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Technology: FCC waives rules to help hospitals and schools respond to coronavirus

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The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday temporarily waived rules in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs to help promote better access to broadband for telehealth and distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

a person sitting on a table: The FCC has waived rules to make it easier for rural hospitals to expand telehealth capabilities during the coronavirus crisis in the US. Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images © Provided by CNET The FCC has waived rules to make it easier for rural hospitals to expand telehealth capabilities during the coronavirus crisis in the US. Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The agency announced that it has waived "gift rules" in these programs until September 20, 2020. These rules prohibit hospitals in the Rural Health Care program or schools and libraries participating in the E-Rate program, which get subsidies, to accept or seek anything of value from a service provider participating in the program. These rules are meant to prevent fraud and abuse in the program.

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With the rules waived, service providers will be able to donate equipment like Wi-Fi hotspots or will be allowed to offer free service upgrades to hospitals, schools and libraries getting these subsidies. This could allow broadband service providers to upgrade network capacity for free to local hospitals, so that they're able to deliver telemedicine service, the FCC said. It would also allow companies to donate Wi-Fi hotspots that libraries and schools could distribute to students without broadband.

The FCC has waived rules to make it easier for rural hospitals to expand telehealth capabilities during the coronavirus crisis in the US. © Brianna Soukup/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The FCC has waived rules to make it easier for rural hospitals to expand telehealth capabilities during the coronavirus crisis in the US.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the COVID-19 virus is presenting unique challenges to the nation's hospitals and educators. He said it was important to enlist the help of the private sector in addressing connectivity issues, and he encouraged wireless and broadband companies to "step up" and offer help where they can.

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"[W]e strongly encourage service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to provide mobile hotspots and other broadband-enabled devices to students to help bridge the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic," he said.

The news comes as COVID-19 outbreak forces thousands of schools and businesses across the US to close down.  As a result, schools are asking students to attend class remotely. Healthcare providers are also looking into the use of telehealth to help augment their services as the number of people infected with the virus rises daily.

But not everyone has access to broadband. The FCC estimates that more than 21 million people in the US don't have a broadband connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

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Democrats demand stronger action

Advocates and experts like FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, have been urging the FCC to take decisive action to help get more Americans connected to broadband during the crisis. Last week, Rosenworcel began urging her Republican colleagues to leverage its authority over the Universal Service Fund to release more funds to alleviate connectivity issues.

Rosenworcel called the FCC steps to waive the gift rules on the E-Rate and Rural Health Care programs a "smart step."  But she said the FCC still needs a national plan to address the broader issue of connectivity.

"This crisis demands urgent action," she said. "There's more the FCC can do right now – and we should."

She would like to see the agency use its universal service powers to provide hotspots for loan for students who don't have broadband at home. She'd also like to see the FCC work with health care providers to ensure connectivity for telehealth services are available for hospitals, doctors, and nurses treating coronavirus patients and those who are quarantined.

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She also wants the FCC to work directly with broadband companies to get Americans not connected to the internet online at little or cost. And she'd like to see all wireless and broadband carriers lift data caps and overage fees where they exist.

Democrats in Congress have also been asking the FCC to respond more aggressively. On Monday, a group of 16 Democratic Senators, led by Sens. Ed Markey of Mass., Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to free up funds to provide broadband access for students. They asked the agency to open up friends from the E-Rate program to be used for one-time discounts to schools attempting to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots or enable internet access on other devices.

"We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home" the letter said. "This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency."

FCC's response

The FCC has already responded in other ways to the crisis.  On Friday, Chairman Pai called on broadband service providers to take a pledge to "ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances."

Nearly 200 companies have promised not to cut off service for those who can't pay. These companies have also promised to waive data caps and overage fees. Wireless provider T-Mobile has increased network capacity.

The FCC has also provided more wireless spectrum access to providers, such as US Telecom.

On Tuesday, the agency also announced it would loosen requirements for its Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income individuals for wireless and broadband service, to help get more people into the program.

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