FCC, Lawmakers Work To Expand Emergency Wi-Fi Access

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (March 16, 2020, 5:18 PM EDT) -- The Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to expand telehealth funding and to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus in its headquarters, but lawmakers are calling on the FCC and the White House to free up more resources to keep Americans online as they follow work-from-home orders from their employers.

Lawmakers Petition for More WiFi Hotspots

A coalition of 16 Democratic senators — including Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — called on the FCC on Monday to allocate subsidy funds for emergency Wi-Fi routers.

According to the senators, the agency has about half of its annual $4 billion E-Rate program funds left to dole out. Instead of spending those subsidies on internet connections for schools and libraries that are increasingly vacated around the country, the FCC could use the money to provide home connections so students can continue with online learning, they said.

Typically, the E-Rate program uses universal service funds collected from carriers to help schools and libraries build out their telecom infrastructure instead of directly providing consumer products.

"This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency," the senators wrote. "We strongly urge you to consider how much of this funding can be spent on one-time discounts for schools seeking to loan Wi-Fi hotspots to students who do not have internet at home, as well as those trying to equip school-distributed devices with Wi-Fi capability that can be lent out while physical classes are on hold."

Similarly, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., wrote a letter Friday to President Donald Trump, urging the White House to allocate some of its $42.6 billion disaster-relief funds to mobile hotspots. That would allow schools and libraries to buy and lend more to students who are stranded at home without internet due to COVID-19 precautions, they wrote.

"Given the current circumstances, students without access to broadband risk being left behind, a scenario that could cause irreparable harm to the long-term education of 12 million American children," the letter said.

FCC Steps up Telehealth Funding

Meanwhile, the FCC is taking steps of its own to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has already led to widespread changes in daily American life, including the closure of courts, offices, gyms, restaurants and bars as well as the cancellation of large events.

On Thursday, the FCC said it would further restrict access to its headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C., barring all visitors who aren't absolutely necessary and requiring all employees to work from home if they can.

"This measure will remain in effect for the foreseeable future and is being taken to help protect the health and safety of our employees and mitigate or slow the transmission of COVID-19 within the community," the agency said in a public notice.

The agency also extended the window during which schools and libraries can apply for E-Rate funding "due to potential coronavirus disruptions." Furthermore, it granted additional connectivity funding requests to rural health care providers so they "can continue to obtain critical communications-based technologies for the delivery of health care services to their communities" and allowed sign-language phone call interpreters to work from home.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the funding expansion of roughly $42 million a "critically important step" to slow the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic.

"COVID-19 presents serious challenges to healthcare providers, and they need every tool in the toolbox at their disposal, particularly the enhanced connectivity that enables them to provide vital healthcare services to the American public," he said in a Friday statement.

T-Mobile Gets Spectrum Boost

Over the weekend, the FCC announced that it will temporarily give T-Mobile additional airwaves capacity "to help it meet increased customer demand for broadband during the coronavirus pandemic."

The major mobile provider had previously asked for permission to access more of the 600 MHz band so it could offer more connectivity for people affected by the spread of the virus, such as first responders and employees who are teleworking. T-Mobile became a major license-holder in the range when the FCC arranged for broadcasters to vacate the 600 MHz band and auctioned off the cleared licenses to mobile providers.

"This temporary authority will help T-Mobile better serve customers who, like all of us, are making significant adjustments to their daily lives to minimize in-person interactions and slow the spread of COVID-19," Pai said in a Sunday statement.

According to Pai, the move builds upon the agency's Friday announcement that telecom heavyweights 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. As of Monday afternoon, he said more providers had signed onto the pledge, bringing the total number of participating companies up to 185.

--Additional reporting by Anne Cullen. Editing by Alyssa Miller.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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