Starks: “FCC’s Emergency Response” to Coronavirus “Needs to Start Today”

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FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks says the FCC and communications networks have an integral role to play in responding to the coronavirus. As cases increase and with social distancing and even quarantines potentially being required in some areas, broadband connections become more vital, he told lawmakers Tuesday. “The FCC’s emergency response needs to start today.”

“Everyone in the telecommunications sector must step up. The time is now,” Starks said during an FCC hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Americans are going to need broadband in their homes—to help them telework to keep the economy strong; to help them understand medical information, and potentially connect with medical care via telemedicine; and to help our youngest learners continue to grow,” said Starks. 

He suggested the FCC consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that will expand network capabilities; creating additional WiFi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band and awarding grants for capacity upgrades in underserved communities impacted by the coronavirus. Starks also suggested encouraging providers to offer low-cost program options that could extend a basic internet connection for millions of Americans “and to deploy their emergency assets, such as cell sites on wheels, to unserved communities.”

The agency can authorize money to make this happen, according to Starks. The Commission should deploy a “connectivity and economic stimulus” plan to leverage and expand the effectiveness of the billions the agency administers annually in existing universal service programs, he said. The agency should consider an emergency distribution of funds to rapidly increase the number of lendable hotspots available through schools and libraries and study increasing the amount of money Lifeline provides for basic connectivity, raising data caps and easing enrollment burdens, he testified.   

Maryland is one example of a state preparing for mass telework. Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday as the state gets more test kits, more people will test positive for the coronavirus. He said during a press conference the state will move from “containment” to “mitigation” of the virus. In light of that, Maryland has told its employees to prepare for mandatory telecommuting. It’s already suspended state employee participation in meetings of 50 or more people.  

The FCC, too, has a plan in place, Inside Towers reported. It’s limiting visitors to the agency’s buildings and has suspended employee travel. Agency employees can no longer attend large meetings.

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