On this week’s interview episode of The Vergecast, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel and policy reporter Makena Kelly are joined by Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel — but not in the studio. Each person kept their social distance by recording at home as more and more of our lives move online during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has upended much of everyday life in cities all across the country. It’s forced schools and businesses to move their operations over the internet to protect their students and workers from the disease. It’s postponed primary elections in states like Georgia and Louisiana, and presidential candidates are now holding their town halls and rallies over Facebook Live and Twitch. But can our networks take the extra strain?
Rosenworcel discusses these questions and more on this week’s episode of The Vergecast.
Below, is a lightly edited excerpt of Rosenworcel discussing the FCC’s job to ensure that all Americans are connected to the internet during this crisis.
Nilay Patel: It is a strange time in America and the world right now. We’re all working from home. I think you’re at home. Vox Media is at home. We’re all taping this in our respective homes. There isn’t a better time to talk about broadband policy. What is your sense about all of it?
Jessica Rosenworcel: These are strange and unprecedented times — managing kids, work, school, home, and then, of course, the work of the Federal Communications Commission. Broadband is front and center in this crisis. We are telling the nation to go online for work, for school, for health care like never before. We’re going to stress our networks. We’re going to expose the digital divide, and I think the FCC has got to pay attention to what is happening and take every step it can to connect more people right now. This is about the future of our civic and commercial life, but it’s also about our ability to get through this crisis together, and we really want to make sure we all do that.
So there are some short-term things and some sort of medium- and long-term things. One, I saw yesterday that the FCC has allowed T-Mobile to use some 600 MHz spectrum that some companies gave to it. Then, all of the companies are going to excuse customers from data caps. That seems very immediate. “We’re not going to bill you right away. We’re not going to bill you if you miss a payment.” How do you think those things bucket out?
What are the immediate short-term steps that the FCC and the broadband companies can take, and what are the medium and long-term steps that could help us be better prepared in the future?
I’m going to try to describe what the FCC has done to date, and I’m also going to talk a little bit about what else I want the agency to do. Last week, it announced a pledge. It got several dozen of the nation’s broadband providers to commit to doing a few things. First, they would not shut anyone off during this time. If you’re a small business or a home and you can’t pay your bills, we’re not going to shut you off.
Second, they are going to waive late fees during this period. And third, to the extent that they have private Wi-Fi routers that are out there, they’re going to make sure that they’re out there publicly. Everyone who has signed onto that pledge deserves credit. I think we need to go further, and some carriers have made plans to make sure some low-income households can get online for free for 60 days. Some have made clear that they will not have data caps. And these things are good, but the bottom line is: I don’t want us to just rely on their generosity. We need a nationwide plan for addressing the digital divide. I like their kindness. I want to clap for it. I want to support it. But I think, as a nation, we need a policy that addresses how we’re going to connect all of us. What are the plans we want in place to make sure it happens?