Chairman Pai Announces Plan for $200 Million COVID-19 Telehealth Program

From the FCC

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
today announced his plan for a COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support health care providers responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As part of the CARES Act, Congress appropriated $200 million to the FCC to support health care providers’ use of telehealth services in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. If adopted by the Commission, the Program would help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications, broadband
connectivity, and devices necessary for providing telehealth services. These services would directly help COVID-19 patients and provide care to patients with other conditions who might risk contracting the coronavirus when visiting a healthcare provider—while reducing practitioners’ potential exposure to the virus.
The Chairman has also presented his colleagues with final rules to stand up a broader, longerterm Connected Care Pilot Program. It would study how connected care could be a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund by making available up to $100 million of universal service support over three years to help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations, with an emphasis on
providing those services to low-income Americans and veterans.
“As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country. Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic. My plan
for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is a critical tool to address this national emergency. I’m calling on my fellow Commissioners to vote promptly to adopt the draft order I circulated today, so that we can take immediate steps to provide support for telehealth services and devices to health care providers during this national crisis,” said Chairman Pai. “I’d like to thank Congress for acting with bipartisan decisiveness to allocate funding for the COVID-19
Telehealth Program and Commissioner Carr for his leadership on telehealth issues, including the Connected Care Pilot Program.”
“I am grateful to Chairman Pai for his leadership in accelerating this important initiative and for fast-tracking a COVID-19 Telehealth Program. This decision will further strengthen the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans access high-quality
healthcare without having to visit a hospital in person,” said Commissioner Carr.
About the COVID-19 Telehealth Program: This $200 million Program would immediately support health care providers responding to the pandemic by providing eligible health care providers support to purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period. It would provide selected applicants with full funding for these eligible telehealth services and devices.
In order to receive funding, eligible health care providers would submit a streamlined application to the Commission for this program, and the Commission would award funds to selected applicants on a rolling basis until the funds are exhausted or until the current pandemic has ended.
About the Connected Care Pilot Program: This three-year Pilot Program would provide universal service support to help defray health care providers’ qualifying costs of providing connected care services. It would target funding to eligible health care providers, with a primary focus on pilot projects that would primarily benefit low-income or veteran patients.
The Pilot Program would make available up to $100 million, which would be separate from the budgets of the existing Universal Service Fund programs and the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The Pilot Program would provide funding for selected pilot projects to cover 85% of
the eligible costs of broadband connectivity, network equipment, and information services necessary to provide connected care services to the intended patient population. In order to participate, eligible health care providers would submit an application to the Commission for the Pilot Program, and the Commission would announce the selected pilot projects.
For updates on the FCC’s wide array of actions during the coronavirus pandemic, visit:
https://www.fcc.gov/coronavirus. For more information on the FCC’s Keep Americans
Connected Pledge, visit: https://www.fcc.gov/keep-americans-connected.

Rural WISPS (including MN) get access to 5.9 GHz Spectrum to expedite rural broadband

News Dio reports…

The FCC said Friday that temporary access that is approved for the 33 WISPs will help provide access to telehealth, distance learning and teleworking in rural communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

Here are some of the details…

The agency is giving access to the 33 WISPs for 60 days to help them bring broadband to rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Temporary access to the lower 45 megahertz of spectrum in that band is a kind of dry test for the FCC’s plan to free up this part of the 5.9 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use. In December, the agency voted to divide that spectrum band so it could be shared with providers, allocating the lowest 45 megahertz for unlicensed use. The top 30 megahertz is allocated for Qualcomm All Cellular Vehicle Protocol (C-V2X) use.

MN Rural Broadband Coalition Legislative Update: Legislature Passes COVID-19 Emergency Bill, Recesses

Here’s the latest from the MN Broadband Coalition

The Legislature passed a $330 million COVID-19 relief bill on Thursday and recessed until at least April 14. The bill is a package of grants and loans for small businesses, child care, food shelves, healthcare facilities, veterans, housing, and as well as other policy items related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill passed the House 99-4 and the Senate 67-0. It was a strange sight, as lawmakers’ assigned seats were scattered throughout the Capitol building during the debate so they could observe social distancing requirements. Because of space restrictions, only 6 members of the public were allowed to view the debate in-person, with many more watching the live feed online.
The Legislature intends to return on April 14, but that depends entirely on what the pandemic looks like in three weeks, which for now is unclear. When they return, legislators still need to put together a bonding bill, a supplemental budget, and additional support measures related to COVID-19. Legislative leadership has indicated they are willing to move forward with items that have bipartisan support and would require little debate. The Coalition strongly believes that additional funding for broadband is one of those items and we will continue our advocacy for its inclusion.
Governor’s Broadband Task Force Discusses Funding
The Governor’s Broadband Task Force met on March 27 and discussed a number of issues. The Task Force has split into sub-groups and is beginning work on a series of goals and recommendations that will likely melded into a Task Force report at a future date. The conversation of the sub-groups was productive and identified discussion topics like mapping, speed goals, the challenge process, and the Office of Broadband Development.
Task Force Chair Teddy Bekele also indicated his desire to have an additional discussion on potential recommendations to the Legislature and Governor in response to COVID-19. The chair recognized the $30 million annual request and suggested a higher level of funding would be necessary. Permitting, a revolving loan fund, the $5 million grant cap, and raising the state match were other items. The initial response from Task Force members was mixed, but they agreed the issues deserve a thorough discussion in the coming weeks and months. The Coalition continues to believe the Task Force—because of its wide range of stakeholders—is the appropriate place for this conversation to take place. We will monitor and provide feedback should it be necessary.
Reminder to Reach out to Your Legislators and Newspapers
Last week we asked you to considered writing an op-ed for your local newspaper and to reach out to your elected officials to let them know additional broadband should be passed by the Legislature this session. Thank you to those who have already done so! If you haven’t, now is the perfect time. Legislators have gone back to their districts for the next few weeks and will be paying attention to what their constituents have to say.
Here is a sample letter that you should feel free to personalize:
As schools and businesses continue to shut down across the state, we are being asked to work, learn, or receive care from home. But the reality is that thousands of Minnesotans still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet.
Giving our children a quality education has always been a priority in Minnesota. Now that our children have been asked to stay home from school, we’re seeing a digital divide between those who have broadband those who do not. Some Minnesota schools are more able to close and employ e-learning solutions than others. It is simply not a viable option for every district in the state. Even though students have connectivity at school, some do not have connectivity in their homes or adequate bandwidth to receive and send online curriculum assignments or projects. Students without access to quality broadband are at a distinct disadvantage from students who have access.
This divide is also present in healthcare. Connecting rural hospitals with their patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the patient does not have access to the high-speed broadband and technology that drives telehealth services. With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients working with specialists in healthcare system hub sites. We’ve been told “stay home if you are sick.” Broadband would allow you to not only work from home but to receive care from home as well.
The current pandemic has proven that broadband is no different than any other basic service that people need. It is an essential part of our daily lives. We need to do everything we can to ensure border-to-border access, including the Legislature appropriating an additional $30 million in annual funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program this year.

MN Broadband Task Force March meeting note: asking leg for funding in light of coronavirus?

The MN Broadband Task Force met via Webex today. They recorded the meeting and I suspect it will be made available – but for now we have my very MacGuyver-esque version. The sounds was hard to hear at times, I’m sure that’s reflected in the video.

The subgroups reported on their initial discussion. (Notes below.) At the end of the meeting (last 30 minutes or so) the Task Force Chair (Teddy) proposed some pretty aggressive recommendations for the Legislature to increase funding (to $76 million) and remove other barriers to encourage faster deployment of broadband.

The Task Force members had more conservative responses to the suggestion and it sounds likely that they will ask for funding but perhaps not the other items. (Notes below.)

Also – I took full notes… Continue reading

US Dep of Health and Human Services Awards $100 million to health centers – in part for telehealth

The Department of Health and Human Services announces…

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), awarded $100 million to 1,381 health centers across the country with funding provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020.  HRSA-funded health centers may use the awards to address screening and testing needs, acquire medical supplies and boost telehealth capacity in response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

On Friday, March 6, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, which provides $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, including $100 million for HRSA-funded health centers. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, and the important role health centers play in communities nationwide, HHS is making this funding for health centers available immediately.

Klobuchar, Smith, Cramer, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Sustain Rural Broadband Connectivity During Coronavirus Pandemic

Introducing the Keeping Critical Connections Act…

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), along with Tina Smith (D-MN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Steve Daines (R-MT), Doug Jones (D-AL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Barrasso (R-WY), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Todd Young (R-IN), and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the Keeping Critical Connections Act to help small broadband providers ensure rural broadband connectivity for students and their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Access to high speed internet is critical for students and their families during the coronavirus outbreak,” Klobuchar said. “The Keeping Critical Connections Act would help small broadband providers continue offering free or discounted broadband services to families and students in rural areas to ensure they remain connected to school, work, and their communities during this period of economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“The federal government asked this essential industry to keep providing assistance to people during COVID—19, and they answered the call,” Cramer said. “The least we can do is make sure they are made whole when this pandemic is over.”

The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a Keeping Critical Connections fund at the FCC under which small broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 customers could be compensated for broadband services—if they provided free or discounted broadband services or upgrades—during the pandemic for low-income families who could not afford to pay their bills or provided distance learning capability for students. The bill is endorsed by NTCA—the Rural Broadband Association, WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), the Minnesota Telecommunications Alliance, and the Broadband Association of North Dakota (BAND).

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century. It isn’t just nice to have, it’s necessary—especially during the coronavirus pandemic,” Smith said. “Students who are finishing up their school year at home need to be able to connect to online classes. Employees who are working from home are counting on broadband to help them do their jobs. And folks are relying on the internet to help them access care through telehealth, which is also made possible by amazing health care workers. I’m glad to work in a bipartisan way to help Minnesotans stay connected during this time.”

Representatives Peter Welch (D-VT-AL) and Roger Marshall (R-KS-01) are introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“With millions of people required to stay home and students across the country learning from home, broadband access is essential,” Welch said. “Small providers get it – the service they provide is a lifeline to parents and children who need to learn, work, and stay connected with loved ones during these difficult times. This bill ensures small providers can continue to provide their essential service during and after this crisis. We should pass this bipartisan bill immediately.”

“Now more than ever we’re seeing how important it is to have access to a fast and reliable broadband connection,” Marshall said. “With the closure of Kansas schools along with more and more people adopting teleworking procedures, our rural telecommunications providers are working around the clock to ensure students, communities, and businesses have reliable internet access, no matter where they live. This bill will provide assistance to small companies trying to address the unique rural telecommunications needs posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and ensure that all Americans can remain connected during this difficult time.”

Community Use of E-Rate-Supported Wi-Fi is Permitted During Closures

This came up on a call today and will hopefully make it even easier for libraries and schools that are closed to keep their wifi networks open  to support local residents who don’t have access at home.

The FCC reports

By this Public Notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau reminds schools and libraries that are closed due to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak that they are permitted to allow the general public to use E-Rate-supported Wi-Fi networks while on the school’s campus or library property.  Specifically, libraries may offer access to E-Rate funded services on their premises as well as services that are “integral, immediate and proximate to the provision of library services to library patrons”[1]—and because the mission to serve the public is ongoing, libraries are permitted to allow the public to access E-Rate funded services even when they are closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Similarly, closed schools may allow access to E-Rate funded services “to community members who access the Internet while on a school’s campus” so long as they do not charge for the use of the service.[2]  We hope

that this reminder will promote connectivity to Americans impacted by the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

We leave it to individual schools and libraries to establish their own policies regarding use of their Wi-Fi networks during closures, including hours of use.[1]  And we remind all parties that health and well-being are paramount, and to follow any applicable health and safety guidelines, including those on social distancing, as may be set out by relevant federal, state, local, and Tribal authorities.

For further information, please contact Joseph Schlingbaum, Telecommunications Access Policy Division, Wireline Competition Bureau, at (202) 418-7400 or (202) 418-0829 (TTY), or at Joseph.Schlingbaum@fcc.gov

 

[1] Cf. id., 25 FCC Rcd at 18775-76, para. 25 (finding that “the decision about whether to allow community access rests with the school, and we thus leave it schools to establish their own policies regarding specific use of their services and facilities, including, for example, the hours of use”); id. at 18776-77, para. 27 (“We emphasize that the revision of our rules [to allow community use of school’s E-Rate funded services] creates an opportunity for schools, but not an obligation.”).

[1] 47 CFR § 54.500.

[2] See Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism, Sixth Report and Order, WC Docket No. 02-6, 25 FCC Rcd 18762, 18775-76, paras. 25-26 (2010) (E-Rate Sixth Report and Order).  Additionally, schools that choose to allow the community to use their E-Rate funded services “may not request funding for more services than are necessary for educational purposes to serve their current student population.”  Id. at 18775, para. 24.