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FCC's Starks Calls for FCC Rapid Response to Coronavirus

Democratic FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks told Congress Tuesday (March 10) that the FCC and communications networks have an integral role in responding to the coronavirus and called for immediate action, calling for a “connectivity and economic stimulus” plan to address the virus.

That came in testimony for a Senate Financial Services FCC budget hearing.

Starks said that "with social distancing and even quarantine being required, as they may soon be in many American communities, broadband connections will become even more vital."

He said the FCC has to join the fight against the virus immediately to get broadband into as many homes as possible.

He said that should take several forms, including:

1. "Consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that will expand network capabilities;

2. "Creating additional WiFi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band;

3. "Awarding grants for capacity upgrades in underserved communities impacted by the coronavirus; and

4. "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 a cell sites on wheels, to unserved communities.

He also called for an FCC-deployed “connectivity and economic stimulus” plan for the current billions of dollars in the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which would be an emergency release of funds to increase schools and libraries hot spots and "urgently consider increasing the amount of money Lifeline—the only federal program designed to bring affordable communications to our most vulnerable Americans—provides for basic connectivity, raising data caps, and easing enrollment burdens.

Starks said that as the virus "forces more people to stay home, I know many people in the communications sector are concerned that some Lifeline beneficiaries who qualify based on their participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may no longer be able to meet that program’s work requirements."

By increasing broadband access, he said, "we can help ensure that people who need treatment can seek it safely and those who need to be at home can stay there. As yesterday’s stock market activity made clear, this health crisis may have dramatic economic consequences."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) agreed that the coronavirus had put an exclamation point on the need for students to have internet access, and his bill that would use some spectrum auction proceeds to close that homework gap by creating WiFi hot spot access. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who was also a witness at the hearing agreed. 

John Eggerton
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.