Fifteen Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) and communications and technology subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), want the FCC’s Lifeline program to “provide unlimited voice minutes and unlimited data” for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, the minimum service standard for mobile broadband Lifeline service includes 3 gigabytes of data per month and 1,000 minutes per month. The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau recently announced that the monthly data allowance is set to increase to 11.75 GB per month on Dec. 1, according to FCC rules for annual recalculations of the data allowance (TR Daily, July 31).
However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has announced that he has circulated a draft order to his fellow Commissioners that would revise the agency’s methodology for calculating those annual revisions, which would result in the adjustment in December increasing the minimum monthly mobile broadband data allowance from 3 GB to 4.5 GB, instead of 11.75 GB (TR Daily, July 30).
In their letter to Chairman Pai, dated today, the lawmakers noted “some small steps” the FCC has taken since March to “tweak the Lifeline program’s rules”—mostly having to do with enrollment and eligibility verification, rather than with support levels or service standards—but they said that “much bolder action is necessary. A strong response is critical given the supreme importance of connectivity while the country continues its efforts to combat the unprecedented and devastating COVID-19 pandemic.”
They added “Notably, such an expansion of the Lifeline program has been undertaken by previous FCCs to help protect Americans during emergencies. The Lifeline program typically provides $9.25 to qualifying households per month, but in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the FCC voted to provide $130 to qualifying households to receive handsets and voice minutes to help them get back on their feet.”
The lawmakers criticized Chairman Pai’s draft order on Lifeline service minimum.
“Disappointingly, you have chosen only to ask your fellow Commissioners to support changes that could actually result in qualifying low-income Americans paying more for mobile service. This simply defies logic during a severe economic downturn in which more than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs. You also failed to propose changes, even if temporary, to bring the Lifeline program in line with the connectivity needs of this moment,” they said.
They cited an ex parte notice from the National Lifeline Association that detailed phone conversations with various Commissioner legal advisers, in which NLA said that “even an increase [in the minimum data mobile broadband Lifeline allowance] to 4 or 5 GB would force Lifeline providers to impose a co-pay requirement of $15 or more which would present an unsurmountable barrier to program participation for new Lifeline subscribers.”
The lawmakers said, “Unfortunately, your proposed rules seem to ignore the fact that coronavirus cases continue to rise, and the country has experienced nineteen consecutive weeks of over one million unemployment claims.”
They noted that the House-passed Heroes Act (HR 6800) (TR Daily, May 18) would “require the Lifeline program to provide unlimited voice and data minutes to Americans struggling during this pandemic. Regrettably, the Senate has yet to consider any meaningful action to assist low-income consumers in affording broadband during this pandemic.
“It is, therefore, all the more critical that the FCC use all of its authorities to ensure that the American people have access to internet services at an affordable cost,” they added.
Joining Chairman Pallone and Chairman Doyle in the letter were Reps. Jerry McNerney (D., Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.), Marc Veasey (D., Texas), Donald McEachin (D., Va.), Darren Soto (D., Fla.), Tom O’Halleran (D., Ariz.), Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), Diana DeGette (D. Colo.), G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.), Doris Matsui (D., Calif.), Peter Welch (D., Vt.), Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.), and Tony Cárdenas (D., Calif.). —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
MainStory: FederalNews Congress FCC UniversalServiceLifeline Covid19
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