In response to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has secured pledges from a growing list of major and minor broadband players to loosen billing rules and provide free access to existing public Wi-Fi hotspots. Some carriers are also waiving data caps. With increased reliance on telework as offices send workers home, online student education as universities and K12 schools send students home, and telehealth services to treat patients at home wherever feasible, a broad consensus has quickly emerged that greater public and residential broadband access are needed to handle this crisis. Increased broadband-enabled homecare, in particular, has the potential to free up resources at hospitals as they face increased Coronavirus patient loads. Indeed the President signed legislation last week allowing Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine in outbreak areas while the federal government and states such as Colorado are working with insurance carriers to encourage waiver of telehealth related fees.
The four federal universal service programs authorized by Congress in 1996 represent tools in the FCC’s arsenal to immediately increase and enhance broadband access for all Americans. For example, E-rate funds broadband access for K12 education to and within schools. However, with appropriate limits, E-rate could fund home-based Internet access for students that lack such access (the so-called “homework” gap), if only on a temporary emergency basis. In addition, the Commission could grant communities “parking lot” access to existing E-rate funded Wi-Fi networks in schools and libraries – which are largely unused during off-hours and when schools and libraries are closed. Notably, many rural communities depend on McDonald’s restaurants for public Wi-Fi access and with McDonald’s announcing it will close its public access areas, pressure on the FCC to act in this area could grow.
The Rural Health Care universal service program – which funds broadband to benefit rural health care providers – will see greater than usual demand for funding as clinics and hospitals increase the size of their broadband connections to deal with the crisis. There are many actions that the Commission could quickly take to smooth and speed the Rural Health Care funding process and increase access to funding. These include extending filing windows, loosening competitive bidding rules to allow vendors to increase bandwidth to customers already under contract, and waiving or increasing current program funding caps. (The Commission last week waived last year’s funding caps on a limited basis but has yet to take action for the upcoming funding year which begins July 1.)
Lastly, the Commission has not yet acted on a $100 million pilot program it proposed last July that would support broadband for “connected care” to patients in their homes. The importance of this program has obviously grown exponentially in light of the pandemic. While this program will take time to implement, the Commission could move quickly to launch the program and could perhaps increase its size above the $100 million initially proposed. The Schools Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition recently set forth these and other ideas for Commission action.