FCC Dems Press For More Coronavirus Action From Agency

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (March 31, 2020, 4:42 PM EDT) -- The Federal Communications Commission’s two Democrats put forth a slate of ideas Tuesday to curb the spread of the coronavirus and keep vulnerable Americans connected amid the pandemic, saying their agency could move ahead with several action items immediately.

FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks suggested during the agency’s monthly meeting — held via teleconference to comply with social-distancing protocol — that the FCC more heavily leverage its Universal Service Fund to meet immediate connectivity needs.

The broad program, which generally subsidizes internet and phone connections for consumers, as well as communications infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas, could be tweaked to extend Lifeline phone and internet subsidies to the millions of Americans who recently filed for unemployment and allow schools to loan federally subsidized devices to students, Rosenworcel said.

“The FCC could use E-Rate to provide schools with Wi-Fi hotspots to loan out to students who lack reliable internet access at home, just as Sen. Ed Markey and other members of Congress have urged us to do,” she said.

Starks similarly suggested the FCC could implement a “‘connectivity stimulus’ to see Americans through the coronavirus crisis and power our economy.” Helping citizens afford broadband on a greater scale will ensure that students and employees can continue to function remotely, he said.

“Saving lives and saving the economy are not in conflict right now,” according to Starks. “Digital connectivity will remain the safest way to telework, access medical information, look for jobs, and help our next generation learn while school is closed.”

The FCC has already made a number of COVID-19-related policy adjustments, such as organizing a “Keep Americans Connected” pledge among service providers, setting up a new anti-robocall group especially aimed at protecting hospitals and extending deadlines in proceedings like the net neutrality comment period.

However, Rosenworcel said the FCC could go further in eliminating procedural hurdles, including lengthening the period during which tribes can apply for free 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses. Currently, the application window is set to close in August.

The FCC has already pushed back the upcoming auction of the 3.5 GHz band and an auction for construction permits in the FM broadcast service. However, senior FCC officials emphasized this week that they do not intend to put off the C-Band spectrum auction, slated for December.

Providing daily updates on network resilience would be another useful piece of the pandemic puzzle that the FCC could supply, according to Rosenworcel. Although operators have informally reported no major outages or network strains, she suggested those results should be collected and reported by the FCC directly.

“The FCC should study how broadband networks are faring under the stress of more intensive use and publish these findings daily,” Rosenworcel said.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

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

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