COVID-19: What Communications Service Providers Need to Know – April 13, 2020

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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. 

FCC Establishes the COVID-19 Telehealth Program

On April 2, 2020, the FCC issued a Report and Order (FCC-20-44) establishing the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program will provide $200 million in funding, appropriated by Congress as part of the CARES Act, to help health care providers provide connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program will provide immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by fully funding telecommunications services, information services, and devices purchased on or after March 13, 2020 until the program’s funds have been expended or the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program represents the FCC’s most significant action yet to ensure telehealth services remain affordable and available during the crisis.

On April 8, 2020, the Wireline Competition Bureau (“WCB”) released guidance on the COVID-19 Telehealth applications process. The barriers to funding are relatively low. There are three steps interested providers should take immediately to prepare to apply for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program: (1) obtain an eligibility determination from the Universal Service Administrative Company (“USAC”); (2) obtain an FCC Registration Number (“FRN”); and (3) register with the System for Award Management. The WCB recommends that potential applicants undertake these steps now to apply for the early stages of funding.

On April 10, 2020, the WCB announced via Public Notice (DA 20-403) that it will begin to accept applications for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program beginning today, April 13, 2020 at 12:00 PM ET. Applications for the program may be filed through a dedicated application portal, available on the COVID-19 Telehealth Program page: www.fcc.gov/covid19telehealth. The WCB will accept applications on a rolling basis. To assist applicants in preparing their applications, the WCB will hold a webinar today, April 13, 2020 at 11:00 AM ET, which also will be available on the COVID-19 Telehealth Program page: www.fcc.gov/covid19telehealth. The presentation will assist interested parties in navigating the application portal and provide answers to frequently asked questions regarding the COVID-19 Telehealth Program’s application process. The webinar will remain publicly available for viewing.

FCC Adopts Connected Care Pilot Program

On April 2, 2020, in the same Report and Order (FCC 20-44) establishing the COVID-19 Telehealth program, the FCC adopted the Connected Care Pilot program. This three-year Pilot Program will provide universal service support to help defray certain health care provider costs incurred in delivering connected care services, with a primary focus on services aimed at low-income or veteran patients. The FCC will support selected pilot projects to help health care providers improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs, thereby supporting efforts to advance connected care initiatives. The Pilot Program also would study how connected care could become a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund.  All eligible nonprofit and public health care providers that fall within the statutory categories under section 254(h)(7)(B) of the Communications Act, regardless of whether they are non-rural or rural, can apply for funding under the Pilot Program.

FCC Extends E-Rate Program Deadlines

On April 1, 2020, the WCB granted extensions of key deadlines for participants in the Schools and Libraries (or E-Rate) program (DA 20-364). Specifically, the Bureau waived the service implementation deadline for special construction projects for all funding year 2019 applicants and extended the deadline for funding year 2020 applicants by one year (from June 30, 2020 to June 30, 2021). Under the FCC’s rules, applicants normally must complete special construction projects and the network must be in use by June 30th of the applicable funding year. With schools and libraries closed for lengthy periods of time, the Bureau recognized that service providers may not be allowed on the premises and may experience significant challenges in meeting this construction deadline. The Bureau also (1) extended the service delivery deadline for nonrecurring services for funding year 2019 by one year (from September 30, 2020 to September 30, 2021); (2) granted schools and libraries an automatic 60-day extension to file requests for review or waiver of decisions by USAC; (3) provided applicants and service providers an automatic 120-day extension of the invoice filing deadline; and (4) gave all program participants an additional 30-day extension to respond to certain information requests from USAC.

FCC, FTC Demand Gateway Providers Cut Off Robocallers

On April 3, 2020, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) demanded that service providers take action to stop coronavirus-related scam robocalls from bombarding American consumers. They specifically warned three gateway communications providers allegedly facilitating COVID-19-related scam robocalls originating overseas that they must take action to stop carrying these calls or face serious consequences. Specifically, if the providers do not take action to address the scam robocalls, the FCC will allow other providers to block all traffic from these gateway providers’ networks. The FCC and FTC have been working closely with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) on this first-of-its-kind effort to stop scammers from reaching American consumers. The warning shows that the FCC, FTC, and other agencies plan to aggressively address consumer protection-related issues during the crisis.

Chairman Pai Announces More Keep Americans Connected Signatories

On March 25, 2020, Chairman Pai announced that additional service providers have signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge (see our coverage of the pledge here). Under the pledge, service providers agree to forgo service terminations due to inability to pay, waive late fees, and open Wi-Fi hotspots for those who need them for a 60-day period. There are now 626 service providers and 14 trade associations that have signed the Chairman’s pledge.

FCC Enables Rural Broadband Providers to Waive Certain Consumer Fees

On April 1, 2020, the WCB approved waiver requests from the National Exchange Carrier Association (“NECA”) and John Staurulakis, Inc. (“JSI”) to allow the two organizations to quickly implement tariff changes to ensure that NECA and JSI participant companies have the flexibility to meet the Keep Americans Connected pledge during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WCB’s action immediately permitted waivers of late payment penalties as well as installation and early cancellation fees that the providers normally would be required to assess in accordance with their tariffs. The WCB’s waiver deserves close attention by tariffed service providers and signals the agency’s openness to regulatory relief benefitting consumers.

FCC Waives Restrictions on Hiring Contractors for ASL Interpretation Services

On April 3, 2020, the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau granted a temporary, limited waiver of the Commission’s rule restricting providers of video relay service (“VRS”) from contracting for video interpretation services with an entity that is not itself an eligible provider (DA 20-378). With increased VRS traffic levels and employee absences due to health concerns, school closures, and other restrictions imposed by state and local authorities, VRS providers continue to face a shortage of interpreters able to work as communications assistants. By allowing VRS providers additional flexibility to contract for qualified American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreting from other entities, such as providers of video remote interpreting, the FCC hopes to alleviate this shortage.

FCC Postponing 3.5 GHz Auction on Account of COVID-19

On March 25, 2020, the FCC announced a one-month postponement of the 3.5 GHz auction (3550-3650 GHz) in the Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (“CBRS”), a.k.a. Auction 105 (DA 20-330). The Commission cited the need to protect the health and safety of Commission staff during the auction and the ancillary benefit that parties would have additional time to prepare to participate. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated the agency’s commitment to hold the auction this summer. The auction is the first in the so-called mid-band, a range of spectrum seen as critical to the rollout of 5G wireless applications. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly tweeted that a further delay would be unlikely absent absolutely compelling circumstances. The start of the auction has been postponed to July 23, 2020 (from June 25, 2020), and the new short-form application filing window is April 23 through May 7, 2020. For more information on the postponement and the auction, please see our blog post.

Wireline Competition Bureau Extends Mozilla Remand Comment Cycle

On March 25, 2020, in response to a March 11, 2020, petition asking for a 30-day extension, the WCB issued a Public Notice (DA 20-331) granting a 21-day extension of the comment and reply comment cycle for the proceeding in the wake of the D.C. Circuit’s remand in Mozilla v. FCC (2018). Comments are due on April 20, 2020 (from March 30, 2020), and reply comments are due on May 20, 2020 (from April 29, 2020).

In issuing the extension, the WCB agreed with the petitioners’ argument that individuals, organizations, and state and local governments whose work is dedicated to public safety are increasingly focused on managing the COVID-19 pandemic and may be unable to submit comments on the public safety issues discussed in the remand proceeding. However, the FCC cited the need for expediency in remand proceedings as the reason for granting a 21-day extension instead of the petition’s request for a 30-day extension.

In addition, the FCC took the following actions in response to the pandemic:

  • On March 25, 2020, the Office of Engineering and Technology issued a Public Notice (DA 20-334) granting a 21-day extension of the reply comment deadline in the 5.9 GHz proceeding. Reply comments are now due on April 27, 2020 (from April 6, 2020). Initial comments were due on March 9, 2020. The entire 75 megahertz of the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band is allocated for connected car intelligent transportation systems using dedicated short-range communications (“DSRC”) technology. Under pressure to allocate more spectrum for Wi-Fi operations and dissatisfied with the pace of DSRC development and deployment, the Commission has proposed reallocating 45 megahertz of the Band for unlicensed use and 20 megahertz to cellular vehicle-to-everything intelligent transportation system technology, while preserving only 10 megahertz for DSRC.
  • On April 10, 2020, the FCC’s Office of Economics and Analytics (“OEA”) extended via Public Notice (DA 20-401) the comment and reply comment deadlines for its Public Notice, released on February 27, 2020, which sought input on the state of the communications marketplace to inform the Commission’s required assessment of competition within the communications industry in its second Communications Marketplace Report to Congress. The Report provides an opportunity for stakeholders to evaluate competitive barriers to wireless and fixed broadband deployment, as well as international services. With this extension, comments are now due April 27, 2020 and reply comments are due May 28, 2020.
  • On April 1, 2020, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau (“WTB”) announced (DA 20-365) a compilation of instructions for filing Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) and waiver requests in response to the declaration of national emergency due to COVID-19 issued on March 13, 2020. The WTB STA and Wavier Filing Guide can be found online here. On April 10, 2020, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau provided guidance to public safety entities on requesting STA and waivers (DA 20-404). All providers should consider whether an STA is appropriate to provide additional flexibility and improve service.
  • ​On March 27, 2020, the FCC granted​ STA for 33 wireless Internet service providers (“WISPs”) to use the lower 45 megahertz in the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band for 60 days to address the increase in consumer demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participating WISPs are required to file FCC Form 601 (application for an STA) within 10 days to access the full 60-day STA, and are required to operate in the band on a secondary, non-interference basis so as not to interrupt existing DSRC and federal radiolocation operations.
  • ​On March 26, 2020, the FCC’s WTB granted AT&T Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) to utilize additional spectrum in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for 60 days to handle increased network traffic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 30, 2020, the WTB granted A:shiwi College & Career Readiness Center an STA to utilize unassigned Educational Broadband Service(“EBS”) spectrum for 60 days in the eligible rural tribal land on the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico for similar reasons. These STAs are in addition to the ones previously granted by the Commission. ​
  • On April 10, 2020, the FCC’s WTB enabled AT&T to deploy two cell sites in Wisconsin to support wireless service for a critical medical facility. That facility is being constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Wisconsin State Fair Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to care for COVID-19 patients. The WTB granted AT&T’s request to expedite environmental review of the two proposed wireless tower sites, which will also serve first responders as part of AT&T’s FirstNet public safety broadband network. It is likely that the FCC will grant similar requests to expand communications infrastructure during the crisis.
  • On April 2, 2020, the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released a Public Notice (DA 20-367) reminding authorized alert originators, including state and local governments, that the Wireless Emergency Alert (“WEA”) system is available as a tool to provide life-saving information to the public during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, the FCC, together with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and participating wireless service providers, have taken important measures to promote the effectiveness of WEA, and to make such messages more accessible, including the capability to send more detailed alerts of up to 360 characters for 4G-LTE networks, the option to convey recommended actions for saving lives or property for use in connection with Imminent Threat Messages, and the ability to send alerts in Spanish.
  • On March 26, 2020, the WCB waived a number of rules in its Rural Healthcare Program affecting existing users of the support programs. Most importantly, the Bureau’s order (DA 20-345) permits RHC applicants to extend existing evergreen arrangements with service providers by one year, without conducting an additional competitive bidding process, thereby ensuring continuity of service during the crisis. This builds on the Commission’s previous waiver of rules for both the Rural Healthcare Program and the E-Rate program.
  • On March 30, 2020, the FCC’s WCB issued an order (DA 20-354) waiving certain rules requiring involuntary de-enrollment of Lifeline subscribers, including for non-usage of the service, until May 29, 2020. The Bureau also extended the previous waivers​ of the annual recertification and National Verifier reverification process de-enrollments to May 29 so that all of the waivers will expire at the same time.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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