TR Daily Pai: Keeping Americans Connected Is FCC’s Top Pandemic Priority
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Friday, April 17, 2020

Pai: Keeping Americans Connected Is FCC’s Top Pandemic Priority

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said today that pandemic response has been the FCC’s “primary focus” for the past five weeks, and that, in light of greater reliance on Internet access for a whole range of activities during social distancing and widespread loss of income, “we decided that our top priority was to make sure that as many Americans as possible have Internet access and that that no American would have their Internet and voice service cut off because of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Speaking during an online workshop organized by the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) and the International Institute of Communications, Chairman Pai said that the FCC has chosen to rely on “markets” before regulatory “mandates” to achieve those goals.

“In times of crisis, I understand how some might be tempted to look for any lever they can find to compel private companies to carry out the government’s goals,” he said. However, he chose to ask “broadband and telephone service providers to take what we call our Keep Americans Connected pledge. The pledge has three core commitments: no consumer would lose service over the next 60 days due to an inability to pay a bill because of the disruptions associated with the pandemic; no one would be charged late fees because of the pandemic; and Wi-Fi hotspots would be opened up to anyone who needs them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. More than 700 broadband and phone providers have signed the pledge, including all of the nation’s largest service providers and many of the smallest.”

In light of recent media reports of consumers who have had their Internet service cut off despite those pledges, TR Daily asked the FCC what it is doing to hold providers to their Keep Americans Connected pledges. An FCC spokesperson said, “Our Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has been working to ensure that providers are following through with the commitments they made in the pledge.”

In his remarks during the online workshop, Chairman Pai said, “Some might wonder: why are these private companies acting in the public interest? I think the biggest factor is that these decisions are made by people. And in trying times, most people want to do the right thing, not just for their company, but for their fellow citizens and for their country. But I also think that the market creates powerful incentives for companies to do the right thing. If your company doesn’t step up for you, or even worse, engages in bad behavior, consumers will be much more likely to turn to the competition in the weeks, months, and years ahead.”

Chairman Pai also emphasized the importance of using “every tool in the toolkit. None of the FCC’s programs was developed with a pandemic in mind, but all of them sure can help.” He cited the agency’s Rural Health Care Program, and the new COVID-19 Telehealth Program that builds on that foundation. “Similarly, the FCC has examined our programs to connect schools, low-income households, and individuals who are deaf or have a speech disability, and has relaxed rules to help extend service to more people during this pandemic,” he said.

He also advised, “During an emergency, act like it’s an emergency. If there’s one area where bureaucracies struggle most, it’s doing anything fast. But during a pandemic, delays can be deadly. So the FCC has put a premium on making decisions as quickly as possible. We’re talking days, not months or years.

“In particular, it seems like every other day, we have been granting temporary authority to wireless carriers to use additional spectrum to meet the increased demand for mobile broadband. We’ve already seen evidence that one of these waivers has helped a provider double the speeds for its 4G service in certain areas of the country,” he added. He cited similarly swift action “to identify new scam robocalls and text messages offering free home testing kits, promoting bogus cures, selling health insurance, and preying on virus-related fears. We’re working to warn consumers about these schemes and how best to protect themselves.”

Finally he said, “To get the policies right, you need to treat the people on your team right. The health and safety of FCC employees is paramount to me. That’s why, on March 12, I directed all FCC staff who could telework to begin working from home. For context, on March 19, California became the first state in the U.S. to issue a stay-at-home order. We know that many of our staff are home with children, so we’ve given staff 10 hours a week of leave if necessary to tend to family concerns. These decisions may seem small, but I believe they make a big difference. They’re the right things to do for our dedicated professionals who always give us everything they’ve got.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews FCC Covid19 InternetIoT

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