WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Anna Eshoo took the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to task during a contentious Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing Sept. 17.
The Palo Alto Democrat told Chairman Ajit Pai he had failed her constituents, who are currently struggling with the wildfires in northern California. There are 77,000 evacuees, she said, and nearly 1,000 homes have been destroyed.
“You are missing in action,” she told the chairman. “Where have you been? Why don’t you come to California? Why don’t you meet with people in these resource centers and meet with those that cannot connect to anything?”
The congresswoman said California has asked the FCC since 2009 to share cell tower outage data so state officials would know if residents in certain areas were unable to call 911 or receive emergency alerts. Eshoo, who said this data could save lives during a crisis, asked if there were any legal reasons the state never received this information.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said outage information could be shared as long as it was kept confidential by the state.
Eshoo then asked the chairman if he planned to take action. Pai said the FCC planned to move forward soon but he could not provide a specific time frame.
“If you held elected office, they would boo you out of a town hall meeting,” Eshoo said. “Because this is about people’s lives. … It’s about agencies working and understanding what’s taking place in people’s lives, otherwise the FCC doesn’t mean a damn thing to people.”
Subcommittee Chairman Michael Doyle had equally harsh words for the chairman. He slammed the commission for removing consumer protections and cutting programs that keep low-income Americans connected.
The Pennsylvania Democrat explained the pandemic has left Americans more reliant on technology than ever before. Many people now need the internet to attend work, school, medical appointments or religious services — and those who cannot afford broadband are being left behind.
Doyle said low-income students are struggling to learn as what was once a homework gap becomes a schooling gap. A lack of broadband is no longer just preventing them from doing homework, he explained, it was preventing them from accessing their education all together.
The congressman said it was unacceptable that some schools are hosting fundraisers and asking charities or corporations for help.
“We cannot depend, as a nation, on the generosity of private companies to get us through this crisis,” Doyle said.
In his written testimony, Pai firmly defended the FCC. He said the commission used $200 million — provided by the CARES Act — to help hospitals and healthcare professionals provide telehealth services in some of the nation’s hardest hit areas.
“The commission has done much more during the pandemic, ranging from rule waivers to facilitate new aid for schools and libraries, broader enrollment in the Lifeline program for low-income families and veterans, and increased access to funding for rural healthcare providers,” he wrote. “…The hard-working men and women of the FCC serve the American public each day with skill and commitment.”
Greg Walden, R-Oregon, also defended the FCC. He said the agency has taken countless actions in recent years to ensure Americans are better connected, including committing approximately $1.5 billion to expand broadband in rural areas throughout 45 states.
He added it was clear the hearing was just another partisan attack on President Donald Trump’s administration.
“You’d think that when fires are destroying communities in the west and Covid is upending life nationwide that Democrats could rise above partisan ranks and show America how we can work together to close the digital divide — that should be the common goal,” he said.
Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.