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FCC Democrats call for broadband action amid coronavirus

They say the agency should be doing more to help bolster broadband access for all.

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FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, is pushing the Republican-led majority to take emergency action to promote broadband deployment in light of the coronavirus outbreak in the US.

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Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission say the agency needs to do more to ensure Americans can access broadband during the coronavirus outbreak in the US. Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks have been sounding the alarm that vulnerable Americans may be left out if the FCC doesn't take action. 

"The coronavirus is already exposing hard truths about the digital divide," Rosenworcel said Thursday.  "But the Federal Communications Commission has the power to help. Nationwide this crisis means that we are going to explore the expansion of telework, telehealth, and tele-education."

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US explodes, schools are closing and companies are telling employees to work remotely, Americans across the country will be relying on their broadband connections, to stay connected to schools, work and medical care. Service providers like Verizon have already begun issuing statements declaring they're ready for the onslaught of traffic coming their way. 

But the extreme social distancing will likely shine a light on the digital divide in the nation's broadband infrastructure, say experts. The FCC estimates 21 million Americans don't have access to high-speed broadband, though many believe that number is much higher, with the inaccurate figure being due to inaccurate maps. With so many people looking to access school and work remotely, the crisis will likely show where exactly broadband is and isn't available. 

Still, it will also highlight the other digital divide, which exists in many urban areas where broadband is available but where people aren't subscribing either because the service is too expensive or they don't see any use for it. In 2017, there were roughly 30.8 million US  households where one or more children ages 3 to 17 reside, according to estimates from the Census Bureau. Of these, 4.1 million households have no home internet connection.

Though there isn't much the FCC can do in the short term to get access to areas where it isn't already available, there are things the agency can do to promote and spur adoption in poor and underserved communities. 

"We know there are millions of children affected by the 'homework gap' who don't have internet access at home," Rosenworcel said. "And we can use existing FCC programs like E-rate and Lifeline to make hotspots available and ensure everyone can get online if their schools should close." 

Take action now

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Rosenworcel and Starks testified before the Senate and House, where they told lawmakers what they thought the Republican-controlled agency should be doing. 

Rosenworcel called on the FCC to ask the nation's broadband providers to suspend data caps and overages on their networks. She also suggested the FCC help these broadband companies get the word out about their existing programs to provide low-cost broadband service, such as Comcast's Internet Essentials program. And she called on the agency to use its Universal Service Funds to help make a greater number of low-cost offerings more widely available.  

She said the FCC could also look at leveraging programs to provide loanable Wi-Fi hotspots to students who need internet access at home for remote learning. E-rate, for instance, is a federal program that provides funding to schools and libraries for internet access. And she said the agency could also help boost access to medical facilities to ensure they can better serve patients who are quarantined at home and need remote medical monitoring. 

"We know that our health system is going to face tremendous demand during this crisis," she said. "And we should be doing everything we can to help alleviate that."

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Rosenworcel added that the time to act is now. 

"The best day to have done this was yesterday," she said in an interview with CNET. "But the second best day is today. This is not a virus that is going to reach every community at the same point in time, so we need to take advantage of that fact and in the next few days and weeks get some solutions in place."

Starks has echoed these suggestions. In addition, he's called on the FCC to expedite waivers for experimental spectrum licenses to expand network capabilities and create additional Wi-Fi capacity in bands such as 5.9Ghz. He's also talked of awarding grants to expand capacity upgrades to underserved communities, and of encouraging broadband providers to offer low-cost services to get more people online. 

The FCC commissioners' calls to action come days after Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking him to take temporary measures to help make sure students can get broadband access and that health care providers have tools to help monitor patients remotely. Washington state is site of one of the earliest clusters affected by the coronavirus outbreak. 

Cantwell cited temporary rules the FCC adopted during past emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina, to help get health care facilities opened to facilitate telemedicine efforts. 

"I believe that the Federal Communications Commission is uniquely positioned to respond to some of the challenges posed by COVID-19 just as it has in the past with disaster response," she wrote. 

A reason to be optimistic

A spokesperson for Pai said the agency didn't have immediate plans to implement these suggested programs amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that "staff is reviewing potential actions to see if there are any that would be both effective and within our statutory authority."  

Still, officials at the FCC said Pai's focus on closing the digital divide has helped prepare the nation for the crisis. The agency says that under Pai's watch the digital divide has been closing, citing data that suggests Americans without access to a minimum of 25Mbps download speeds fell by 30% during the first two years of Pai's tenure as chairman. The US has set records in fiber deployment in 2018 and 2019, Pai's spokesperson added. And the agency has increased the spending cap on its rural health care program by 43%.

Broadband policy expert Blair Levin, a former FCC official who led the effort to write the Obama Administration's 2010 Broadband Plan, acknowledged that if this crisis were happening a decade ago, it wouldn't have been possible for the majority of Americans to even consider working and studying from home, simply because the average download speeds in 2010 were too slow to support such efforts. The average broadband speed in 2010 was 4mbps, he said. Today, it's closer to 100Mbps, which is plenty of bandwidth to support several people working from home or attending classes remotely. 

In addition to shining a light on the deficiencies of broadband coverage and access, Levin said that as the crisis deepens it can also provide valuable information on how people are using broadband and how high-speed internet access affects people's lives. 

"One of the things the FCC ought to be doing is studying what this incredible experiment means for telehealth, education and remote work," he said. "This could really be an opportunity for us to not only see where the holes are in terms of access and adoption, but also in how people are really able to use broadband."