In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC has been active to keep communications services available through various waivers and actions. Kelley Drye’s Communications practice group is tracking these actions and provides this overview of the key actions impacting enterprise and small business customers of communications services. For additional information on these and other FCC actions, follow Kelley Drye’s CommLaw Monitor, where we post regular updates of the latest regulatory and legislative actions impacting the communications industry.
Over 500 Service Providers Pledge to “Keep Americans Connected”
On March 13, 2020, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called on broadband and telephone service providers to forgo service terminations due to inability to pay, waive late fees, and open Wi-Fi hotspots for those who need them for the next 60 days. As of March 31, 2020, the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected page lists 550 participating service providers and 10 trade associations. The providers that have taken the pledge have agreed to, for the next 60 days: (1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; (2) waive any late fees that residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and (3) open their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.
The Pledge applies only to residential and small business customers. “Small business” is not defined in the Pledge and may be subject to some variation depending upon the service provider. The Pledge does not apply to enterprise customers.
Additional Voluntary Actions for Low-Income Consumers
Chairman Pai also asked providers to expand or implement programs for low-income Americans, and to relax data cap policies in appropriate circumstances. Several carriers have already rolled out modified service offerings aimed at providing Internet access for free or at a reduced cost to low-income individuals and households, as well as K-12 households. Consumers and small businesses should review the list of service providers to determine if additional offerings are available in your area.
FCC Pauses Most Lifeline De-Enrollments for 60 Days
The FCC also has taken actions designed to protect customers of the FCC’s Universal Service Program providing wireless service to low-income customers. On March 17, 2020, the Wireline Competition Bureau issued an order (DA 20-285) waiving the Lifeline program’s recertification and reverification requirements (sections 54.405(e)(4) and 54.410(f) of the Commission’s rules) until May 16, 2020. This FCC order follows several state orders and decisions prohibiting or discouraging public utilities from disconnecting a consumer’s communications services. The FCC order also postpones the March 26, 2020 effective date of the requirement under section 54.406(a) of the Commission’s rules that eligible telecommunications carriers must require their enrollment representatives to register with USAC to May 25, 2020. On March 30, 2020, the FCC also waived the de-enrollment requirement for non-usage of the Lifeline service until May 29, 2020 and extended the previous waivers to May 29 as well so that all of the waivers would expire at the same time.
FCC Eases Rules for Providers of Video Relay Services for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired
On March 16, 2020, the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau issued an order (DA 20-281) waiving several telecommunications relay services (“TRS”) rules and at-home Video Relay Service (“VRS”) pilot program requirements in response to increased demand for communications assistants (“CAs”) and an anticipated reduction in the number of CAs able to work from call centers. Under the order, rules that limit the number of at-home minutes a CA can handle, that require CAs to have at least three years of experience, and multiple other rules designed to protect against fraud by CAs are waived for 60 days. In addition, the waiver permits a VRS CA to handle international calls (otherwise prohibited under the pilot program) and, in the traditional TRS program, waives the speed-of-answer call requirements. The applicable provisions of the Commission’s rules are waived through May 15, 2020. These actions should enable TRS and VRS providers to keep up with increased demand and to better utilize workforces that are unable to report to a traditional call center during the COVID-19 outbreak.
FCC Temporarily Grants Wireless Carriers Access to Additional Spectrum
The FCC has taken several actions designed to expand the ability of wireless service providers to handle the anticipated increase in demand from remote workers and distance learning in schools. On March 15, 2020, the FCC began granting Special Temporary Authority to several U.S. carriers, allowing them access to additional spectrum for the next 60 days in order to handle the increase in network traffic because of social distancing and stay-at-home orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. T-Mobile, Verizon (also here), U.S. Cellular, AT&T, rural wireless ISPs, and a tribal service provider in New Mexico have all received permission to utilize additional spectrum. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in a tweet, questioned whether U.S. networks can handle increased traffic and called on the FCC to utilize the disaster reporting system for COVID-19 and expand reporting requirements beyond telephone service to reflect the “broadband age.”
FCC Actions to Promote Service to Schools, Libraries, and Rural Healthcare Providers
Recognizing the likely increase in distance learning and telehealth services, the FCC has taken multiple actions designed to ease its rules applicable to existing FCC subsidies and is planning to accelerate new programs to support telehealth applications. Schools, libraries, and rural healthcare providers should review these actions carefully to determine their impact on their current operations.
The FCC’s primary actions are as follows:
On March 18, 2020, the Wireline Competition Bureau released an order (DA 20-290) waiving gift rules in the Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs to “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.” The order is intended to allow schools, libraries, and rural healthcare providers to meet anticipated short-term demands outside of the restrictions of the programs. By waiving the gift rules, applicants are free to accept – and service providers are free to offer – arrangements that would otherwise qualify as gifts. For example, a service provider might make significantly discounted service available, might waive data caps, or might provide free (or loaner) equipment to meet additional demand, all of which might have disqualified the service provider from future E-Rate or RHC bidding. Under the order, the gift rules (47 C.F.R. sections 54.503(d)(1), 54.603(b), 54.611(b)(2), 54.622(h)(1), 54.623(a)(1)(vi), 54.627(c)(3)(ii)(H), and 54.627(d)(1)(ii)(F)) will be waived through September 30, 2020.
On March 26, 2020, the Wireline Competition Bureau 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.
On March 30, 2020, the FCC announced that the Commission would consider two actions providing up to $300 million in new support for telehealth services. The Commission first will consider an order implementing a $100 million Telehealth Pilot Program first proposed in 2019. In addition, the Commission will consider an order that implements the recently-passed CARES Act, which provided $200 million to support telehealth applications. The $200 million may be used by healthcare providers for telecommunications services, information services, and devices to support telehealth and will be allocated via streamlined applications for the duration of the crisis. The news release does not specify timing for these actions, but they likely would be voted upon by the Commissioners soon.
FCC Clarifies that the TCPA Does Not Restrict Hospital, Healthcare Provider, and Government COVID-Related Communications
Finally, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau issued an order that will enable many enterprises and small businesses to send certain emergency related communications under the Telephone Consumers Protection Act’s (“TCPA’s”) “emergency purposes” exception. On March 20, 2020, the Bureau released a Declaratory Ruling (DA 20-318) regarding the TCPA’s “Emergency Purposes” exception to the consent requirement. The Bureau order declares that COVID-19 constitutes an emergency under the TCPA’s exception, thus allowing communications (voice calls and texts) related to the emergency without consent. The order specifically permits calls/texts where (1) the communication is made by a hospital, healthcare official, state, local or federal government official, or a person or entity acting on their behalf; and (2) the communication is informational, directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and related to the imminent health or safety risk of the pandemic. The order provides several non-exhaustive examples of communications that would fall within the emergency purposes exception. The Bureau made clear, however, that marketing messages may not be included in the communications. Indeed, on the same day, the Bureau released a warning identifying several COVID-related scams that had arisen.
It is important to note that this clarification applies to both voice calls and text messages that are sent by the designated entities (so long as the content is related to the COVID-19 crisis). The order is designed to ensure that time-sensitive messages are delivered promptly and are not impeded by the TCPA’s consent requirements. For entities not identified in the Bureau’s clarification, we recommend that you obtain the advice of counsel to determine how the TCPA applies to the proposed call or message. On March 30, 2020, a group of banking interests petitioned the FCC to extend its declaratory ruling to COVID-related communications from banks and financial institutions.