In response to the growing coronavirus outbreak, the FCC announced today that visitors to its facilities will be banned without “special permission” from the Office of Managing Director, and the Commission said it has advised employees to telework beginning tomorrow.
“As the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the United States increases and the World Health Organization has classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, the FCC, effective immediately, will no longer allow visitors into our facilities, absent special permission from the Office of Managing Director,” the agency said in a public notice. “No visitor will be granted such permission unless there is a clear operational necessity. This measure will remain in effect for the foreseeable future and is being taken to help protect the health and safety of our employees and mitigate or slow the transmission of COVID-19 within the community.
“In addition, as a further step to practice greater social distancing and minimize congregating at the workplace and on mass transit, the FCC has advised employees that unless it is absolutely necessary for them to work from the office because they cannot otherwise accomplish their work, they should telework beginning tomorrow morning until further notice,” the public notice added. “We take these steps while continuing to conduct the regular and ongoing work of the FCC and encourage parties with business before the Commission to work with Commission staff to schedule necessary meetings by teleconference. These measures will help to provide for the orderly conduct of Government business, while protecting FCC staff and outside parties.”
The public notice continued, “The Chairman’s Office, in consultation with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Office of Managing Director, and Office of General Counsel, will continue to monitor developments and will implement additional precautions (or relax current precautions) should circumstances warrant.”
Commissioner Brendan Carr and his staff began teleworking today, according to Will Adams, his wireless legal adviser.
“As communications policymakers, @FCC should be a leading example of how we can stay healthy and perform effectively with telework. That’s why starting tomorrow, my team and I will be working remotely. We will reassess the situation as facts develop,” Commissioner Geoffrey Starks tweeted today.
Joel Miller, chief of staff and media legal adviser for Commissioner Mike O’Rielly, said that “per the guidance from the Chairman’s office, we are following the recommended, but optional, telework policy.”
The office of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and FCC spokespersons did not respond to questions about whether Ms. Rosenworcel and Chairman Ajit Pai, respectively, plan to telework.
The FCC also announced today that it has postponed until further notice a March 26 forum on 5G virtualized radio access networks.
“The FCC’s foremost priority at this time, given the COVID-19 pandemic, is ensuring the health and safety both of its staff and the public. For that reason, we are taking the prudent step of postponing the vRAN Forum. I look forward to reconvening at another time when it is deemed safe to do so,” said Mr. Pai. “I hope that the excellent list of participants scheduled to participate in this forum will be able to join us at a later date and help us explore the policy and technical issues involved in open, interoperable, and virtualized radio access networks.”
Last week, the agency announced that it was banning from FCC facilities visitors and employees who have recently been in certain countries, canceling all non-critical travel, and suspending FCC involvement in non-critical large gatherings of people from across the U.S. or the world (TR Daily, March 3). It also has announced that some advisory committee meetings would be held electronically.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Rosenworcel today released a statement elaborating on actions she thinks the FCC should take in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. She discussed the issue this week in Senate and House appropriations hearings (TR Daily, March 10).
“The coronavirus is already exposing hard truths about the digital divide, 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,” Ms. Rosenworcel said.
“The FCC should immediately convene the country’s broadband providers to discuss what they are doing right now to provide service for Americans. We need to explore how we can facilitate public-private partnerships and consumer education campaigns to expand the reach of connectivity as quickly as possible at little or no-cost to Americans who are impacted by the coronavirus,” she added. “Where data caps are in place, we need to explore how those limitations can be eliminated. We also need to understand how broadband providers will keep workers safe and keep their services running for Americans who will increasingly rely on broadband connectivity for work, healthcare, and education.
“At the same time, the FCC should get to work to harness its universal service powers to meet this challenge,” Ms. Rosenworcel stressed. “The FCC should work 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. In addition, as classrooms move online, the FCC should identify how it can use its authority to provide wi-fi hotspots for loan for students whose schools have closed their doors. We have an opportunity to confront this challenge head-on and we need to act with urgency.”
Mr. Starks released a statement reiterating and expanding a bit on comments he made earlier this week to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Among other things, Mr. Starks said the Commission “should consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that will expand network capabilities; creating additional Wi-Fi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band; awarding grants for capacity upgrades in underserved communities impacted by the coronavirus; and encouraging providers to waive data caps, offer low-cost program options that could extend a basic internet connection for millions of Americans, and deploy their emergency assets, such a cell sites on wheels, to unserved communities.”
Free Press asked major Internet service providers today to suspend data caps and overage charges and pause disconnects for non-payment of broadband fees during the pandemic. Free Press also wants the companies to eliminate eligibility requirements for low-income plans and waive billing low-income households, seniors, furloughed workers, and households with students whose public schools are closed.
“The coronavirus has left people on the wrong side of the digital divide particularly vulnerable. Dozens of communities from Seattle to Boston have closed local schools, sent students home and asked them to continue their studies online. Employers have asked staff to work from home instead of commuting to crowded workplaces. People who can’t do their jobs via telework are being sent home or, in the case of industries like the airlines, laid off,” said Free Press Campaign Director Candace Clement. “We may all soon be subject to various degrees of social distancing, which will likely involve a heavier reliance on digital communications and a greater demand for data. Internet providers must ensure that students are still able to learn, employers are still able to conduct business, and we’re all able to communicate with each other without having our connections capped or cut off.
“Especially during a crisis, internet and phone access should be accessible public services like water and electricity. The nation’s broadband providers need to do their part for the public benefit. To minimize disruptions to education, the economy and public life—and to ensure that timely public-health communications are accessible to all—these companies must lower the costs of connectivity for those who struggle to get online or need robust connections to work from home,” Ms. Clement added.
Also, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit announced today that beginning tomorrow, “access to the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse and the William B. Bryant Annex is restricted to judges, court staff, members of the media, and visitors with official business with the courts. We will continue to assess the ongoing need for the entry restrictions and update as warranted. We are taking this temporary action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and out of concern for the health and safety of the courthouse community. Attorneys appearing for oral arguments or hearings before the Court of Appeals, the District Court, or the Bankruptcy Court must show a bar membership card. Pro se parties appearing for oral arguments or hearings should have the case number and the case name. Members of the media must show their credentials.”
“Individuals who have been diagnosed with or who have had known contact with a person with the COVID-19 virus or who have been asked to self-quarantine or who are experiencing flu-like symptoms should not enter the courthouse to conduct business,” the court added.
Parties have canceled, postponed, or modified a number of events of interest to the telecom policy community as a result of the coronavirus.
For example, a March 17 New America Foundation event with Commissioners O’Rielly and Rosenworcel and others on Wi-Fi will now be held only online rather than in person.
Also, the Wireless Connect 2020 event, which had been scheduled for April 2 at the University of Maryland at College Park, has been rescheduled for Sept. 3.
NCTA said today that the cable industry is “intensely focused on providing superior network performance to our customers and constantly evaluating how our networks can handle potential changes in consumer behavior, including increased work-from-home and school-from-home environments. To date, our members in local areas most affected by the outbreak have reported modest, but manageable changes in consumer internet usage. We remain vigilant in monitoring and managing network performance around the clock and are confident that our networks will perform well in adapting to any changes in consumer behavior that may result as a consequence of a community’s response to COVID-19.”
“Given the potential needs of teachers and students for at-home instruction, our companies are actively exploring additional ways to expand existing initiatives and develop strategies that will help more families, especially those with school age children who may be forced to be out of school, get connected,” NCTA added. “Just this afternoon, Comcast announced that low-income families who are new customers can sign up for 60 days of complimentary Internet Essentials service, which is normally available to low-income households for $9.95/month. The company is also increasing speeds for the Internet Essentials service from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps for all new and existing customers.”
Meanwhile, Verizon Communications, Inc. said today that is closely monitoring network usage in light of increases in telecommuting and online learning. “Since the emergence of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the company has not seen a measurable increase in data usage—despite some businesses, schools and other organizations now asking employees to work remotely and students to take classes online,” it said. “Verizon’s networks are designed and built to meet future demand and are ready should demand increase or usage patterns change significantly. … The company will work with and prioritize network demand in assisting the needs of many U.S. hospitals, first responders and government agencies.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
MainStory: FCC FederalNews
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