Competitive Carriers Association President/CEO Steve Berry told attendees of the group’s annual convention Wednesday he’s “amazed” at how the country’s perception of wireless has changed almost overnight due to the pandemic. “If a student needs a connection today they can get online with a wireless hotspot instead of waiting for a service call and a wired connection. Wireless is the glue holding life and business together for so many people.”
The industry noted the change in consumer habits. Mid-March saw voice traffic increase from 20 to 40 percent on wireless networks, he said. “That’s a big uptick considering 80 percent of voice connections in the U.S. are wireless.” Berry said COVID drove up broadband demand 20 percent and major wireless providers reported a 25 percent increase in texting. Mobile hotspot use “soared,” he added.
Many CCA members rose to the occasion and kept life moving, according to Berry. He listed examples, such as Carolina West, which rolled out an assistance program for customers that included high-speed data. GCI in Alaska offered free upgrades and worked with local and federal governments to assist schools, students and individuals in need of basic wireless services. C Spire in Mississippi and Alabama worked with schools to provide free wireless accounts to approved learning sites for K-12 students.
HTC in South Carolina invested more than $130,000 to connect more than 600 primary residences for students who had no internet access at the start of the pandemic. “They did this all in one week,” explained Berry. The actions earned HTC one of CCA’s annual achievement awards for 2020.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) followed Berry, discussing the urgency of closing the digital divide. Though the number of Americans without access to 4G LTE “has dropped decisively,” another 20 million still lack access to broadband, he explained. The FCC needs better maps to track where broadband exists and where it does not, said Wicker. He said his bill, the Broadband Data Act, will change the way data is collected, verified and reported.
Congress passed the measure; however the Commission says it needs $65 million to implement it. “I’m working with the Appropriations Committee to make sure sufficient funding is provided,” said Wicker.
Ranking member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) differed with Wicker on this point, saying, “I fear the FCC is looking for any excuse to stall. And they refuse to dedicate the resources necessary to fix their maps and instead, are asking Congress for additional funding.” However, he clarified, by saying, “If it takes extra funding to fix these maps we have to find it. I hope we will have a new chairman at the FCC next year who will prioritize policy based on good data, including accurate maps.”
CCA recorded convention sessions so those who would like to see portions of the show afterwards can do so. Register here.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief