Like most Americans, my daily life has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m staying at home as much as I possibly can (exceptions for the grocery store and pharmacy). I’ve been teleworking, which has been a big change from the norm. And my kids are home, too—so I’ve been spending time teaching math, going over reading, and empathizing with this Israeli mom. Juggling the demands of work and family has been a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour challenge, as CNBC’s Becky Quick memorably captured. Both my parents and parents-in-law are older, so we’ve been worrying about and remotely checking in on them, constantly reminding them to be safe and stay at home (an unexpected reciprocation of the messages conveyed a quarter-century ago).
No doubt about it—the changes wrought by the pandemic have been jarring. I’m sure this is true for many of you, too.
But I have it lucky. Thus far, knock on wood, my immediate family is healthy. Not everyone has been so fortunate. I’ve been thinking about all the families who have lost loved ones to this virus, often without getting the chance to say good bye—including the former superintendent of the school district I attended in southeast Kansas. I’ve been thinking about friends who have become ill with the virus, one of whom—a brilliant lawyer who is younger than me—is in critical condition.
And aside from health concerns, I worry for everyone who was suddenly laid off and faces an uncertain future—folks who work at restaurants, retail stores, sports arenas, and many other places.
But I’m also grateful for all the acts of compassion and dedication that this pandemic has inspired—especially from those who have done and are doing heroic work to enable the rest of us to function. From the grocery store employees and food producers to the police and firefighters to those who keep the lights on and water running, there are a lot of people who are working overtime to meet the needs of their communities. And most of all, as the husband of a physician who used to work on infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health, I have a keen appreciation for the sacrifices of all the doctors, nurses, and public health officials who are caring for others, often putting themselves at risk.
Another silver lining is that I’ve got the chance to work with an incredibly talented, determined team at the Federal Communications Commission. Communications technologies are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference during this unprecedented moment, and my co-workers have done a lot to make this potential a reality.
It might be hard to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but I’m happy to report that Internet access is proving to be one of the most valuable non-medical commodities right now. Thanks to the Internet, tens of millions of Americans (including me) are able to work from home while still honoring the social distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schools may be closed, but students are still learning with the help of online tools and instruction. As we try to minimize the stress on hospitals, telehealth tools can help Americans receive needed medical care. And whether it’s FaceTiming parents or sharing videos of Italians singing from their balconies or penguins touring an empty Aquarium, being online helps satisfy our need for human connection while we’re staying apart from others.
I’m committed to using every legal means at the FCC’s disposal to help Americans deal with the coronavirus pandemic. And so far, we’ve demonstrated that commitment in many notable ways.
Most importantly, I developed the Keep Americans Connected pledge to make sure that nobody loses broadband and telephone service when they need it most. Under the terms of the Pledge, broadband and telephone providers are stepping up to the plate and making three key commitments to American consumers: (1) No residential or small business subscribers will have their service terminated over the next 60 days because of an inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic; (2) Any late fees incurred by residential or small business customers because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic will be waived during this period; and (3) Wi-Fi hotspots will be opened up to any American who needs them. I’m pleased that over 500 broadband providers, serving hundreds of millions of Americans, have signed this pledge, and the number of providers keeps growing.
I also challenged our nation’s broadband and telephone service providers to go above and beyond the commitments in the Keep Americans Connected Pledge in order to meet the connectivity needs of the American people, and I’m grateful that many have done so. These offerings include free service for low-income Americans and students, lifting data caps, and increasing broadband speeds at no cost to meet the increased demand for telework and distance learning. The FCC has compiled a list of some of these offerings to help consumers see what’s available. I applaud these companies for taking these steps, and taking them quickly, to ensure that our transition to telework, telehealth, and remote learning is smoother than it otherwise would be.
I’ve also been in touch with America’s television and radio broadcasters. As they long have done in times of crisis, they’ve committed to playing a key role in making sure the public is informed on how to respond to COVID-19. In particular, they are airing a series of public service announcements to, among other things, encourage social distancing. Notably, these PSAs are also available in Spanish.
Beyond the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, the FCC has done a lot to cut through regulatory red tape and free up resources to enable access to communications for those impacted by COVID-19.
- To promote telehealth solutions for the patients of rural hospitals and clinics, the Commission voted to make an additional $42 million immediately available through our Rural Health Care Program.
- To preserve vital communications for individuals who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or deaf-blind, or have a speech disability, the Commission has granted temporary waivers that will allow American Sign Language interpreters to work from home and maintain relay services.
- To promote connectivity for hospitals and students, the Commission temporarily waived so-called “gift rules” so participants in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs can solicit and accept improved connections or additional equipment for telemedicine or remote learning.
- To help low-income consumers stay connected, the Commission temporarily waived certain requirements from our Lifeline program, which will ease burdens on Lifeline subscribers and allow Lifeline carriers to focus their efforts on assisting customers.
- To meet increased consumer demand for mobile broadband, the Commission granted temporary authority to AT&T, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon to use additional spectrum in the 600 MHz, AWS-3, and AWS-4 bands.
- To prevent possible disruptions in service, especially for rural consumers, the Commission granted a temporary extension to hundreds of wireless Internet service providers in the 3650-3700 MHz band to transition their existing operations to the Citizens Broadband Radio Service rules.
- To accommodate construction and delivery delays for television stations transitioning to new channels after the incentive auction, the Commission has agreed to provide more flexibility under the Transition Scheduling Plan.
None of this important work would have been possible without the determination of the outstanding public servants at the FCC to make it happen.
On top of that, the other trains are still running on schedule. On St. Patrick’s Day, the Commission successfully hosted an online meeting of our preeminent public safety advisory panel—the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council. I’ve held a number of virtual meetings with FCC staff and/or outside parties using conference bridges. And we are still on track to adopt the multiple monthly agenda items this month. We’ve found a way to stay productive amidst the changes around us.
I’ll close on a high note. I recently read an interview that The Los Angeles Times did with immortal baseball announcer Vin Scully. At 92, he’s seen pretty much every curveball this country has faced over the past century. Here’s what he said about the times in which we find ourselves: “From depths of depression we fought our way through World War II, and if we can do that, we can certainly fight through this. … It’s the life of the world, the ups and downs, this is a down, we’re going to have to realistically accept it at what it is and we’ll get out of it, that’s all there is to it, we will definitely get out of it.” Amen, Mr. Scully. We’ll keep connected, we’ll stay focused—and we’ll definitely get out of it.