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Lankford, Senate Committee Push on Lack of Response from Cell Phone Carriers on Contraband Cell Phones in Prisons

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s Q&A.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today questioned Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai in a Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) fiscal year 2021 funding hearing. Lankford asked Chairman Pai about the ongoing expansions in telehealth medicine, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the redrawing of broadband maps to better represent coverage in parts of the US, including Oklahoma, that were improperly drawn in the first phase, and the FCC’s attention to addressing contraband cell phones in our nation’s prison.

Lankford has continued to push for telehealth solutions where possible in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements and in coronavirus relief funds for Tribes. Lankford has also actively pursued updating het 5G mobility maps with the FCC, including sending a bipartisan letter in April 2020 to the Commission and previously pressing Chairman Pai in an FSGG hearing on broadband mapping and contraband prison cell phones in March 2020. In May 2019 Chairman Pai visited Oklahoma to discuss the issue of contraband prison cell phones with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter. Lankford has encouraged the nation’s largest mobile service providers to get involved in the conversation about contraband cell phones, and Lankford has had numerous conversations with Chairman Pai about this issue as it pertains to Oklahoma prisons. Senator Lankford will continue to push the FCC and Chairman Pai on his commitment to action on contraband cell phones for fiscal year 2021.

Excerpts

On telehealth

(Starts at 00:10 – 00:59) Lankford: There’s been a lot of waivers and work on the issue of telehealth and making sure that’s available and accelerating that process. What I want to know is: what are the lessons learned and what is needed long term to be able to make sure we maintain telehealth?

Pai: A great question Senator. We’re still starting to hear back from some of the grantees to which we’re distributing the funding. So I hope in time to be able to give you some more clarity as to how they’ve used that funding and what benefits that it’s provided. We expect it’s going to be tremendous. Already the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, for instance, has shown how they have given young transplant patients connected devices to allow them to be monitored remotely, so they don’t have to come back into the healthcare facility when their immune systems are very vulnerable. We’ve also heard from mental health providers, including one in southeast Kansas and I believe in Oklahoma as well, that they’re going to use this funding to provide care for folks who can’t come to the facility.

On Mobility Fund maps and 5G

(Starts 01:52 – 02:56) Lankford: You and I have talked about this before. In fact this last time you were here we talked about the Mobility Fund Phase II and the maps that were put out. The maps were wrong. They were proven to be wrong at the end of it, and my question to you is: those that put out false maps and false information, what consequences have come to them for putting out false information to your office and to us, because a lot of rural carriers spent a lot of money trying to be able to prove those maps are wrong. Those rural carriers will never be compensated for it, and what I want to know, are there consequences for those other carriers that put out false maps?

Pai: So the FCC is still looking into that issue, and going forward what I can say is, part of the reason why we started the 5G fund was to focus on the wireless technology of the future, not to double-down on 4G, given the behavior that we saw in the context of the Mobility Fund Phase II. And just so going forward again, we have an open public dialogue right now that’s ongoing about how best to make sure that rural parts of this country that are unlikely to get service from any major provider for 5G are not going to be left behind as we star to pursue C-band and all these other initiatives 

On contraband prison cell phones

(Starts at 04:29 – 06:49) Lankford: Let me make one other quick comment to you. Managed Access for prisons, it’s something you and I have talked about often and trying to be able to figure out how do we block contraband cell phones from prisons. What is the process right now in the Manage Access Evolved? There’s always seemed to be something on the horizon to be discussed, and as you and I have talked about this for several years, there’s always something coming but doesn’t actually seem to come. Where are we?

Pai: So in that regard I want to thank you first for flagging the report that the Commission was due to submit. We did submit that report, and I hope you had a chance to read it.

Lankford: We did actually. Thank you.

Pai: Absolutely. With the spectrum, MAS [Managed Access] evolved, I believe it’s a promising opportunity. As I understand the technology, it could provide a solution consistent with current law that could be very useful. Unfortunately, as I understand it, the industry has not been as willing to implement that solution or consider implementing it. And so that’s why as recently as yesterday, the FCC staff was having conversations with them about the path forward .I’m frustrated by the situation, to be frank. I don’t understand what obstacles remain to getting MAS evolved, or rather the promising technologies implemented, but we’re going to get to the bottom of that.

Lankford: Yeah, it’s my frustration as well. It always seems to be something under discussion and never actually something resolved. And we continue to have rapists that are contacting their victims through a cell phone that they have in prison and tormenting victims, and the cell phone companies seem to turn their heads and say, ‘That’s no big deal.’ And at some point they need to wake up and know this is a really big issue. And they are responsible for continuing to allow that type of behavior to come out of a prison to victims until they actually step up and engage and try to help solve this rather than maintain it.

Pai: I couldn’t agree more, and I would invite any of the folks who are skeptical about what you just said to visit Taft Correctional Institution in Ada [Oklahoma], go to Jackson Penitentiary in Georgia, go to Fort Leavenworth in Kansans. I’ve been to these facilities and more, and I’ve heard first-hand from a bunch of folks, from administrators to correctional officers about what a serious threat it is. And it’s a public safety issue. I mean, it’s not just an arcane issue that affects the geographic scope of the facility. As you mentioned, it affects witnesses and prosecutors and the general public. I mean, these devices in the hands of somebody who means ill could be a significant problem for public safety. And I think the industry needs to have a higher sense of priority for it.

Lankford: Yeah, I do as well. Thank you.

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