Federal Government Takes Multiple Steps to Help Communications Industry Respond to Consumer Needs in COVID-19 Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to escalate and Americans are increasingly compelled to work or study from home, the FCC has taken a series of steps over the past week to promote continuity of voice and broadband services, and also to expand broadband access for those lacking such connections.
On March 13, Chairman Ajit Pai launched the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge in the wake of discussions with providers and the major telecommunications trade associations, including NTCA. The pledge commits each provider for the next 60 days to:
- not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
- waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
- open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.
In the wake of the call from Pai, NTCA submitted a letter endorsing the commitments embodied in the pledge and, as of press date, more than 140 NTCA members have expressed their commitment to the pledge. In a March 18 release, the commission thanked specifically a number of companies for “going above and beyond the pledge,” including NTCA members BEK Communications (Mandan, N.D.) and Ninestar Connect (Greenfield, Ind.). Member companies wishing to join the pledge should email NTCA Senior Vice President of Industry Affairs and Business Development Mike Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On March 17, the FCC waived several Lifeline program rules to streamline the operations of that program during the course of the pandemic. As a result of the waivers, the commission will not de-enroll any Lifeline subscribers over the next 60 days due to a lack of recertification or reverification of eligibility. Consistent with NTCA advocacy on March 13, the FCC also temporarily waived for 60 days a rule that had been a cause of concern for many NTCA members related to requirements for registration of carrier employees interacting with Lifeline databases; a further debate over the long-term scope of these rules remains pending, with NTCA having filed a reply on this question on March 12.
On March 18, the commission released an order waiving “gift rules” applicable to the E-Rate and Rural Health Care universal service programs. These rules typically prohibit schools, libraries, or rural health care providers from accepting anything of value from communications service providers, but the FCC noted that such institutions and the communities they serve could benefit from upgraded broadband connections or equipment to help with distance learning or telemedicine in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the actions described above, the FCC has also taken steps over the past week to ensure the uninterrupted availability of telecommunications relay services through increased flexibility for such providers and to grant temporary spectrum access to several providers to help meet increased customer demand for broadband during the pandemic. NTCA remains in close contact with commission officials to discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on a variety of agency programs and deadlines.
NTCA is also engaged with other policymakers and agencies in Washington beyond the FCC related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the communications sector, and smaller rural operators in particular. For example, in response to a letter sent by Sen. Kamala Harris to 10 major infrastructure associations, NTCA outlined the efforts of its members to help maintain critical connections in rural areas. NTCA continues to discuss with policymakers as well how any stimulus efforts could best promote investment in broadband infrastructure. Finally, as NTCA continues specifically to advocate for access to information and critical materials such as personal protective equipment and testing kits for telco employees, it shared with members earlier this week letters that could provide assistance to operators requiring access to restricted areas to perform network installation or restoration activities and in obtaining access to additional fuel resources. (Member login is required to access the letters online.)
More information for members related to communications operations during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in NTCA’s Coronavirus Resource Center
Telecom Associations to Host COVID-19 Communications Industry Briefing on Federal Initiatives & Actions
Along with USTelecom, WISPA, and WTA, NTCA will host a webcast briefing on initiatives and actions by various government entities including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Congress, FEMA, the White House and the FCC, as well as relevant developments at the state level that impact communications providers and the communities our members serve. The webcast will take place on Mondays at 3 p.m. ET for the foreseeable future, starting on Monday, March 23. The webcast is open to all NTCA members, and registration is required. To register, click here.
Congress Passes Economic Recovery Package in Face of COVID-19 Pandemic
Congress this week passed an economic recovery bill even as debate continues around additional measures.
The first phase of economic recovery efforts overwhelmingly passed Congress on March 5. President Trump signed the $8.3 billion funding bill into law the next day in an effort to shore up agency budgets to develop vaccines and testing kits for local communities. The funding also went towards increased staffing for health departments and additional lab equipment.
The second phase of economic recovery efforts passed Congress on Wednesday, includes free coronavirus testing; two weeks of paid sick and family leave; increased funding for Medicaid and food security programs; and increased unemployment insurance. As an emergency funding measure, it is not yet clear what the final cost will be.
A third phase of economic relief efforts remains the subject of active debate. While talks are still fluid, White House statements suggest a strong possibility that the bill will deliver individual checks to most adult Americans; devote $300 billion to small businesses; and create a $50 billion direct loan program for the airline industry.
NTCA’s Government Affairs team has been working this week on a number of broadband and employee benefits-related topics, as well, and Congress is currently considering several measures of importance to NTCA members.
Among the items in discussion right now include:
- Funding to replace Huawei and ZTE equipment in use in American telecommunications networks;
- Funding to implement the FCC’s updated broadband mapping system;
- Funding to significantly increase rural broadband deployment;
- Funding to deploy WiFi and mobile hotspots;
- Funding to provide internet access to students;
- Relief for 401ks and pensions
The Senate has announced it will not go into recess until the phase-three funding measure has passed, which could happen as soon as Monday.
NTCA will continue to update members as additional legislative actions take place.
FCC Releases List of RDOF-Eligible Areas
The FCC released a list and map showing census blocks that may be eligible for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. Potentially eligible census blocks include those in which no locations have broadband service available to them at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps, based on information reported by service providers on Form 477 as of June 30, 2019. In a public notice, the commission also detailed a challenge process that will run until April 10, 2020. Challenges must fall into one of three categories:
- Current Form 477 filers should identify as ineligible any census blocks that have become served with voice and 25/3 Mbps or faster broadband since June 30, 2019.
- Parties are invited to identify specific census blocks that have been awarded funding by a federal or state broadband subsidy and where a provider has an enforceable commitment to offer broadband at 25/3 Mbps or faster and for which funding has already been paid or a formal commitment has been executed.
- Rate-of-return carriers can identify any census blocks within their service areas to which they do not expect to extend broadband in satisfaction of their USF deployment obligations.
NTCA Recommends FCC Require VoIP Providers to Comply with Truth-in-Billing Rules
The FCC should require providers of interconnected VoIP services to comply with the same truth-in-billing rules as those that apply to providers of traditional voice services, advised NTCA in comments filed with the commission. The comments were made in response to a request from the commission for recommendations on how to strengthen existing truth-in-billing rules.
The marketplace views VoIP services as substitutes for traditional voice services in the marketplace and use of such services has increased significantly for many years running, NTCA noted. Accordingly, the commission should apply like rules to like services, NTCA argued.
Notes in the News
FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly sent a letter to Chad Rupe, administrator of the USDA Rural Utilities Service recommending rules for the ReConnect program aimed at preventing network overbuilding.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced working groups for the commission’s Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force.
The FCC said it will fully fund all FY2019 demand in the Rural Healthcare Program.
The proposed Universal Service Fund contribution factor for the second quarter of 2020 will be 19.6%.
The FCC released Form 477 data on broadband deployment as of June 30, 2019.
Several NTCA members were among the winners announced for Auction 103 of spectrum in the 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands.>