FCC's Pai Provides House with COVID-19 Action Update

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai ran a fairly gentle gauntlet of COVID-19-related questions during a bipartisan teleconference with members of the House Communications Subcommittee Tuesday (May 19) seeking an update on what the FCC was doing to keep Americans connected during the pandemic. 

With only one dropped call--though it was Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.)-- some crosstalk and at least one unmuted line for a brief time, all part of the new normal of life on teleconference, the briefing went fairly smoothly. 

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the parent Energy & Commerce Committee, broke in briefly to remind the legislators, all weighing in remotely, that some members of the press and public were on the call, which was also being recorded and made available on the website, adding: "I keep forgetting myself." 

The queries lacked the usual divisions of Democrats hammering Pai and Republicans defending, with everybody pretty much agreeing that getting or keeping broadband was vital during the pandemic and that the FCC was working to try to make that happen. "We're all in this together" was one comment that summed up the general tone. 

Democrats focused slightly more on the deficits the pandemic had exposed, while Republicans focused more on what the FCC was doing to help out given the current state of broadband, however it was characterized. But both sides praised Pai's Keep Americans Connected pledge and the 750-plus ISPs who had signed on to it, then re-upped for the extended version

Here are some of the key takeaways from the hour-and-a-half session: 

E-Rate: Pai told House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) that the FCC did not have the authority to use E-rate schools and libraries broadband subsidy money to fund home broadband for students or devices like tablets and computers, but that the FCC had pushed for that authority from Congress in a distance learning initiative similar to the FCC COVID-19 telehealth program Congress authorized in the CARES Act. Pallone said he welcomed FCC input on how regulations could be cleared away to make telehealth more widely available. 

Telehealth: While the FCC has approved $33 million in telehealth funding, it has only received one certified invoice--so virtually none of the $200 million authorized in the program has made it out the door yet. Pai said FCC staffers were ready to process such applications for reimbursement when they come in. 

Complaint Department: While Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) praised the chairman's pledge, and ISPs' response, he asked how many COVID-19 connectivity complaints the FCC had received and what the FCC did to respond to them.  

Related: FCC Is Monitoring Compliance with Connectivity Pledge 

Pai said that, to date, the FCC had received 2,200 complaints, 1,400 of which had been responded to by carriers--the FCC serves such complaints it receives to ISPs, who are supposed to respond within 30 days. He said of those complaints, about 500 were about the pledge and most of those had been resolved by the carriers to ensure that people remained connected. The others were about billing or network issues or about access to broadband in general. He also pointed out he had been on the phone to carriers and their trade associations emphasizing the need to keep people connected to the pandemic, which was one reason he extended the pledge to June 30.  

Information Please (and thank you): Pallone praised Pai for keeping the committee apprised of the different ways ISPs had been keeping Americans connected--lower prices, no service cut-offs--saying he found that info very useful and had been sharing it with Democratic colleagues. 

RDOF: The chairman was asked by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), about the accuracy of a number of challenges by carriers to the FCC's preliminary list of census blocks where there is no broadband and thus eligible for some of the $16 billion in the FCC's reverse auction of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) money for rural broadband buildouts.  

Johnson asked what steps the FCC was taking to determine the actual status of the census blocks the FCC says are unserved and carriers say are served, citing one carrier who claimed that providing 10 Mbps/1 Mbps service qualified as served. Johnson said anyone knows that is substandard service and was worried there might be other such "bogus" challenges.  

Pai responded that FCC staffers were carefully reviewing those challenges for areas that should be included or excluded from the preliminary list. He said he was aware about the concerns, that he doesn't want unserved areas taken out of the auction due to inaccurate challenges, and that a claim that 10/1 meant a census block was served was not valid, signaling it would need to be 25 Mbps or better.  

Ligado: Rep. John Shimkus signed on to a letter this week backing the FCC's decision to approve the Ligado petition to launch a 5G broadband service using spectrum adjacent to GPS. He said the FCC had done a great job with the item, creating guard bands and a cut-off switch if there were any GPS interference, and limiting Ligado's power. He said 5G was the only way some of his rural residents would be connecting to broadband. 

Related: House E&C Republicans Say Ligado is Done Deal, Move On

Pai thanked him for the show of support--the Defense Department, GPS interests, and most of the Senate Armed Services Committee are pushing back on the decision over GPS interference concerns. He said the FCC had had to think creatively to, with the help of its engineers, navigate a path toward more spectrum for 5G and IoT, while protecting GPS, which he said the item had done with strict conditions outlined in a lengthy order with 400-plus footnotes. He called the engineering "very sound." 

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.