Witkowski: Aggressive telecommunications deregulation key to crisis response
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently announced the Keep Americans Connected Initiative to ensure Americans do not lose their connectivity amid the coronavirus crisis. Image by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

    In times of great crisis, it becomes necessary to set aside bureaucratic burdens and do what is necessary to solve problems.

    America, and indeed the world, has set aside their differences and declared war on SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus). As the world works to limit the spread of the pandemic and flatten the future curve of potential COVID-19 cases, our daily lives are being reshaped.

    This is nowhere more evident than the forced transition from in-person activities to remote work and remote school. The internet has enabled employers and schools to send people home for weeks or even months of isolation. It is also exposing the often-discussed — but rarely addressed in a practical way — issue of digital inclusion.

    Even in Silicon Valley, not all households have access to the internet. In 2017, a city of San Jose report estimated that over one in four residents did not have access to home broadband. Many of those residents get their internet access through schools, libraries, public Wi-Fi and other sources. The closure of schools and issuance of shelter-in-place orders has closed off these access options. Without the internet, telework or tele-school is not possible.

    At the start of the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission called upon the nation’s broadband and telecommunications providers to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, and followed that with several actions including temporarily granting wireless carriers access to additional spectrum, granting waivers to Telecommunications Relay Service providers, waiving some Lifeline program rules, and lifting the gift rules for Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs.

    These steps are vitally necessary to facilitate a rapid response to our unprecedented local, national and global challenges.

    Waiver of the E-Rate gift rules is especially important to support a tactical response to digital inclusion issues. At the start of the pandemic, Joint Venture’s Wireless Communications Initiative reached out to our wireless carrier members asking them to donate personal hotspots with prepaid service plans for distribution to students so that they could access online school resources from home.

    The carriers were very supportive of the idea, but at the time were constrained by E-Rate rules. Now that the FCC has suspended E-Rate gift rules, even if temporarily, we are looking forward to moving this program forward, and my organization is doing everything we can to facilitate the process.

    The world is now effectively on wartime footing against the virus. We applaud the FCC’s long-awaited rule changes, and encourage more (and swift) deregulation to allow innovation in telecommunications and other critical services.

    David Witkowski is executive director of the Wireless Communications Initiative at Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

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