Consumer Groups Call For Immediate Lifeline Expansion

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (May 15, 2020, 4:05 PM EDT) -- Consumer groups are rallying to expand the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline low-income subsidy program, paralleling a carveout for the program in the latest coronavirus rescue package proposed by House Democrats.

In a petition posted to the FCC's website Friday, Consumer Reports and Access Now presented the signatures of 52,000 "concerned citizens" advocating for an emergency program to help Americans pay their phone and internet bills.

"Tens of thousands of consumers agree that the FCC should do more to make broadband internet service more accessible and affordable when online access is more important than ever," Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, said in a statement.

The advocacy groups' push comes as House Democrats try to incorporate a Lifeline expansion into the $3 trillion coronavirus relief package proposed Tuesday.

The current Lifeline program, which is funded through communications providers' regulatory fees, typically disburses about $10 a month to low-income households for phone and internet expenses.

The House Democrats' plan would establish an "emergency benefit" program modeled after the Lifeline program to offer between $50 and $75 a month to American households that include at least one laid-off or furloughed family member. It also directs Lifeline providers to offer unlimited minutes and data to current low-income beneficiaries of the subsidy program and releases $200 million to help states verify new Lifeline participants.

The groups noted this plan in their statements and said they "will continue to press regulators and lawmakers to advance these types of initiatives to help the most marginalized Americans access the internet."

They also said that the FCC's voluntary Keep Americans Connected pledge — which expanded to include nearly 750 providers this month — is not enough to ensure that people can continue to afford communications services.

The pledge says that participating providers will not discontinue service even if customer bills are overdue, will waive late payment fees and open Wi-Fi hot spots to anyone who needs them during the outbreak. The FCC has touted the industry-wide participation in the pledge, but ISPs told Congress in a Wednesday hearing that they can't continue offering augmented services for free indefinitely.

"As the first billing cycle since the outbreak of COVID-19 comes to an end, many are starting to see that doing the right thing (maintaining service, in some cases without payment) is coming at a substantial cost," wireline trade group USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter said in written testimony. "I encourage Congress to continue to look for ways to both ensure customers can afford the broadband they need and keep providers on sound financial footing as they continue to do everything possible to keep our nation connected."

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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