More telework means more strain on internet and phone systems

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It’s totally crucial every day, but in the pandemic crisis nearly everyone is imagining how we’d survive without the telecommunications infrastructure. In fact, here and there the internet and the phone systems have shown a little strain. The Federal Communications Commission has been monitoring all of this, and taken a few actions. With more, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Good to have you back.

Brendan Carr: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it

Tom Temin: And tell us about the commission operations itself. Everyone teleworking there?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, we’ve moved to basically 100% telework at this point. There’s almost nobody physically in the building at this point. And the FCC chairman Pai and his chief of staff have been doing a great job of putting out clear, actionable information to FCC staff, and they’ve been responding really well and continuing to carry out the agency’s mission.

Tom Temin: All right. And there are some initiatives to from the commissioner’s and one of them, I guess the top of the list, is the Keep Americans Connected Initiative. I don’t think that’s gotten a lot of publicity, but people do need to be connected. Tell us about that one.

Brendan Carr: Yeah. Look more than ever before, Americans are relying on the internet, whether it’s work from home, whether its distance learning for our kids or critically important telehealth needs. And so the past few weeks the FCC has engaged in really an unprecedented series of steps to keep Americans connected, and we’ve issued a pledge in an initiative under that framing that at this point over 500 broadband providers have signed up for. It’s pretty basic. Keep everybody connected, no terminating service because of inability to pay right now, waving late fees and opening up internet access points, WiFi points to anybody that needs it. On top of that, we’ve been working with the private sector on a number of other fronts. We’ve boosted networks by putting more high capacity spectrum out there. We’ve expanded telehealth, including adding millions of dollars in funding to support connectivity to hospitals. We’ve engaged in efforts to keep low income Americans online. There’s been an expansion of low income programs from all of the major providers, basically, and the list goes on from there.

Tom Temin: And in general, has the telecom system, which is really a combination nowadays of the telephone system itself, the switch network and the internet, has it generally held up?

Brendan Carr: I’m very pleased with what the data the current data is showing. We’re seeing web traffic that’s up depending on the carrier. You know, anywhere in the low 20% over standard web traffic. That’s well within the capacity at this point of what our networks can handle. In fact, if you look at measurements like latency, for instance, we are doing really well as a country compared to other countries that are in sort of similar situations of working remotely. So very pleased with how the networks are holding up. I’m not sure we’ve reached peak network demand at this point. Maybe another couple days, as people fully lock into working from home. And maybe they’re adding more webcams or doing more of that connectivity. But at this point, the networks are holding up very well.

Tom Temin: And has the level of communication between the FCC and the major carriers, has that been stepped up also?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, we’re in constant communications both directly with carriers getting information from them about their networks and how they’re performing. We’ve been helping them basically swap spectrum if they’re not using spectrum in one part of the country that another carer can put to use. We’re giving them special temporary authority to do that. We’ve had some spectrum just sitting in FCC inventory we haven’t auctioned yet, we’ve gone ahead and just push that right out into the commercial marketplace. And then we’re working with third party vendors too that monitor web traffic, whether it’s band with measurements or latency measurements. And so all the data that we’re looking at, as of right now is showing us that the networks have enough capacity to hold up under this really unprecedented situation.

Tom Temin: And that unauctioned spectrum. Does that go back into inventory when this is over for later auctioning?

Brendan Carr: So I think that’s right. Yeah, we would have a more formal mechanism for getting that back out into the private sector, although obviously, the faster we can do that, the better.

Tom Temin: Tell us more about the telemedicine because I think there was money in the stimulus bill for FCC to help with telemedicine. What’s going on there?

Brendan Carr: You have that exactly right. So the Senate bill included about $200 million for telehealth, and we stand ready to put that money to work for the American people as quickly as possible. We have a couple of different vehicles by which we can take that money and move it out. Historically, the FCC has been very active in supporting through funding connections to hospitals. One thing that I saw when I doing this commission is there’s this new trend and telehealth towards what we call connected care. Think of it like the shift from Blockbuster to Netflix, so no longer you have to go to a physical brick and mortar healthcare facility to receive care. You could get it right on your smartphone, your tablet. What are other sort of connected healthcare device right in your home. Well, of course, right now that’s more important than ever. So I think we stand ready to take that funding to help support those types of connected care telehealth initiatives. And that’ll make a big difference in keeping people out of hospitals that don’t need that level of care right now to free up resources for COVID-19 patients.

Tom Temin: And this is a little outside of the FCC purview. But sometimes there are Medicare or third party healthcare payment restrictions and regulations on that kind of care, which is also helped hold it back. Are you talking to any of that end of the world with respect to coordinating all of this?

Brendan Carr: Yeah, you’re right. When we look at, you know, how do we get to the tipping point in the country where we have a lot more telehealth because it shows significant results in terms of patient health but also significant savings for the health care system. You’re right. There’s a series of reimbursement licensing issues that’s outside of the FCC jurisdiction that’s been holding that back. Thankfully, the administration and HHS have been engaging in a series of efforts to issue waivers and reform a lot of those types of rules that were holding back telehealth. We’re in close communication with those officials, including in standing up some of our own telehealth initiatives. I think combining the steps were taking on the network and funding side with the new steps that are being taken by HHS and other entities to wave and reform some of those telehealth rules. That’s gonna help make it so we have a bit more bang for the buck with our programs now.

Tom Temin: And some of the areas in these emergencies that seem to take it worse than maybe the city areas are, of course, the rural areas and Puerto Rico. And the FCC has done some steps in recent days for rural healthcare providers and also for Puerto Rico.

Brendan Carr: One of things we’ve done is we’ve accelerated fundings. We’ve added millions of dollars to are essentially rural healthcare program. We’ve also waived rules so that broadband providers can now give free connected devices, free upgraded capacity to these healthcare providers, where our rules would have prohibited that type of gift before. I think that’s also making a difference as well.

Tom Temin: A connected health care device, that would be something like a, I don’t know, a thermometer or a blood pressure taker that is also wired, say, with Bluetooth or WiFi such that the results can be sent telephonically.

Brendan Carr: Yeah, so think about chronic disease management. That’s where we spend about 85% of direct health care spending in this country. Diabetes is one example. I was in the Mississippi Delta about a year or two ago and met a woman named Mrs. Annie and she noticed the first signs of diabetes when she woke up one morning with blurred vision. She wasn’t getting much results with traditional care mechanisms. She was sent home with a iPad in a Bluetooth connected blood glucose monitor. Every morning she pricked her finger. That blood glucose model would automatically send her A1C level to her IPad and her iPad would then process that and give her direct feedback about what to do that they eat this. Don’t eat this, exercise this way. And of course, all of that connectivity went back to her brick and mortar healthcare provider. So she saw tremendous improvements and she still doing very well.

Tom Temin: All right, and Puerto Rico, Tell us how the FCC has helped down there.

Brendan Carr: Yeah, we’re taking a number of steps there on our website. It lays out the last couple days what we’re doing to make sure there’s enough capacity there. And of course, we’re engaged in a lot of efforts on the low income side, which is key both in Puerto Rico and in a lot of communities around the U.S. All the major providers have been expanding their low income programs, both in terms of eligibility, but also in terms of the speed that they’re offering too low income consumers. And we think those are really important steps because we’ve got to make sure that everyone in this country is connected right now.

Tom Temin: When this is all over, do you anticipate maybe some reordering of the regulatory framework permanently?

Brendan Carr: I certainly think as we look at the actions that we’ve taken the FCC and and really across the government, there should be a stock taking. When we do get back to some semblance of normalcy and say, what emergency efforts did we do that actually do make sense to do on a long term basis? So I’m very open to taking a look at the relief we provided and seeing what should remain permanent on what other changes we need to make in light of the the really unprecedented level of regulatory action the FCC have been taking over the last couple of weeks.

Tom Temin: Brendan Carr is a member of the Federal Communications Commission. Thanks so much for joining me.

Brendan Carr: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.