COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how we work, learn, and interact with others in recent months. As schools are closing and non-essential businesses shut down, it is clearer than ever that we need to continue working to connect Americans who are unable to get online. This will not be an easy task. It will require both expanding existing programs and building out current networks while building up new network infrastructure. This undertaking also requires implementing new plans to provide resources and opportunities for those who may not yet have access to affordable, reliable broadband.
The current health crisis has highlighted the need for high-speed connectivity throughout the US, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in a key position. The agency has the ability to introduce and implement policy proposals to help ease the burden on underserved communities, while allowing for quicker buildout of wireline and wireless networks in unserved areas that lack basic connectivity. The nation is at a critical juncture and as the public health crisis worsens more people will be required to conduct their lives from home. As a result, internet access will be even more essential.
The FCC has been working to promote connectivity by implementing the “Keep America Connected Pledge,” waiving the E-Rate gift and Lifeline involuntary de-enrollment rules, and extending deadlines for applications to the Rural Healthcare Program. These are important steps to bringing new users online and keeping those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic connected. Still, there are millions of Americans who remain disconnected. The FCC should support local solutions that accelerate broadband deployment for populations that the federal government has been unable to reach.
Congress has recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). This Bill provides over 200 million dollars in funding for the FCC to promote broadband deployment and increase the ability of programs like the Rural Healthcare Program to serve an increased number of providers, many of whom are seeing an increased burden on their networks as patients are limited to telehealth and telemedicine solutions instead of traditional trips to the doctor.
In a letter to the FCC Next Century Cities (NCC) commended the FCC and Congress for taking the necessary steps to help combat the current pandemic, however, there is far more that can be done to help those who do not have reliable access to the internet. Specifically, NCC urges the FCC to use funds from the CARES Act to expand the E-Rate and Lifeline programs. Expansion of the E-Rate program will allow schools and libraries to purchase the technology they need to help Americans of all ages in their communities to stay connected. NCC also urged the FCC to strengthen the Lifeline program, the only federal telecommunications subsidy that helps low-income households to obtain access to telephone or broadband services. The FCC should collaborate with local officials on strategies to build out robust wireline networks which will complement wireless network expansion and provide meaningful increases to network infrastructure.
As more and more households are required to utilize high bandwidth applications, NCC also recommends that the Commission reevaluate the current minimum speeds which were not designed to accommodate the levels of distance learning, teleworking, and video conferencing now required. Increasing the minimum speeds will increase efficiency for consumers, reflecting the current demands placed on networks nationwide as well as the capability of current broadband technologies.
NCC urges the FCC to work with local officials. They have a vested interest in building networks in communities that the federal and state governments cannot reach. Local leaders have the strongest views of the needs of their communities, but are noticeably absent from FCC advisory committees. Local leaders have critical insights on how to improve policies such as One-Touch Make Ready or “dig once.” The FCC should consider getting network performance updates and working with local leaders to understand how the agency’s policies impact local networks.
Click here to review the April 3rd letter to FCC Commissioners.