost for 60 days. And schools know they need to protect their students while online – which is why AT&T is also making AccessMyLANTM for the qualified lines available at no cost for 60 days. This service allows school administrators to manage the internet sites their students can access to help protect them from unsafe content and also to block malicious sites, malware and hacking attempts. To keep administrators, teachers, parents, and students connected, we’re also offering AT&T [email protected] Premium powered by RingCentral at no cost for eligible new customers in K-12 education, as well as healthcare and non-profit social services for up to 60 days with agreement. This enables schools to quickly activate video meetings and always-on chat groups where teachers and students can share files and collaborate on assignments. Schools can setup hotline, phone, fax and SMS capabilities through [email protected] mobile and computer apps.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR), Communications Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-OH) released the following statement today after President Trump signed the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 (S. 893) and the Broadband DATA Act (S. 1822) into law:
“The bills signed into law today by the President are critical to ensuring that all Americans can access broadband and that our networks are secure and trusted. The need for connectivity is even more critical now that millions of Americans are teleworking and learning from home in response to the coronavirus pandemic. We must prepare our networks for the 5G future and ensure federal agencies work together on a comprehensive plan to identify and address security risks in 5G and future wireless technologies — the Secure 5G and Beyond Act requires exactly that....It’s also long past time to fix our nation’s faulty broadband maps. Accurately mapping unserved and underserved communities is essential to promoting the deployment of high-speed service to all Americans and ensuring our investments have maximum impact. The Broadband DATA Act will help tremendously with those efforts....We look forward to continuing to work together to ensure our nation’s telecommunications networks are safe and secure, and that Americans across the country can access the internet.”
S. 893 was the companion bill to the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2019 (HR 2881) which was passed by the House in Jan. This legislation requires the President to develop the "Secure Next Generation Mobile Communications Strategy” with the heads of the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and Department of Homeland Security, as well as the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense. The legislation then requires the President to develop a separate implementation plan for the strategy for the President and NTIA to carry out.
S. 1822 includes the following two bills that passed the House in Dec: The “Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act” or the “Broadband DATA Act,” (HR 4229), which requires the FCC to issue new rules to require the collection and dissemination of granular broadband availability data, to establish a process to verify the accuracy of such data and more; and, the “Mapping Accuracy Promotes Services Act” or the “MAPS Act,” (HR 4227) which specifies that it is unlawful for a person to willfully, knowingly or recklessly submit inaccurate broadband service data.
I applaud the President for signing the Broadband DATA Act and thank the leadership of the Senate and House Commerce Committees for their bipartisan work in moving this legislation through Congress. The Act affirms the Federal Communications Commission’s approach to collecting more precise and granular broadband data through our new Digital Opportunity Data Collection program. At this point, it is vital for Congress to provide the FCC as soon as possible with the appropriations necessary to implement the Act. Right now, the FCC does not have the funding to carry out the Act, as we have warned for some time. And given the Act’s prohibition on the Universal Service Administrative Company performing this mapping work, if Congress does not act soon, this well-intentioned legislation will have the unfortunate effect of delaying rather than expediting the development of better broadband maps. I look forward to working with Congress in the weeks ahead to secure this funding, so that we can ensure that we have the best tools available for bridging the digital divide for the American people.
As schools across the country move toward virtual learning as they shut down their buildings amid the coronavirus emergency, it has highlighted the digital divide that exists between students who have readily available internet access and those who do not. The Federal Communications Commission has announced a number of initiatives to help more people get connected to the internet in the wake of the coronavirus emergency. But some experts, lawmakers, and members of the agency believe it can do more. Benton Institute Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn said she commended FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the agency for some of their moves, but stressed that its decisions in the past—including abdicating its authority to oversee broadband providers as part of its net neutrality repeal—have created a situation where it is asking for participation instead of being able to require broadband providers to step in and help.
“They’re doing some good things and deserve credit for it, but they’re not doing nearly enough…The reason we’re in this position in the first place is because of bad policy. We’re in this position because the FCC has abdicated its authority over broadband. It can’t tell the providers what to do, it has to beg them to do things in a national emergency.” Sohn said while there was “no silver linings in the dark cloud of COVID-19,” she hoped that once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided, the stark contrast between students—and adults—who have access to high-speed internet and who don’t will have been demonstrated enough that lawmakers take serious action to close the digital divide and take a look at issues including price, competition, device availability, and more.
Democratic Reps' coronavirus response plan unveiled March 23 would direct funding to pay for Wi-Fi hotspots for students and bar broadband providers from imposing data caps during the crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced the legislation after the Senate failed to move its own stimulus measure forward. The House's $2.5 trillion "Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act" includes several provisions related to tech and telecommunication issues for the duration of the national emergency, including:
- $2 billion for schools to pay for Wi-Fi hotspots and connected devices including laptops or tablets for students in need.
- $1 billion for an "emergency lifeline benefit" to aid low-income households in obtaining broadband service.
- Codifying and expanding the Federal Communications Commission's "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," in which broadband providers promised not to terminate internet service because of inability to pay. The bill also would prohibit setting limits on the amount of data customers can use, outside of network management practices.
- Empowering the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to impose civil penalties in price-gouging cases related to the coronavirus pandemic.
A draft summary of the bill Senate Republicans are backing includes allocations of:
- $200 million for an FCC telehealth program.
- $25 million dedicated to rural distance learning, telemedicine, and broadband programs.
House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) says wireless broadband providers need to do more to help families connect to broadband during the coronavirus pandemic. While he praised the efforts to date, including waiving overage fees and encouraged "all providers [to] temporarily make as much data available as possible, as quick as possible," he also called on them to provide more data for mobile hot spots during the Covid-19 crisis. "This is an unprecedented time, and wireless providers have already stepped up to the plate in a big way," he said. “But more can be done. Increasing data caps for hot spots is the fastest way to connect Americans temporarily who do not have Wi-Fi at home." "We must not lose sight of the bigger problem: the need to deploy broadband in the long-term," he said.
March 23, President Donald Trump signed into law the “Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020” (S 893). The Act requires the President to develop and implement a strategy for the adoption of secure wireless communications technology in the US and abroad. The strategy will protect the American people from security threats to telecommunications networks and 5G technology.
As part of the strategy, section 4 of the Act purports to require the President to engage in international diplomacy in order to share information and pursue policy goals specified by the Congress. Consistent with longstanding constitutional practice, the Trump Administration will treat the relevant provisions of this section in a manner that does not interfere with the President’s exclusive constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations, including the President’s role as the sole representative of the Nation in foreign affairs.
Section 5 of the Act further purports to condition the President’s authority to implement parts of the strategy upon the approval of the Federal Communications Commission. My understanding is that this provision does not preclude me or future Presidents from exercising our constitutional authorities as the “sole organ” of the Nation in foreign relations and as the head of the unitary Executive Branch to ensure proper implementation of the entire strategy.
Over the past several days we have heard from numerous communities seeking guidance for delivering broadband to unconnected households as fast as possible to meet urgent, critical needs for remote work and education. Free community-provided Wi-Fi can be a lifeline during the pandemic. Given that the current crisis doesn’t seem like it will be short-term, a more robust alternative is to set up a Wi-Fi network for multi-dwelling buildings such as public housing developments. This approach needs to be customized for each building but would include the same key elements:
- Ensure there is adequate backhaul to the building.
- Install Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Connect users to the network.
- Set up user support.
- Set policies to lessen the risk of network congestion.
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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