Coming together to keep America connected

by Bob Gnapp, director – Member Training and Network Analysis

Life in America, and indeed the entire world, has been substantially changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Included in those changes are the ways we work, learn, seek medical attention and provide for our basic needs. As a nation, we have largely shifted away from face-to-face communication in favor of virtual meetings and classrooms. Those required to stay at home have turned to online shopping to procure their everyday necessities and streaming video to keep themselves entertained and in good spirits.

As a result, there has been a substantial increase in the demand for robust, reliable broadband services. The telecommunications industry, regulators and others have come together to meet this demand and help those suffering financial hardship during this crisis.

Keep Americans Connected Pledge

On March 13, 2020, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Initiative to address the unusual circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure Americans do not lose broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances, Pai asked broadband and telephone service providers to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. More than 650 companies and associations have signed, the majority being rural local exchange carriers.

Those signing the pledge are asked:

  • not to 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;
  • to waive any late fees any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the pandemic; and
  • to open its Wi-Fi hotspots to Americans who need them.

Pai indicated many who signed the pledge have gone above and beyond those requested actions. For example, many providers are offering free or discounted service, removing or modifying data caps and increasing broadband data speeds at no cost.

Bolstering the Rural Health Care, E-rate and Lifeline programs

The FCC has taken several actions to meet the growing demand associated with additional reliance on distance learning and telemedicine.

  • March 13, 2020 order (WC Docket 02-60, FCC 20-30): The FCC waived its rules for funding year 2019 to remove an established cap on program participants seeking support for upfront payments and multiyear commitments. This increased available funding by approximately $42 million for 2019 requests.

  • March 17, 2020 order (WC Docket 11-42, DA 20-285): The FCC waived for 60 days the Lifeline program’s recertification and reverification requirements. This waiver affects Lifeline subscribers with anniversary dates that fall on or between April 14, 2020, and August 14, 2020. The Commission also extended deadlines for a variety of programs to give participants and providers additional time in light of the pandemic.

  • March 18, 2020 order (WC Docket 02-60, DA 20-290): The FCC waived its program gifts rule through September 30, 2020. This waiver allows health care providers, schools and libraries to solicit and accept gifts such as improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear or other equipment or services to support doctors and patients, teachers and students, and librarians and patrons during the coronavirus outbreak.

Congress steps up

On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act provides for $2 trillion to address the COVID-19 pandemic on a range of fronts. For example, the act provides for a loan and grant program for small businesses, expansion of unemployment benefits, direct payments to families and additional funding for hospitals and health care providers. Also included is at least $325 million to directly support various broadband related programs:

  • $100 million for the USDA’s ReConnect programs. This program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvements or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.

  • $200 million for a one-time COVID-19 telehealth program to be administered by the FCC. This program will help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. On April 2, 2020, the FCC issued an order implementing this program and creating a $100 million Connected Care pilot program to help defray health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services and/or equipment.

  • $25 million in additional amounts for distance learning, telemedicine and broadband programs administered by the Rural Utilities Service.

In addition to the CARES Act, several bills are being considered.

  • Senate bill S.3569, also known as the Keeping Critical Connections Act of 2020, would provide up to $2 billion to help small broadband providers who offer free or discounted services during the pandemic and assist consumers who are unable to pay their bills. Companion legislation (H.R. 6394) is currently under consideration in the House.

  • An additional bill (H.R. 6474), also known as the Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, would provide $2 billion to expand telehealth and internet connectivity at public and nonprofit health care facilities. This bill would provide for the expansion of the Rural Health Care program.

NECA is doing its part

On March 31, 2020, we filed revisions to NECA Tariff F.C.C. No. 5 to help our members keep customers connected during the pandemic. The filing, which became effective on April 1, 2020, waives any late payment penalties customers incur because of their economic circumstances due to the pandemic.

The filing also waives nonrecurring installation charges and early termination fees for A/SDSL tariff services installed after March 31, 2020, for teleworking or remote schooling. It is important to note, monthly recurring charges associated with new or increased speed A/SDSL service must continue to be assessed to the access customer and the resulting revenues must be reported to the NECA pool. A/SDSL wholesale customers (e.g., internet service providers), however, are not required to pass along tariffed A/SDSL charges to their end user customer. Therefore, the wholesale customer may offer free or discounted broadband internet access services or increased BIAS speeds to their end users at their discretion and cost.

Just the beginning

The pandemic has shined a bright light on the vital importance of broadband and its role in keeping Americans connected during national emergencies. Perhaps these efforts, along with those of our members and their agents, will lead to a further closing of our nation’s digital divide and a more robust response to future challenges.   

Filed under April 2020 , Tagged with Broadband, Congress, FCC, Lifeline, NECA, Pooling, Tariffs

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