TR Daily Bureau Waives RHC, E-Rate Gift Bans to Ease COVID-19 Response
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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Bureau Waives RHC, E-Rate Gift Bans to Ease COVID-19 Response

Acting on its own motion, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau today waived aspects of the FCC’s rules that prohibit rural medical service providers, schools, libraries, and other parties that receive discounts and services supported by the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care and E-rate programs from soliciting or accepting any gift “or other thing of value” from a service provider participating in the program.

The bureau also waived reciprocal rules against service providers offering or providing a gift or other thing of value “to those personnel of eligible entities involved in either program.” And it waived the requirement for RHC beneficiaries to make payments to the Universal Service Fund equivalent to unsupported connection costs or service costs at urban rates

The action is aimed at helping ensure connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic, so that telecom and broadband service providers can “offer, and eligible RHC and E-Rate entities [can] solicit and accept, improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other things of value to assist health care providers, schools, and libraries as well as doctors and patients, teachers, students, school administrators, and librarians and patrons during the coronavirus outbreak,” the bureau said in an order adopted today in WC docket 02-60 and CC docket 02-6.

The waivers will be in effect through Sept. 30, the bureau said.

“In response to this evolving pandemic, institutions throughout the United States have taken steps to prepare for a rise in COVID-19 cases and mitigate the spread in their communities. Specifically, hospitals and health care providers are preparing to treat an influx of patients, not only in person but also via telemedicine, while many schools have closed or are expected to close and transition to remote learning. In light of the need for increased connectivity during this pandemic, we find good cause to waive through September 30, 2020 the RHC and E-Rate program gift rules in sections 54.622(h) and 54.503(d) of the Commission’s rules,” the bureau said.

“The waiver will enable service providers to offer, and RHC and E-Rate program participants to solicit and accept, improved broadband connections or equipment for telehealth or remote learning during the COVID-19 outbreak without running afoul of Commission rules. We will continue to monitor the situation and determine whether an additional extension of this waiver is warranted,” it added.

The gifts covered by the waivers “could include but are not limited to free upgrades to connections, connected devices, equipment, and other services for RHC program participants who provide care via telemedicine and free broadband connections, devices, or other services that support remote learning for students and teachers who will be taking classes at and providing instruction from home as a result of COVID-19,” the bureau said.

It noted that with respect to the RHC gift rule, the waiver “is limited to health care providers involved in the screening and treatment of patients for COVID-19 and for providing services to other patients in an effort to both help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and devote limited on-site medical resources towards treatment of COVID-19. We also waive any other requirement, to the extent that is necessary, in these special circumstances to effectuate the relief granted, including restrictions on certification requirements.”

“In addition, we waive section 54.611(b) of our rules36 requiring health care providers to pay the unsupported portion of service costs in the Healthcare Connect Fund program and section 54.603(b) requiring health care providers in the Telecom program to pay the urban rate. We anticipate that health care providers could face financial strain as a result of the influx of patients and other demands on the health care system associated with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic; waiver of these rules will permit service providers to voluntarily ease this burden through reduced rates. In addition, waiver of these rules will provide maximum flexibility for service providers and health care providers in developing responses to the pandemic and will eliminate any ambiguity as to whether particular action service providers take in response to this Order could potentially conflict with the rules addressing health care provider payments to service providers,” it added.

With respect to the E-rate gift rule, the bureau noted that the waiver “is limited to offerings made by service providers and solicited or accepted by E-Rate eligible entities on behalf of students, teachers, or patrons while schools and libraries prepare for closures or remain closed as a direct result of COVID-19, regardless of funding year. In taking this action, we find relevant that the underlying purpose of our gift rules, to ensure the integrity of the competitive bidding process, is not likely to be frustrated, particularly where competitive bidding for funding year 2019 is complete and nearly complete for funding year 2020.”

It also warned that “program participants and service providers remain otherwise subject to audits and investigations to determine compliance with USF program rules and requirements. We will require USAC to recover funds through its normal process that we discover were not used properly. We emphasize that we retain the discretion to evaluate the uses of monies disbursed through the USF programs and to determine on a case-by-case basis that waste, fraud, or abuse of program funds occurred, and that recovery is warranted. Additionally, in the event we discover any improper activity resulting from our action today, we will subject the offending party to all available penalties at our disposal, and will direct USAC to recover funds, assess retroactive fees and/or interest, or both.”

Yesterday the bureau waived Lifeline eligibility reverification and recertification requirements in an effort to ease burdens on low-income households during the pandemic (TR Daily, March 17).

In a statement on today’s action, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, ““The increase in COVID-19 patients is presenting unique challenges to America’s hospitals and health care providers. Telemedicine will play an increasingly critical part in treating patients and helping health care providers maximize their impact on their communities. Similarly, as the number of school closures continues to grow, schools are increasingly turning to remote learning for students who will be home for an extended period of time.”

He added, “By waiving certain FCC rules today, we are giving service providers the chance to step up and give health care providers more tools to fight the ongoing pandemic and serve patients more effectively, like increased capacity, more equipment, additional services, and other tools that will help them deliver the best possible patient care. And we strongly encourage service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to provide mobile hotspots and other broadband-enabled devices to students to help bridge the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic. I expect that these private-sector efforts will complement the Commission’s ongoing work with Congress to appropriate funds for a Remote Learning Initiative and a COVID Connected Care Pilot—programs that would allow us to use federal funds to support in-home equipment for patients and students impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In a statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “Today’s waiver of the E-Rate and Rural Health Care gift rules is a smart step to assist in coronavirus response. As a result, schools and hospitals will be able to receive enhanced services and equipment from their service provider without running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission’s gift rules. But let’s not confuse generosity for justice, because we need a national plan to ensure that everyone is connected during these unprecedented days.

“This should include using our universal service powers to provide hotspots for loan for students caught in the Homework Gap so that no child is offline,” she continued. “Teachers and school administrators are asking for this right now and we can help. It should also include working with health care providers to ensure connectivity for telehealth services are available for hospitals, doctors, and nurses treating coronavirus patients and those who are quarantined. We also need to do more so Americans can get online during this crisis at little or no cost. Where data caps and overage fees remain in place, they need to be lifted and eliminated.

“This crisis demands urgent action. There’s more the FCC can do right now—and we should,” Commissioner Rosenworcel concluded.

John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, which had requested that the FCC waive the gift rule as part of a filing yesterday that also called for emergency support for hot-spot lending programs and other actions (TR Daily, March 17), said in a statement today, “The SHLB Coalition applauds the FCC for this timely step in addressing the heightened broadband needs of community anchor institutions. The coronavirus is putting online learning and telemedicine in high demand, meaning that schools, libraries and healthcare providers are using more bandwidth than ever before. With the E-rate and RHC program gift rules waived, ISPs can donate increased capacity and devices like Wi-Fi hotspots to connect students and patients at home. We hope the FCC will continue to be proactive and will explore every opportunity to ensure that all Americans can access healthcare and education services from home during the coronavirus pandemic.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews FCC UniversalServiceLifeline

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