Dems: FCC Needs to Promote Lifeline for Pandemic-Lowered Incomes

The FCC has been encouraging ISPs to get low-cost broadband to as many people as possible during the pandemic, and handing out money for telehealth, but a big group of Democratic legislators want it to put its mouth where its money is to inform those newly low income thanks to the pandemic that they can get cheaper broadband. 

Related: Pandemic Amplifies Call for Universal Broadband 

Led by potential vice presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a gross of House and Senate Dems (144 in all) has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to get together with the USDA and HHS to make sure that folks newly eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid are also newly eligible for the FCC's Lifeline broadband subsidy. 

“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.” 

Related: FCC Won't Drop Suspect Lifeline Subs 

Local media, including broadcasters and cable operators, could use some of that government advertising infusion given the fall-off in advertising during the pandemic. 

The legislators want answers to the following questions, though they did not give Pai a deadline: 

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."  

Also backing the letter are Public Knowledge, the National Consumer Law Center, United Church of Christ and Third Way. 

FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks added his imprimatur on the effort.  

“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," Starks said. "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." 

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.