May 13 (UPI) -- The Senate on Wednesday questioned tech executives about what the industry is doing to ensure the broadband Internet infrastructure can keep up with the needs of teleworkers and online students amid the COVID-19 pandemic and moving forward.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation heard testimony from broadband executives both in person and via video conferencing as they sought to examine initiatives to maintain and expand high-speed and reliable broadband connections to all Americans.
Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an estimated 47 percent uptick in broadband usage.
"As the administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourage social distancing to prevent the further spread of the virus, normal activities like work, school and healthcare services are now increasingly taking place online," Wicker said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that Federal Communication Commission reports indicate 18 million Americans lack access to broadband, particularly citing a lack of access in Native American tribal areas.
"Broadband activity can be a great equalizer in this country," Cantwell said. "But, if access is not there, then we can see right here and now during this COVID crisis the challenges to our education system, our healthcare system and just basic contact with family and loved ones."
U.S. Telecom CEO Jonathan Spalter noted that it provided the FCC with a map to pinpoint the locations that remain without broadband and companies have set up additional hotspots to expand access.
Spalter also said that many of U.S. Telecom's member companies have committed to maintaining connectivity to customers facing financial difficulty due to the pandemic but added this effort has come at "a substantial cost" to these companies.
Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association, said that providers have faced difficulty obtaining necessary personal protective equipment for workers to perform tasks needed to expand and maintain service.
"It is imperative to keep these professionals safe and healthy, to maintain connectivity for all and they must have reliable access to PPE," Berry said.
Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA -- The Rural Broadband Association, called on Congress and the Trump administration to clarify whether non-profit cooperatives can qualify to receive federal aid under the Paycheck Protection Program.
"In the near-term, we need both to make sure that those who are not currently connected, get connected and also to make sure that those who are connected can stay connected," Bloomfield said.