COVID-19 Sparks Outreach Efforts By FCC, Telecom Titans

By Anne Cullen
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Law360 (March 13, 2020, 4:21 PM EDT) -- As more U.S. workplaces and schools shut their doors in an attempt to stymie the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, both the Federal Communications Commission and telecom service providers have taken steps to ensure Americans can get online at home.

Telecom Giants Take FCC Pledge To Soften Billing Rules

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced Friday that the telecom industry has responded overwhelmingly to his call to arms over broadband access amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Pai said dozens of broadband and telephone service providers have signed onto his Keep Americans Connected Pledge, in which the companies promised to keep up service for customers even if their accounts become delinquent, waive late payment fees and open Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them during the coronavirus outbreak.

Major trade groups ACA Connects, USTelecom, WISPA and others have endorsed the pledge, alongside the big four mobile wireless providers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — as well as Comcast, Charter Communications and a spate of other heavy hitters in the telecom industry.

"They are stepping up to the plate and taking critical steps that will make it easier for Americans to stay connected during this pandemic and maintain much-needed social distancing," Pai said in Friday's release. "I urge other companies to join them. This may be a difficult time for our nation, but if we all work together, I am confident that we can rise to the challenge."

On top of the pledge, Charter has also promised to offer free internet access for the next 60 days for households with school and college-age children that don't already have a subscription to Charter's broadband arm, Spectrum. And the provider noted it does not have data caps.

Comcast has also rolled out a program that would offer new customers two months of basic internet access for free and is upping the speeds for existing customers of the basic plan.

FCC Dems Say Pledge Is Fine, But Agency Action Is Better

While the FCC's chief is looking to the industry to shore up connectivity during the coronavirus outbreak, the agency's two Democratic heads said the commission needs to step up too, urging a quick, multi-faceted effort to expand broadband access during the outbreak.

"We need to expand these pledges and make adjustments to FCC programs so that even more Americans can get online during this crisis at little or no cost," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday. "Where data caps and overage fees are in place, they need to be lifted and eliminated."

Her latest comments on the coronavirus allude to an expansive set of recommendations she and fellow Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks floated on Thursday, including the elimination of data caps that might curb access and a low-cost or free expansion of internet to Americans impacted by COVID-19.

Rosenworcel also recommended fostering public-private partnerships and consumer education campaigns to achieve these goals. 

In a separate statement on Thursday, Starks said the agency should consider an emergency stimulus package to brace its existing subsidy programs.

"By deploying this 'connectivity and economic stimulus,'" Starks said, "the FCC's funding programs can contribute to and amplify the stimulus packages that policymakers are now considering."

He also said the FCC should increase the number of hotspots circulated by libraries and schools.

"We should start the FCC's emergency response today," Starks said. 

Trade Group Says Networks Are Ready For Internet Traffic Surge 

As regulators and telecoms seek to expand internet availability during the pandemic, providers are also bracing for the inevitable spike in internet activity that increased access and widespread workplace and school closures will bring. However, prominent telecom trade group USTelecom reported on Friday that its members haven't seen any challenges to their network capacities yet. 

"As of this writing, in communities where a large population of workers are being told to stay home, we have not observed time shifted traffic exceeding peak network capacity," the organization said in a letter to Congress.  "Similarly, providers have not reported material congestion or internet latency issues."

USTelecom, which represents major service providers including AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson and CenturyLink, as well as small, rural companies, said in Friday's letter that all of its members "are closely coordinating and relaying operational performance information to our partners in government."

The group and its members will keep regulators apprised of the status of their mission-critical functions, network incident responses and business continuity plans, USTelecom said.  And it added that they are monitoring their networks "around the clock to assess how the infrastructure is tolerating the internet's changing business, education and social uses."

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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