WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith joined Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and 21 of their colleagues in calling on the FCC to boost its Lifeline program to keep students connected as millions return to school both virtually and in person. The FCC’s Lifeline program is the primary federal program charged with helping low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services. The senators called for the FCC to put in place a comprehensive plan to respond to this national crisis and to immediately take steps to implement reforms that will bridge the homework gap that has already left millions of children behind with no access to the internet or connected devices.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and even reinforced the vast homework gap that has left millions of children offline because their parents cannot afford broadband internet access. Schools across the country are grappling with this digital divide as they decide whether they can safely reopen and whether virtual learning will work,” the senators wrote.
“We are alarmed that as students head back to class – in person or online – there is still no national plan from the FCC to secure families’ access to their educational future. This looming disaster is one product of the vast digital divide that hinders families’ educational futures, economic opportunities, and health, which FCC should vigorously bridge through Lifeline and other USF programs.”
The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Warner (D-VA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA).
In March 2020, Klobuchar and Smith urged FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to take action to ensure that Minnesota students have access to the internet so that they can continue learning while schools are closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, Klobuchar and Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation – cosponsored by Sen. Smith – to sustain rural broadband connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The Keeping Critical Connections Act would appropriate $2 billion for a temporary Keeping Critical Connections fund at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help small broadband providers sustain internet services and upgrades for students and low-income families during the pandemic.
In April, Klobuchar and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, along with 140 colleagues in both the House and Senate, urged Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that the millions of Americans who are now eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid due to job loss or reduction in income are informed that they are also eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program.
In May, Klobuchar joined Senators Markey and 44 of their colleagues in introducing the Emergency Educational Connections Act to establish a $4 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund at the FCC to provide support for schools and libraries to ensure that K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. Klobuchar and Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced The Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act to establish a $1 billion fund at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help ensure that college and university students at historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and other minority-serving institutions, as well as rural-serving institutions, have adequate home internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill provides federal support for these colleges and universities to help students in need pay for at-home internet connections and equipment such as routers, modems, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets, and internet-enabled devices.
In June, Klobuchar and Smith urged USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to quickly allocate COVID-19 relief funds to bolster rural broadband access.
After becoming Senator, Sen. Smith introduced the Community Connect Grant Program Act to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program under law and make improvements to the grant program that makes funding available for broadband projects in tribal, low-income, and remote rural areas.
Full text of the letter is available HERE and below.
Dear Chairman Pai,
We write to express our profound frustration that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has failed to take forceful action to keep households connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. As millions of American families face unprecedented financial pressures and educational challenges, we urge the FCC to reverse proposed changes to the Lifeline program, take immediate steps to open its assistance to more households, and ensure that its services meet the pressing needs of families during this crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and even reinforced the vast homework gap that has left millions of children offline because their parents cannot afford broadband internet access. Schools across the country are grappling with this digital divide as they decide whether they can safely reopen and whether virtual learning will work. According to Common Sense Media, one quarter of students nationally are at risk of being left out of the classroom because they lack broadband or connected devices, a toll that falls disproportionately and disastrously on communities of color. Unfortunately, the homework gap has already had an immense cost to children during this crisis, as some students have been forced to forgo online lectures and miss important homework. We are alarmed that as students head back to class – in person or online – there is still no national plan from the FCC to secure families’ access to their educational future. This looming disaster is one product of the vast digital divide that hinders families’ educational futures, economic opportunities, and health, which FCC should vigorously bridge through Lifeline and other USF programs.
The FCC already has the ability to take immediate steps to close the homework gap and ensure that families have access to broadband. One of the FCC’s most important assistance programs, Lifeline, was established under the Reagan Administration to provide discounts for free or low cost phone services to those who qualify for other financial assistance. In the four decades since, the Lifeline program has been supported and expanded on a bipartisan basis – a resounding recognition that phone and internet access is essential for economic security, health, and family life. Lifeline has lived up to its name for millions of veterans needing telehealth services, domestic violence survivors, older Americans, those experiencing housing insecurity, and other vulnerable Americans. Our immense reliance on broadband during the pandemic for telework, virtual learning, social connections, and telehealth has proven the original, bipartisan vision of Lifeline.
Regrettably, under your Chairmanship, the FCC has actively worked to undermine and destabilize the Lifeline program, which has left more families vulnerable during the pandemic by widening the learning gap and lessening household’s ability to access crucial services, such as unemployment benefits, food assistance, and health resources. Since the first weeks of your tenure, the FCC has sought to block new broadband providers’ participation in the Lifeline program, curtail benefits in tribal areas, exclude existing carriers, rollback reforms for registering new carriers, make it harder for new applicants to subscribe, prevent carriers from offering free in-person distribution of phones, reduce incentives to enroll subscribers, and add more barriers for participating carriers and subscriber. These proposals have been so extreme that they would lead to cutting off carriers serving almost 70% of Lifeline subscribers.
The FCC has also failed to complete important reforms to ease burdens on consumers and reduce fraud, such as the full implementation of the National Verifier meant to automate registration and preserve the integrity of Lifeline. Lastly, carriers face continued uncertainty about the long-term stability of the program given the open FCC proposals to cut back participation and compensation for services. The consequences of this sustained assault on Lifeline are stark – less than 20% eligible households subscribe to services, as much as a 30% drop during your watch.
The FCC should step up to tackle the profound inequities and divides that American families are struggling with during this national crisis. We appreciate that the FCC issued and extended the temporary waivers in response to the pandemic to pause usage and subscriber documentation requirements, and also appreciate that it partnered with state utility commissioners to improve public awareness of the program. But, by the benchmark established during previous crises, such as Hurricane Katrina, the FCC response falls far short. Lifeline could be a reprieve for millions of households. The FCC should take the initiative to ensure that Lifeline meets the connectivity needs of households sheltering in place at home and facing financial hardship during the COVID-19 crisis. However, regrettably, you have asked your Commissioner colleagues to vote on an order that would permanently alter the minimum standards for Lifeline without changes in contributions, which could potentially lead to the loss of the free Lifeline services in the middle of this pandemic. We support increasing Lifeline subscribers’ data allowances during this crisis, but such increases should be backed with additional funding. At this critical moment, the FCC should provide the additional financial support needed for Lifeline subscriptions to meet the data demands of virtual classroom time, telehealth, and telework during this time.
It is time for the FCC to offer a bold plan to respond to this national crisis through bolstering the Lifeline program, and the Commission does not need to wait to act. We strongly urge you to immediately take the following steps:
1. Take emergency measures to provide additional financial support to Lifeline providers during the pandemic to temporarily provide unlimited mobile data and voice minutes, and notify Congress if additional funding is needed to support such changes.
2. Extend all current FCC waivers on Lifeline usage and subscriber documentation requirements for at least a full year, until August 2021 or when we have recovered from the pandemic.
3. Close the currently outstanding Lifeline proposed rulemakings that would create new obstacles for eligible households and add unwarranted burden on carriers.
4. Pause the scheduled changes to Lifeline program’s minimum service standards until the Commission studies such impacts on the market in its upcoming 2021 State of Lifeline Marketplace Report, to avoid disruptions to customer’s services.
5. Restore the monthly subsidy to $9.25 for plans offering voice services for subscribers who value voice over data-heavy plans and pause the planned decrease in contributions for voice support.
6. Work with states to increase the automated verification of state databases with the National Verifier program by the end of this year.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.