FCC Leaders Say Coronavirus Highlights Broadband Needs

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (March 10, 2020, 5:04 PM EDT) -- Former Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn suggested on Tuesday that both the agency and the telecom private sector must think creatively about how the internet can help stem the tide of the COVID-19 outbreak, telling a Washington, D.C., audience that web access is a key commodity to managing the global crisis.

As officials temporarily shutter some schools and urge employees to work from home if possible, Clyburn said service providers and regulators must find ways to increase access to teleworking, telemedicine and online education.

For example, she said many low-income Americans have limited data plans that could easily be maxed out if they must rely on that service to sustain their work and school days from home.

"Can we relax those plans? Can we expand on them? Can we enable our WiFi hotspots to be checked out? There are a number of things the FCC could do — and more things that private industry could do — because this has the potential to be incredibly economically disruptive," Clyburn said at the Free State Foundation's annual policy conference.

Clyburn's call echoes steps that telecoms take following natural disasters such as hurricanes — suspending data caps and billing deadlines until the affected areas are more stable.

Instead of delivering a live keynote speech at the Free State Foundation event, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai addressed the group via a prerecorded video.

"I had hoped to be with you all in person today, but let's just say that was a tough sell, considering that my wife is an immunologist who used to work on infectious disease," he said, prompting some laughs from the audience.

While Clyburn presented a bullish view on the FCC's role in helping to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus that produces flu-like symptoms, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly cautioned that other agencies are better positioned to step in right now.

Although the FCC does provide internet connections to rural clinics and is exploring an at-home telehealth pilot program, its resources are "somewhat limited in comparison" to other health-focused regulators, O'Rielly said while sharing the stage with Clyburn.

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wants to launch the pilot program soon, according to O'Rielly, but "that is months away," and it will still "take a considerable amount of time to set up and operate" those projects.

"That's not going to help the people today who have [the] coronavirus when they're especially susceptible," O'Rielly said.

The connection between combatting the COVID-19 outbreak and broadband is on the mind of other FCC members, as well. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Tuesday that many students moved to web-only classes are likely to be unprepared.

Rosenworcel tweeted that "17% of students have no computer at home. 18% of students have no internet at home. With the #coronavirus, schools are shutting down and classes are heading online. But not all of our students will get there."

Last week, the FCC announced cautionary measures that include canceling all "non-critical FCC domestic and international travel," as well as canceling participation in "non-critical large gatherings that involve participants from across the country and/or around the world."

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association announced Tuesday that its planned conference with more than 1,000 attendees will still meet in Dallas next week.

"The novel coronavirus is not to be sniffed at, but its risks are manageable," according to a statement from the group.

Mobile trade group GSMA and cable group ACA Connects, among others, have chosen to cancel their telecom-related events.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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

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