#RuralisCool, Volume 1, Issue 64 | March 26, 2020


Senate Passes $2 Trillion ‘Phase 3’ Coronavirus Stimulus Bill

Following several days of negotiation, the Senate on Wednesday passed The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2 trillion measure aimed at providing further relief to the country’s health system while also reducing the negative economic impacts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The wide-ranging bill provides cash assistance to individuals, increased paid leave and unemployment insurance, small business loans and grants, economic assistance to multiple industries, and tax relief. The House is expected to pass the measure soon.

While telecom-related measures were mostly left out of the bill, provisions relevant to NTCA members include:

  • $100 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) ReConnect Program
  • $25 million for the RUS Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program
  • $200 million for the FCC’s Connected Care pilot project
  • $562 million in Small Business Administration (SBA) Economic Injury Disaster Loans
  • $350 billion in SBA loans including forgivable loans for certain expenses
  • The ability for the Veterans Administration to create short-term agreements with broadband providers to receive free or discounted broadband service for the purpose of expanding mental health services

NTCA sought the addition of the Keeping Critical Connections Act, a proposal built upon suggestions from the association, which would help sustain many essential connections if customers become unable to pay their broadband bills due to a loss or reduction in income related to the COVID-19 crisis. The bipartisan bill was introduced this week in the Senate by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and in the House by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) And Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). Bloomfield noted in a supportive statement that, “NTCA members embody the community-oriented spirit needed in a time like this, and we support this bill as it provides the tools necessary to assist households with students and those experiencing economic distress due to the pandemic.”

While the bill was left out of the CARES Act, NTCA believes a version of the Keeping Critical Connections Act could be included in a ”phase 4” economic stimulus bill. Congress expects a phase 4 bill to come together in the coming weeks, with the possible inclusion of several major telecom provisions such as funding to upgrade the FCC’s broadband data maps as well as funding to replace certain foreign equipment. Other items still in consideration include relief for retirement programs and a major broadband funding program to eliminate the digital divide.


More NTCA Members Join FCC's ‘Keep America Connected’ Pledge

Internet connectivity has become essential with social distancing becoming the new normal and businesses of various sizes closing physical offices and shops amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now more important than ever that rural Americans can access essential online services that enable them to shop for necessities, seek healthcare, and telework. That is why 250 NTCA members have signed the FCC’s “Keep America Connected” pledge in a show of solidarity with rural communities by waiving late fees, committing not to disconnect customers for failure to pay and expanding their services to people who need them.

Many NTCA member companies are opening drive-up Wi-fi options and increasing their networks’ bandwidth to keep service to schools and homes humming. Bulloch Telephone Cooperative (Statesboro, Ga.), with support from other local community organizations, has managed to install various common-use drive up Wi-Fi hotspots throughout their region.

“In cooperation with the other partners, our staff installed seven drive-up sites that will be used to provide internet access for citizens unable to use other local hotspots that may be unavailable,” said a Bulloch representative. “The sites also promote social distancing by adhering to rules and regulations established by local officials. The drive-up Wi-Fi zones complement our other community Wi-Fi offerings previously installed but are specifically designed to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 health crisis.”

STRATA Networks (Roosevelt, Utah) has provided free broadband internet through June 15 to households that did not have access and gave current customers free speed upgrades to help those studying and working from home.

Federated Telephone Company (Chokio, Minn.) has set up mobile Wi-Fi hotspots at its office locations and along Main Street in one town to cover a wide area. Federated is also working to provide service to people who are not current customers if they have fiber or other infrastructure present.

Many more companies have stepped up, and NTCA is sharing their stories on the Coronavirus Resource Center and social media using #NTCACares.

Do you have a story to share? Contact us at communications@ntca.org.


FCC Warns of Coronavirus-Related Scams, Senators Want Stronger Enforcement

The FCC issued a consumer advisory to warn the U.S. public about coronavirus-related phone and text scams last week. But on Monday, two U.S. senators sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking the commission to do more. The letter, which also went to the Department of Justice, was written by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who authored the TRACED Act that became law in December 2019 and which aims to protect consumers against phone and text scams.

The FCC consumer advisory about coronavirus scams warns consumers about the proliferation of scam phone calls and texts that promote bogus cures, offer fake test kits and generally prey on virus-related fears. The commission notes that it hopes to protect consumers with a new COVID-19 Consumer Warnings and Safety Tips webpage.

The webpage includes sample audio from actual scams and lists six ways individuals can protect themselves from such scams, including:

  • Don’t respond to calls or texts from unknown numbers or any others that appear suspicious.
  • Never share personal or financial information via email, text message or over the phone.
  • Be cautious if you are pressured to share information or make a payment immediately.
  • Note that scammers often spoof phone numbers to trick you into answering or responding – remember that government agencies will never call you to ask for personal information or money.
  • Do not click links in a text message. If a friend sends you a text with a suspicious link that seems out of character, call the friend to make sure he or she wasn’t hacked.
  • Always check on a charity before donating – you can do this by calling the charity or looking at its official website.


NTCA Meets with FCC Chairman’s Office to Discuss Federal Subscriber Surcharges

On Friday, March 20, Mike Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs and business development for NTCA, spoke via telephone with Nirali Patel, wireline legal advisor to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, to discuss a draft notice of proposed rulemaking slated for vote at the FCC’s March 31 open meeting.  In that conversation, Romano expressed concern regarding the mandatory detariffing of end-user “Telephone Access Charges” as proposed currently in the notice and encouraged the FCC to instead seek comment on a permissive detariffing regime specifically for smaller rural local exchange carriers.  In particular, Romano highlighted that the FCC needed to more closely consider the implications of mandatory detariffing of such charges on smaller carriers, the cost recovery mechanisms upon which they depend, and the consumers they serve – and to consider whether permissive detariffing would therefore represent a more sensible alternative.


NTCA Asks FCC to Grant Exemptions for Rural Carriers in STIR/SHAKEN Mandate

NTCA staff spoke by telephone with legal advisors from the office of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Wireline Competition Bureau to discuss the Draft Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the agenda for the agency’s consideration on March 31. NTCA explained that any FCC mandate requiring rural carriers to adopt STIR/SHAKEN caller-ID mitigation technology must account for these operators’ inability to obtain interconnection agreements with upstream carriers for voice traffic in IP format. As NTCA explained, while many rural operators are “all-IP” within their own networks, the upstream carriers with whom they are interconnected and that often serve as a gateway to the outside world often continue to utilize TDM facilities. The presence of such facilities will render rural carriers’ efforts to adopt STIR/SHAKEN pursuant to a FCC mandate technically infeasible, and thus the pending Order should acknowledge that specifically and grant appropriate exemptions.


Notes in the News

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s  Rural Development department provided a summary of actions it has taken to help rural communities affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The FCC has adjusted the schedule for Auction 105 of spectrum in the CBRS band to give participants more time to prepare.

The next FCC monthly meeting scheduled for March 31 will be a teleconference.

The FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau assures public health officials that pandemic-related emergency robocalls are lawful under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The commission issued a public notice providing guidance on letters of credit from non-U.S. banks for Universal Service competitive bidding mechanisms.

The FCC Wireline Competition Bureau confirmed that community use of E-rate-supported Wi-Fi networks is permitted during school and library closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.