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E&C Democrats Urge Pai to Expand Connectivity Using FCC’s Lifeline Program During COVID-19 Pandemic

Aug 13, 2020
Press Release
“Americans need this Lifeline to support telework, telehealth, education, and other services offered online to keep individuals and our communities safe and healthy”

Fifteen members of the Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter today to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to provide unlimited voice minutes and mobile data to Lifeline recipients, with a corresponding increase in the support amount to cover incremental costs, for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lifeline program helps low-income Americans afford phone or internet service, but during COVID-19, the Committee members wrote, the program must be supercharged to accommodate new necessities.

“While the FCC has taken some small steps since March to tweak the Lifeline program’s rules, much bolder action is necessary,” the Committee members wrote to Pai.  “A strong response is critical given the supreme importance of connectivity while the country continues its efforts to combat the unprecedented and devastating COVID-19 pandemic.”

The letter was signed by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Marc Veasey (D-TX), Donald McEachin (D-VA), Darren Soto (D-FL), Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA).

The FCC has previously expanded the Lifeline program’s benefits to help Americans stay connected after disasters. The Lifeline program typically provides $9.25 per month to qualifying households, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the FCC voted to provide $130 to qualifying households to receive handsets and voice minutes in order to help them get back on their feet. Given the importance of connectivity and remote learning, working, and healthcare during the pandemic, the Committee members believe that the FCC should follow past practices and take aggressive action to support struggling Americans. 

The Committee members also questioned a recent draft order circulated by Pai to change the minimum service standards required for mobile data service under the program that could result in low-income Americans paying more for mobile service.

“You failed to propose changes, even if temporary, to bring the Lifeline program in line with the connectivity needs of the moment,” the Committee members continued in their letter to Chairman Pai. “Now more than ever, Americans need this Lifeline to support telework, telehealth, education, and other services offered online to keep individuals and our communities safe and healthy. Unfortunately, your proposed rules seem to ignore the fact that coronavirus cases continue to rise, and the country has experienced nineteen consecutive weeks of over one million unemployment claims.”

The House passed the Heroes Act in May, which includes several provisions to ensure that Americans can afford the broadband internet service they need. The legislation would require the Lifeline program to provide unlimited voice and data minutes to Americans struggling during this pandemic.

“Regrettably, the Senate has yet to consider any meaningful action to assist low-income consumers in affording broadband during this pandemic,” the Committee members wrote. “It is, therefore, all the more critical that the FCC use all of its authorities to ensure that the American people have access to internet services at an affordable cost.  We strongly urge you to provide unlimited voice minutes and unlimited mobile data to Lifeline recipients for the duration of the pandemic, consistent with applicable law and regulation.”

The Committee members requested a response from FCC Chairman Pai by September 3, 2020.

The full letter is available HERE.

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