Alerts and Updates

COVID-19 Responses in the Telecommunications Industry

April 1, 2020

The CARES Act gives the FCC $200 million to allocate to enable healthcare providers to use telecommunications services, information services and devices to provide telemedicine.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators and telecommunications regulators have focused primarily on promoting telemedicine, remote learning and better availability of broadband service in general, as well as ensuring that low-income customers will be able to keep their telephone and broadband service during the crisis.

Federal Legislation

The CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, gives the FCC $200 million to allocate to enable healthcare providers to use telecommunications services, information services (like broadband internet) and devices (smartphones, tablets) to provide telemedicine. To address rural issues, the bill gives the Department of Agriculture (i) $25 million for its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program for rural areas and (ii) $100 million for its ReConnect Program to promote broadband deployment in rural areas. The Act also authorizes the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs to enter short-term contacts with telecommunications companies to expand mental health service to veterans through telehealth programs. The Act further gives $75 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Federal Communications Commission

The FCC has taken several steps to address the crisis. Most notably, it has:

  • Approved an order and rules on March 31 to allocate the $200 million under the CARES Act for telemedicine, seeking to take applications for healthcare providers as soon as possible and review them on a rolling basis. The FCC said it expects to limit payments to $1 million per provider.
  • Approved, on March 31, $100 million in Universal Service Fund money for a three-year Connected Care pilot program, which can pay up to 85 percent of broadband access costs to patients’ homes, and is meant to serve veterans and low-income customers.
  • Allowed providers to temporarily borrow or expand their access to spectrum in order to provide more broadband capacity for consumers.
  • Waived rules or extended deadlines that could have resulted in the deenrollment of Lifeline program subscribers in order to ensure that such subscribers retain their broadband or voice service during this critical time (Decision DA 20-354).
  • Authorized eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) to temporarily use Universal Service Fund money for high-cost programs outside their awarded area in order to direct those funds to affiliated ETC’s service area where there is more need due to COVID-19 (Decision DA 20-358).
  • Relaxed Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restrictions to allow healthcare providers and others to provide critical information about COVID-19 without risk of violating the TCPA (Decision DA 20-318).
  • Confirmed that schools and libraries can allow E-Rate-supported wi-fi networks to be used by the general public while users are on the school’s campus or library property (Decision DA 20-324).
  • Waived the gift rules in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs so that program participants can solicit and accept improved connections or additional equipment for telemedicine or remote learning during the crisis (Decision DA 20-290).
  • Relaxed its access arbitrage rules in light of the huge spike in traffic, especially for companies that serve video conferencing clients like Cisco’s WebEx or Zoom, so that such carriers will not run afoul of the arbitrage rules simply for carrying these emergency, unprecedented call volumes (Decision DA 20-349).

State Legislators and Regulators

States have been active in questioning carriers and equipment providers about responding to the crisis, with continued service to all and more broadband access being of the highest concern. Nebraska, for example, announced $1 million for low-income broadband adoption, and South Dakota passed a law on March 27 allocating $5 million to expand rural broadband and to declare an emergency. The California Public Utilities Commission recently reopened its proceeding on the California Advanced Services Fund to solicit comments on allocating money for broadband deployment during the COVID-19 crisis. The CPUC also has asked communications companies to provide it with their COVID-19 response plans by responding to a list of questions.

About Duane Morris

Duane Morris has created a COVID-19 Strategy team to help organizations plan, respond to and address this fast-moving situation. Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information. Prior Alerts on the topic are available on the team’s webpage.

For More Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact J. Tyson Covey, Brian A. McAleenan, any of the attorneys in our Technology, Media and Telecom Industry Group, any member of the COVID-19 Strategy team or the attorney in the firm with whom you are in regular contact.

 

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.