COVID-19-Related Broadband Funding Bill Introduced

Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would help pay for keeping low-income families connected to broadband during the ongoing pandemic, which appears to be getting a second wind. 

Internet service providers' pledge to the FCC to do that -- all the majors and many smaller ISPs signed up -- expires June 30 and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has asked Congress to take up the financial mantle if possible, while asking ISPs to continue to help through deferred payment plans past June 30. 

FCC's Pai Says Congress Needs to Take Up Keep Americans Connected Pledge

The bill, the Emergency Broadband Connections Act, would also boost the FCC's existing low-income subsidy, which is a tad under $10 per month, and other things. 

Specifically, the bill would:  

● "Entitle households in which a member has been laid off or furloughed to a $50 benefit (or $75 on tribal lands) to put toward the monthly price of internet service and require ISPs to serve eligible households at a price reduced by an amount up to the emergency benefit; 

● "Trigger eligibility based on qualification for the Lifeline program, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), or Federal Pell Grants; 

● "Provide devices such as laptop or desktop computers or tablets to eligible households to ensure these families have the devices they need to look for a job, complete online homework assignments, or receive telehealth service;  

● "Require Lifeline service providers to make unlimited minutes and data available to those that currently rely on the Lifeline program to stay connected to phone or internet service, and provide additional support; and 

● "Provide funding to states to facilitate the linking of their SNAP databases with the FCC’s National Lifeline Verifier database, which will allow recipients of that program to automatically qualify for Lifeline." 

Key provisions of the legislation are included in the HEROES Act, which passed the House of Representatives in May, Wyden noted. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat,  (TX-33) has introduced companion legislation in the House, Wyden said.

Broadband access advocates were lining up to back the effort. 

“Consumer Reports strongly supports the Emergency Broadband Connections Act authored and introduced bySenator Wyden today," said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. "This bill represents a direct, meaningful and effective way to help our most vulnerable Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic stay connected to the internet."  

“The Emergency Broadband Connections Act will provide needed access to broadband services for many students, older adults, people with low incomes, and those that have been impacted by the financial crisis," said American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane.  

"The flexible supports in the Emergency Broadband Connections Act of 2020 would increase the choices people have to get and stay online, providing a true lifeline during this time of social distancing and deepened economic hardship," said Matt Wood, VP of policy for Free Press Action. 

“For months, millions of Americans have suffered through the COVID-19 pandemic without internet connectivity," said Joshua Stager, senior counsel for New America's Open Technology Institute. "It’s unconscionable that Congress hasn’t passed any laws to help these people get access to the internet. We applaud Senator Wyden for stepping up and introducing this bill. We are especially grateful that he added Pell Grant recipients to the bill, ensuring that low-income college students—many of whom have lost their housing and work-study jobs—don’t fall through the cracks.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.