Wyden, Merkley Urge Internet Service Providers To Expand Internet Access During COVID-19 Crisis

Wyden, Merkley Urge Internet Service Providers To Expand Internet Access During COVID-19 Crisis

Senators raise concern with the growing digital divide affecting students, primarily Black, Hispanic and low-income students

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley urged the seven largest internet service providers (ISPs) to do their part to help ensure that children in Oregon and across the nation are able to meaningfully participate in their education during the COVID-19 crisis. This call-to-action comes as unprecedented numbers of students rely on remote learning to kick off the fall semester due to the ongoing public health crisis. 

In a letter sent to the CEOs of AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, T-Mobile, and Verizon, Wyden, Merkley and nine other senators called on companies to take concrete measures to suspend limits and fees associated with increased broadband use, which is needed to participate in online courses or remote work. They also called for the companies to expand coverage areas, as the public health emergency has highlighted the devastating impact of the nation’s lingering broadband gaps.

“As a new school year commences, the need to accommodate an unprecedented reliance on data services to provide education continues. We have heard from public schools who express appreciation for internet service options that enable remote learning, but are also concerned with ongoing data limitations and continued lack of service for many households,” the senators wrote. “In many situations, online learning activities require additional data allowances beyond plans readily available for students. We kindly request that you again take immediate action to help students connect to the online resources they need to learn, including expanding coverage areas and rolling out new service plans that better meet the needs of these families.”

“With many schools closed and students now relying on the internet to connect with their teachers, instruction materials, and assignments, sufficient data allowances are even more essential for students’ success now and throughout their future. However, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many parents to work from home, increasing their monthly broadband usage,” they continued. “For these crucial reasons, we ask again that you temporarily suspend data caps and associated fees or throttling for affected communities, and work with public school districts, colleges, and universities to provide free, or at-cost broadband options for students whose schools are closed due to COVID-19 and don’t have sufficient access at home. These options are essential for students, regardless of household billing histories. Working with school administrations to facilitate qualification for discounts based on the schools’ personal knowledge may be especially helpful. For example, students qualifying for free/discounted lunches may also prequalify for free/discounted broadband services as well.”

According to findings from a Pew Research study, the “homework gap” of students lacking reliable access to internet connectivity or a computer at home is more pronounced among Black, Hispanic and lower-income households. In addition to the toll it takes on individual students and their families, the economic cost of this gap has been identified by McKinsey and Company as having deprived the economy of at least $426 billion between 2009 and 2019.

In their letter, the senators noted numerous complaints that have come in to their offices from parents and educators who are grappling with usage caps and limited bandwidth, which prevent daily video calls needed to learn and work from home. The senators also stated they’ve heard of families being deemed ineligible for the new services offered for low-income families due to previous missed payments. 

Wyden and Merkley have pushed for expanded internet access for all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, Wyden led a letter, including Merkley, to Lifeline internet service providers to expand service for low-income Americans, especially for students learning at home. Earlier this month, Wyden also pushed Comcast to open all of its public Wi-Fi networks, especially for students lacking access at home. In May, Wyden and Merkley introduced the Emergency Educational Connections Act to give elementary and secondary schools and libraries, including tribal schools and libraries, $4 billion to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and internet-enabled devices to students, staff and patrons. Wyden also introduced the Emergency Broadband Connections Act to ensure that all Oregonians, especially students, have reliable access to broadband throughout the duration of the pandemic. In May, Merkley introduced the Continuing Online Networking, Negating Economic Conditions on Technology (CONNECT) At Home Act, which would institute a moratorium on service terminations by internet service and voice service providers during, and for 180 days after the conclusion of, the national state of emergency.

Wyden and Merkley were joined on this letter by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Angus King, I-Maine, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

A copy of the letter is here.