FCC Urged to Expand Lifeline Program During COVID-19 Crisis

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is facing increasing pressure from advocacy groups to expand the Lifeline program during the COVID-19 crisis. Lifeline provides discounted phone and internet service through participating carriers to qualifying low-income Americans. The advocacy groups sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to give Lifeline recipients unlimited calling and texting, as well as subsidized data plans. The groups have argued that the “[e]xisting disparities in communications access are only being exacerbated during this national emergency.” They want all Americans to be able to “work, learn, and function while staying at home.” As a result, they argue that the FCC needs to expand the program.

The nearly 250 nonprofits and organizations have requested that the FCC: “[i]mmediately prohibit disconnections of Lifeline consumers”; “[w]ithin no more than one week, require Lifeline providers to offer unlimited voice minutes and unlimited texting and commensurate voice-only financial support”; and “[w]ithin no more than 21 days, create an emergency Lifeline broadband benefit.” The organizations want the government to provide Lifeline recipients with $50 per month to cover the cost of broadband. The advocacy groups argue that these provisions are necessary so recipients can function under social distancing guidance. The groups also want these measures to be available to those that “have experienced a sudden drop in wages due to the COVID-19 crisis”; due to a potential influx during this time, the Commission should streamline the process to enroll in the program. 

This expansion will ensure these Americans can are “receiving health care, continuing work, participating in distance learning and providing mutual aid and support.” For example, “a community health care professional was alarmed to see many low-income patients coming in-person to the clinic because they could not afford to use voice minutes to call ahead. And public housing authority workers reported elderly Lifeline tenants rationing their Lifeline minutes to their detriment.” The organizations state that ensuring Americans have this access will greatly help with telemedicine and other measures to limit contact.

“If you didn’t have internet, would you really stay in your house?” Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance asked. “I think most people, if they’re being honest, would not.” She also added, “We don’t have time for baby steps. Everything’s on fire. I don’t know how to express it more clearly.”

Lifeline recipient, Leonard Edwards, a 59-year-old Marine veteran living in Washington, D.C., has been trying to allocate and save his calling minutes and data during the COVID-19 crisis. However, despite his rationing, his minutes and data ended over the weekend and would not reset until Friday. “You’re talking about a week being blind. A lot is happening in a week,” Edwards told Protocol.

Protocol noted that “[e]ven when Edwards…does have connectivity, he says his phone can’t handle things like Zoom calls that the rest of his colleagues at the charity are using to coordinate their work. He certainly couldn’t afford to sit on hold for hours with local health officials or the Center for Disease Control if he got sick. And, if he had school-age children at home, a single phone wouldn’t be enough to keep them on top of their school work while schools are closed.” This is a stark reminder of the data disparity across the country, especially considering that 18 million households across the United States do not have any internet access.

Previously, as part of the Keep America Connected Initiative, the FCC announced it was suspending and waiving rules for the program, to ensure those in the program continue to have service during this time. Lifeline users will not have to “demonstrate continued eligibility for the program every 60 days.” The agency is also helping participating wireless carriers by waiving the 90-day cycle registration requirement with the Universal Service Administrative Company. However, advocacy groups argue that more measures are needed as the crisis progresses.

The nonprofits and organizations note that the FCC has taken measures before expanding the program when needed such as after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The advocacy groups argue that the agency should refer to this precedent for the current crisis.