COVID-19: What Communications Service Providers Need to Know – May 4, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly unfolds, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has been active to keep communications services available through various waivers, extensions, and other regulatory relief. Kelley Drye’s Communications Practice Group is tracking these actions and what they mean for communications service providers and their customers. CommLaw Monitor will provide regular updates to its analysis of the latest regulatory and legislative actions impacting your business and the communications industry. Click on the “COVID-19” blog category for previous updates. If you have any urgent questions, please contact your usual Kelley Drye attorney or any member of the Communications Practice Group. For more information on other aspects of the federal and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as labor and employment and other issues, please visit Kelley Drye’s COVID-19 Response Resource Center. FCC Eases Lifeline Enrollment Financial Requirements On April 29, 2020, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau (“WCB”) temporarily waived until June 30th the requirement that persons seeking to qualify for the Lifeline program based on financial hardship provide at least three consecutive months on income documentation. The waiver recognizes that newly-unemployed individuals may not be able to provide such documentation because their unemployment (and related decrease in income) began so recently. Under the waiver, the FCC will allow individuals to submit an “official document,” such as a notice of unemployment benefits, to demonstrate their income-based eligibility for Lifeline. The waiver directs USAC to develop and issue guidance on the types of acceptable official documentation. WCB also extended its previous waivers of the Lifeline recertification, reverification, usage, and general de-enrollment requirements until June 30th, finding the circumstances necessitating the earlier waivers during the pandemic have not changed. FCC Approves Latest Set of COVID-19 Telehealth Program Applications On April 29, 2020, WCB approved an additional 13 funding applications for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. Under the latest funding round, over $4.2 million will go to health care providers in Colorado, New York, Washington, and other hard-hit states. To date, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program has funded 30 health care providers in 16 states for a total of $13.7 million. Congress appropriated $200 million for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program and the FCC continues to evaluate applications and distribute funding on a rolling basis. While a significant amount of funding remains, the size and pace of disbursements under the COVID-19 Telehealth Program continues to increase and providers should take action now to assess their interest and ability to participate in the Program. Chairman Pai Extends ‘Keep Americans Connected’ Pledge Through June 30 On April 30, 2020, Chairman Pai announced the extension of his Keep Americans Connected Pledge until June 30, 2020. The pledge involves service providers committing for 60 days to not terminate service and waive late fees for residential and small business customers who cannot pay during the pandemic and make their Wi-Fi hotspots available to any American who needs them. Since launching the pledge, more than 700 broadband and telephone service providers have signed on at some point. Before the announcement, Pai held calls with major providers to relay the extension request. While the FCC encourages all providers that signed the pledge previously to extend their commitments, the announcement noted that “some providers, particularly those in small markets and rural areas, may not be able to do so as a result of financial challenges,” and asked such providers to contact the FCC directly to opt out. The Chairman’s comment recognizes the challenges providers face in continuing key services to customers while confronting their own challenges as the pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders persist. Commissioner Suggests Making Temporary Spectrum Access Assignments Permanent On April 28, 2020, Commissioner Brendan Carr said during a Forum Europe webinar that the FCC should consider making permanent temporary spectrum assignments it approved in reaction to COVID-19. “I’m really happy with the quick action the FCC staff took to put more spectrum out there and I’d love to see it stay out there in the commercial marketplace,” Carr said: “We need to make sure that everybody has a fair shot at potentially getting access.” The FCC has repeatedly granted special temporary authority requests and taken other actions to allow the use otherwise fallow spectrum to improve communications and broadband services during the pandemic. Most recently, the FCC granted limited waivers of agency rules to TerreStar to support wireless medical telemetry services and to MIT to sell an indoor health monitoring device. Commissioner Carr’s statement is just one example of the flexible approach the FCC is taking during the pandemic on telehealth spectrum needs. Advisory Committee Discusses COVID-19 Plan at First Meeting On April 28, 2020, the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment’s working groups outlined their plans to address issues related to COVID-19. In the first meeting under its new charter, working groups discussed how the pandemic is affecting minority and disadvantaged communities. The groups focused on increasing diversity among communications companies, funding for libraries, and a possible “a connectivity stimulus” to ensure students have access to broadband, among other plans. While the working groups’ plans are just the first step towards potential FCC action, they show that COVID-19 will continue to influence agency policymaking long after the pandemic abates.