Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Urge Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to Help Low-Income Families Receive Broadband Services

Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Urge Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to Help Low-Income Families Receive Broadband Services

Americans now eligible for food assistance or Medicaid are also eligible for key program that expands access to broadband, telephone service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with 142 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, are urging FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that the millions of Americans who have recently become eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid are informed that they are also eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program.

Lifeline is the primary federal program charged with helping low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services, which are only becoming more essential as millions of workers transition to remote work and students participate in online learning programing.

“Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis.  For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“While we understand that the FCC has traditionally issued guidelines for states and telecommunications providers to advertise the Lifeline program, given the critical role of internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge the FCC to coordinate directly with USDA and HHS as well as states and stakeholders to help ensure people in need are informed about their eligibility for the Lifeline program,” the lawmakers continued.

The letter echoes the concerns of a variety of groups including the National Consumer Law Center, Third Way, and Public Knowledge.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that connectivity is more important than ever. I’ve called for the FCC to coordinate with agencies that administer services that determine eligibility for the Lifeline program to ensure low-income communities learn about the critical Lifeline program. Americans cannot afford for the government to work in silos, and I’m thankful for the leadership of Senator Klobuchar, Senator Durbin, Congresswoman Fudge, and Congresswoman Eshoo to make sure more Americans know about this essential program in our social safety net,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said. 

“The Lifeline program provides critical connectivity for those who need it most. Informing consumers about their Lifeline eligibility is a necessary step to help close the digital divide and is clearly something we should continue doing even after the pandemic ends. We are grateful for the leadership of Senators Klobuchar and Durbin and Representatives Fudge and Eshoo on this issue,” said Chris Lewis, President and CEO, Public Knowledge.

Throughout the pandemic, Senators Merkley and Wyden have led multiple letters urging the Trump administration to expand access to high-quality internet service. The senators have also called on the CEOs of the eight major internet service providers to encourage them to suspend policies that limit Americans’ access to internet, and pushed for a utility shutoff moratorium to protect Americans from electricity and internet shut-offs.

The full text of the lawmakers’ letter is available here and follows below.  

 

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Dear Chairman Pai: 

We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help ensure the millions of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid, due to job loss or reductions in income, are informed of their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program. The Lifeline program is the primary federal program charged with providing financial assistance to help low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services. 

The ongoing pandemic has led to financial hardships for millions of Americans. At least 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the past month alone, and states are seeing a surge in applications for SNAP benefits. Medicaid enrollment is also expected to increase significantly as a result of these unprecedented job losses and health coverage. Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis. For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it.

Congress recently passed legislation to provide states additional funding and flexibility to streamline access to SNAP for people adversely effected by the economic impact of the coronavirus. Many of the at least 26 million Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the last five weeks may also soon turn to the food assistance programs to feed their families and enroll in Medicaid to access necessary health care. This will likely lead to a significant increase in the number of individuals eligible for the Lifeline program.  

Even before the pandemic, only 7 million out of the 38 million people who were eligible for the Lifeline program were enrolled. While we understand that the FCC has traditionally issued guidelines for states and telecommunications providers to advertise the Lifeline program, given the critical role of internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge the FCC to coordinate directly with USDA and HHS as well as states and stakeholders to help ensure people in need are informed about their eligibility for the Lifeline program. We also respectfully request responses to the following questions: 

1.    What is the FCC currently doing to work with the USDA and HHS to help ensure that people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program are aware that they can receive subsidized communications services? 

2.    What data has the FCC collected on the number of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and how many of those newly eligible have enrolled in the program? 

3.   Please detail the additional resources and authorities the FCC needs to ensure qualifying people in the U.S. know that they are eligible for the Lifeline program. 

Thank you for prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to your response. 

Sincerely,