Coronavirus Shows the Value of Advanced Communications and the Role of the FCC

As information (and misinformation) ricochets around the world in the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we see the unprecedented importance of connectivity. Whether it is Twitter, Zoom, or Words with Friends, connectivity is a vital lifeline in this crisis. Broadcasters disseminate breaking news, and broadband and telecom companies enable citizens to telework, share information, interact with their doctors, and attend virtual school. Families can stay in touch with loved ones, including the at-risk and elderly, while still practicing “social distancing.”

COVID-19 presents a remarkable circumstance because of the breadth of its impacts and the evolving approach taken by all levels of government. This public health situation also presents logistical challenges and will inevitably force shifts in regulatory priorities. The response in the telecom, media and technology (TMT) area, specifically, can be broken roughly into two phases: immediate and shifting response to the present crisis, particularly by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission), followed by possible longer term shifts in policy.

Given the centrality of communications, the FCC has been active.

In recent days the FCC has been addressing issues raised by COVID-19, working with agency staff and bureau chiefs to get decisions made quickly. It is doing this while continuing its other work, restricting access to its facilities, and moving more than 1500 employees—engineers, lawyers, economists, administrative staff—to remote work. A few examples of recent actions are instructive:

  • Chairman Pai has worked with almost 200 telephone and broadband companies on a voluntary Keep Americans Connected Pledge because “[i]t’s critical that Americans stay connected throughout the coronavirus pandemic so that they can remain in touch with loved ones, telework, engage in remote learning, participate in telehealth, and maintain the social distancing that is so important to combatting the spread of the virus,” said Chairman Pai.

  • The FCC has affirmatively recognized the role broadcasters play in disseminating critical information to the public, and is coordinating with DHS to ensure that broadcasters have continued access to fuel and infrastructure facilities during this time of national emergency.

  • The FCC granted Telecommunications Relay Service providers temporary waivers to help American Sign Language interpreters work from home so that providers can maintain relay services for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind, or have a speech disability.

  • The FCC is letting T-Mobile use additional spectrum to help it meet increased customer demand for broadband.

  • The FCC adopted an order on its own motion “to grant limited waivers of the rules necessary to fully fund all eligible Rural Health Care Program funding requests filed during the FY 2019 application window.” According to the Commission, “[t]his action will ensure that rural health care providers can continue to obtain critical communications-based technologies for the delivery of health care services to their communities.”  

The Chairman has made clear that the mission of the FCC is to do whatever it can to lessen the severity of the crisis and support communications activities that can help. The four Commissioners have generally been supportive, urging rapid and appropriate actions.

To the extent an FCC policy or rule needs to be waived or adjusted, companies or other stakeholders should consider bringing that specific need to the agency’s attention as soon as possible. There also may be funding opportunities as the Commission evaluates existing programs and future plans, particularly in areas like connected care and rural access.

We are seeing questions arise about ongoing FCC work.

The FCC may adjust the agenda for its upcoming Open Meetings, at which regulatory activities are announced or acted on. In March alone, the FCC is poised to address topics as varied as a call authentication mandate to address illegal robocalls, proposals to address Next Generation TV, and pricing regulations affected consumer bills. We may see issues added to this meeting, to address COVID-19 issues. We expect the FCC to continue to take aggressive action to ensure its regulations and processes are not unnecessary barriers to telehealth, broadband connectivity, or the dissemination of breaking news.

COVID-19 adjustments impact staff’s ability to review pending applications, transactions, or enforcement work. All of this is happening while the FCC is under tight deadlines to implement recent legislation focused on robocalling, and the agency is litigating important cases around the country.

Some activities and field hearings are being postponed, and regulated entities may struggle to meet filing deadlines with their own staffs moving to remote work.

COVID-19 response will impact future expectations and policy.

From our vantage point, we expect to see more innovation and citizen empowerment driven by advanced communications services and technology. There will be many “lessons learned” from COVID-19. Big picture, we expect more openness to innovative technology and services—from telehealth to drone delivery to biometrics. Citizens may demand it, once they see that they can obtain groceries, medicine, education, and daily work through unprecedented connectivity. While some sectors and policymakers have recently warned of a “techlash,” the central role technology plays in meeting this crisis may redefine the narrative.

From a policy standpoint, government likely will redouble its interest in pushing 5G and using artificial intelligence, biometrics, and other innovations. We also expect that the COVID-19 crisis will further underline challenges in getting broadband access to all Americans and is likely to prompt additional steps—at the FCC and in Congress—to push broadband deployment in currently underserved communities.

It also remains to be seen how “sticky” some of these changes will be. Will COVID-19 lead to a general reduction in travel, conferences, and in-person meetings? Or will the crisis simply demonstrate how important (and irreplaceable) some of these events are?  Consumer and business reactions will inform future investment and innovation post-crisis.

Wiley’s TMT team for decades has worked with companies, innovators, and the FCC in every major natural disaster and crisis. We help broadcasters focus on mission critical public communications and alerts. We smooth regulatory hurdles to getting wireless and wired communications back up after hurricanes. We identify barriers and needs to the FCC and help get action. And we champion innovation as a solution. Stay tuned for additional updates and insights from us as the economy, and the communications sector in particular, works through the challenges presented by COVID-19.

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