Wyden, Merkley Demand Expanded Internet Access for Low-Income Oregonians Throughout COVID-19 Crisis

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today demanded better mobile internet service for low-income Americans affected by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Improved internet access would help Oregonians better work and learn from home and access vital telehealth resources.

The federal Lifeline service program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), provides free and discounted voice, text and cellular internet service to 9 million low-income Americans.

In a series of letters to Lifeline internet service providers, the senators wrote, “During this public health crisis, it is imperative that internet providers, like your company, act to ensure that the millions of American families who depend on the Lifeline program are not left behind by an ever-growing digital divide.”

Wyden and Merkley led the letters after hearing from Oregonians struggling to work and learn from home and access telehealth resources throughout this health and economic crisis. With Oregon schools likely remaining closed through the current school year, districts across the state are depending increasingly on remote learning. Given the increased remote working and telehealth appointments throughout the state, all Oregonians need reliable access to high-quality internet service now more than ever.  

In addition to today’s letters, Senators Merkley and Wyden have led the call for a utility shutoff moratorium to give Americans protections against electricity and internet shut-offs, and have both worked to expand reliable broadband access during the coronavirus crisis by sending letters to the CEOs of the eight major internet service providers to call on the companies to suspend policies that limit Americans’ access to internet.

Basic wireless Lifeline service currently only provides 3GB of data per month, enough data to read emails and access the web, but not enough to telework or access telehealth resources. Many Lifeline providers also do not enable Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities for their devices, preventing children and families from using devices with larger screens, like tablets, laptops and desktop computers to work or learn effectively from home.

Joining Wyden and Merkley on today’s series of letters were U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Jack Reed, D-R.I., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

The senators requested Lifeline service providers take a number of steps to expand their service:

  • Enable hotspot access for all Lifeline subscribers, so they can connect laptops or tablets to smartphones that support this feature;
  • Ensure all Lifeline subscribers have access to 4G service, where available, with at least the same speed and priority of service that other resellers of mobile services of that network offer to their customers;
  • Provide no-cost upgrades to existing subscribers using older smartphones provided by the Lifeline provider that lack hotspot functionality;
  • Allow consumers to roll over some or all of their voice minutes and data allowances from one month to the next;
  • Work with their network operator — such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, who have all pledged to help American families during this crisis — to substantially increase the monthly data allowance beyond 3 GB, at no cost to Lifeline subscribers; and 
  • Provide subscribers with clear instructions on how to access their smartphone hotspot capability, including via text message.

“As a Lifeline provider, you have a unique opportunity to improve the education, health and economic outcomes of your subscribers during this pandemic,” the senators continued.

The senators requested responses from the internet service providers by April 8, 2020. The senators sent individuals letters to the following Lifeline providers: Airvoice Wireless LLC, American Broadband and Telecommunications Company, Amerimex Communications Corp., Assist Wireless LLC, Boomerang Wireless LLC, Cellular One, Cintex Wireless LLC, Global Connection Inc of America, I-Wireless, Q-Link Wireless LLC, Sage Telecom Communications LLC, TAG Mobile LLC, Telrite Corporation, Tempo Telecom LLC, TerraCom Inc., TracFone, TruConnect Communications Inc., True Wireless Inc., U.S. Cellular, Virgin Mobile USA and Yourtel America Inc.