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In this disorienting and terrifying moment in American history, there's one sliver of good news: The internet seems to be working.
Internet providers in some hard-hit countries have asked users to ration their usage, and European Union officials Thursday pressured Netflix into reducing its streaming quality to save bandwidth for everyone else. But in the U.S., so far at least, communications networks are surviving an explosion of videoconferencing, distance learning and shelter-in-place streaming.
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That makes Ajit Pai very happy.
In an interview with Protocol on Thursday, the chairman of the FCC said his agency has been working with the White House, other federal agencies and private industry to plot out a strategy for keeping Americans connected during this crisis.
"It's been a very collaborative effort so far," Pai said, "and I'm glad to say, thus far, that the internet infrastructure across the country, by and large, has held up under the increased usage.
That doesn't mean things are perfect, however. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn — who now consults for T-Mobile and Microsoft — says that connectivity for people in rural and poor areas would be better if the FCC had done more in the past to improve its lifeline program. And former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the FCC could be doing more now if a Republican majority hadn't reversed the way it regulates broadband providers.
But Pai said he's focused on doing "everything we can within our authority," as it exists today, including launching a voluntary "Keep Americans Connected" pledge for communications providers, making more spectrum available to ease digital congestion, and granting waivers related to the agency's Lifeline program, which subsidizes access for low-income Americans.
Protocol spoke with Pai from his home just outside Washington; this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I understand you are also working from home.
I am indeed, yes, working from home. I tried to set a good example and have strongly encouraged our co-workers to do the same. And thanks to our hard-working team, we've been able to keep everybody connected and, for the most part, productive.
How's your broadband holding up? Any particular tools you're finding you're super reliant on?
Pretty much all of them? Yes, cellular connectivity, of course, to make phone calls. Wi-Fi to keep the kids studying on their iPads. And that's enabled me to edit documents and collaborate with co-workers on my laptop. So pretty much all the tools that one would expect, both as a worker and as a parent, and it's been very helpful to me so far.
What's the most important thing that you're doing in terms of your agency work at the FCC for COVID-19 response right now?
Overwhelmingly, the top priority over the last week and several weeks actually has been to ensure that Americans stay connected to the communications technologies that are so important to them. Last week, for instance, we rolled out the Keep Americans Connected pledge, through which now over 200 broadband providers have committed to making sure that services are not cut off to residential or small-business customers if they're unable to pay bills due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, to waive any late fees that those customers may incur because of economic circumstances related to the pins pandemic, then also open up any Wi-Fi hot spots to any American who might need them. And even beyond that, we've encouraged companies to think even more broadly about going beyond the pledge and encouraged all kinds of different options for connectivity. And I'm glad to say they've done that, from lowering data caps or getting rid of data caps, to jumping speed. These are the kinds of things we need to think creatively about as America emerges into more telework, telehealth and remote-learning environments.
Are you satisfied with uptake of the pledge by rural broadband providers? What does that look like versus sort of the big guys and brand names that people might know?
I've been incredibly impressed. In fact, we've had now, as I said, 200 broadband providers who have signed up, we'll be announcing even more providers who signed up just in the last 24 hours. And to be sure, a few of those companies with the names of everybody would know, but the vast majority are names that might only be known to the people in some of these rural areas or smaller markets where some of these smaller operators have chosen to focus their efforts.
And I'm really grateful to them for doing that because, obviously, connectivity in big cities is one thing, but in some of these rural areas, it can sometimes be very, very difficult to participate in some of these life activities right now: telework, telehealth and in remote living in particular. And so these were the providers that are really important in terms of stepping up and continuing to deliver that connectivity.
The FCC is also allowing more spectrum to be available to some providers. How much spectrum is being made available, and how long you expect that to continue?
We've been very flexible on that front. Initially, we granted, for example, T-Mobile a dispensation to be able to use a certain 600 MHz spectrum to enhance its wireless offering in some bigger cities. We also did the same a couple days ago with U.S. Cellular and [Wednesday] with Verizon. And the nature of spectrum being used and the amount of spectrum in question differs depending on the particular application, but overall, the goal is the same: to make sure that those wireless phones that are going to be more important than ever are able to benefit from the maximum amount of the airways feasible under our rules.
Let's talk a little bit about the Lifeline program. Can you talk about what changes are happening there in response to the COVID-19 situation?
Absolutely, we recognize that low-income consumers in particular are going to need connectivity just as much as anybody else. And so we made some tweaks to some of the administrative rules regarding the Lifeline program to enable consumers and companies that participate in that program to benefit from it. And for example, in particular, we have relaxed some of the recertification requirements that customers have to make, especially recertifying that they are eligible to be in the program. And similarly on the company side, we had some administrative rules requiring agents to register through the FCC and others, and so we've relaxed some of those rules so that both from a customer and a company perspective, those folks can focus on getting and staying connected through the Lifeline program as opposed to jumping through some of the procedural hoops that we've instituted for a long time.
Are there any other changes to that or other low-income programs on the table right now?
One of the things I specifically exhorted the broadband industry to do was to make sure that they had low-income programs, that they offer services, and that they were even faster and cheaper than ever before. And some of the companies have done that by upping the speeds that are available to the FCC's definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps. I also exhorted those companies that don't have a low-income customer offering to institute such a program, and I'm hopeful that many of them will do that. And we're taking other steps as well, thinking outside the box to make sure that we can provide the most cost-effective solutions for customers who have obviously had economic circumstances beyond their control that they're struggling with right now.
Have you been in touch with the White House over the FCC's role in coronavirus response, or has the White House asked the agency to take any sort of specific action to help out in this time?
We've both collaborated across the field. And so I've been in touch with some of the folks of the White House, for example, the National Economic Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and we've encouraged them to participate in some of our conference calls with industry and other groups, as well, to make sure we're on the same page. Because at the end of the day, the Keep Americans Connected pledge, while it's administered by the FCC, it's all obviously a critical priority across government, because it underlies so many of the tools that are necessary for fighting the coronavirus pandemic. And both with the administration and with Congress, we look forward to continuing to collaborate to make sure that the government is doing everything it can to help Americans in pretty dire straits.
What are you hearing the telecom companies say that they need right now?
So certainly they've been very active in trying to get certain regulatory dispensations. So, for example, the spectrum dispensations we gave — the special temporary authority we gave T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon — that came about as a result of companies privately negotiating and trying to figure out ways to maximize the benefit of those airways.
And then we're able to act relatively quickly. There are other things that we're doing proactively, for example, to make sure we understand how the networks are operating and how resilient they are given the uptake and usage. And those are the kinds of things they've also been very responsive about.
I also have been collaborating with other agencies to try to get a sense of how they are seeing the internet infrastructure. So for example, the Department of Homeland Security has an agency called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and we've been in touch as well to make sure we're on the same page — understanding if there are pressure points or any cybersecurity challenges we need to be thinking about and getting in touch with industry with.
What do you wish you could do that you can't right now?
That's a good question. One of the things that has been helpful is the hours that we've [spent with] congressional leaders and staff since last week, for example, to obtain funding for in-home devices for use by teachers and students and patients. The FCC is currently prohibited from providing those types of devices under the Communications Act, and getting congressional action on that topic would be helpful.
Similarly, a telemedicine pilot, I've been speaking about telemedicine for years now … and that is going to become even more important in the context of dealing with the pandemic. And so getting a telemedicine pilot program quickly deployed and significantly expanded along the lines of our connected care pilot program, that would be very helpful as well. Same thing in terms of a remote-learning pilot program. I think that, too, could be something where Congress could take action and could help us deliver value for the American consumer.
Some people that I've spoken to about this space, including former Chairman Wheeler, have said that the agency would have had more options for dealing with and requiring broadband companies to make certain changes if ISPs were still classified as Title II common carriers. Do you agree? Do you think your authority is being limited by that policy change?
I recognize that this is a religious issue for some within the Beltway, but we have been focused on doing everything we can within our authority. And frankly, it doesn't matter whether it's Title II or Title I for these purposes. We had the pledges that have been made to Keep Americans Protected, as well as some of the other steps we've taken [that have] nothing whatsoever to do with the arcane question of regulatory classification that are Title II or Title I. It's simply the right thing to do for the agency, the right thing to do for the industry, and the right thing to do for the American consumer. And that's always been our focus and always will be our focus.
The pledges currently are set at 60 days. Do you expect that to be extended if the pandemic response continues longer than that?
We'll take a look at where we are within that certain time frame. Obviously, we're in uncharted waters. There's uncertainty about how the pandemic will proceed. And so we want to make sure that we're nimble enough to address the needs of the American consumer going forward. And I've been very gratified by many of the companies and trade associations that have either taken or endorsed the pledge, who said at the end of the day, their mission is to keep Americans connected, and they're willing to do whatever it takes. And I think that's an enduring promise that we want to make sure we can vindicate in the time to come, if need be.
Andrea Peterson ( @kansasalps) is an independent journalist with extensive experience reporting on technology policy. Peterson was a staff writer for The Washington Post from 2013 through the end of 2016. Her byline has also been published by POLITICO, Ars Technica, The Daily Beast, Slate and other outlets.