WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, House Democratic leadership introduced the next installment of Congress’ COVID-19 relief legislation, including the authorization of billions of dollars for emergency broadband-benefit programs.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, follows and expands on the CARES Act passed in March and the subsequent Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act passed in April.
The HEROES Act includes an emergency broadband benefit, available to current Lifeline program participants as well as people who have lost their jobs or lost income due to the current crisis. The Act would provide up to $50 per household per month for any broadband connection the customer chooses. The legislation also contains a continued-connectivity guarantee, making it unlawful for broadband providers to cut off service to individuals and small businesses during this crisis, or to impose data caps and overage fees while so much of daily life has moved online.
And the HEROES Act also incorporates the COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, recognizing that charging the families of incarcerated individuals exorbitantly high phone and internet prices is always unjustified and cruel, but all the more so during a pandemic when jail and prison populations have been hit so hard by the virus and facilities have stopped in-person visits.
In March, Free Press Action released Keeping Connected Amid Crisis: Policies to Keep People Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic, calling on Congress to adopt similar policies and allocate funding along these lines, to get and keep people connected during the coronavirus emergency and the much longer road toward economic recovery.
Free Press Action Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matt Wood made the following statement:
“The House majority is taking the COVID-19 crisis seriously when it comes to communications services. The HEROES Act recognizes that better and more affordable broadband connections are essential during this health crisis and the long period of economic recovery.
“Millions of people across the country couldn’t afford to get online before the pandemic hit. Over the last two months, millions have lost their jobs in record numbers and may now be unable to pay for essential services like internet access. COVID-19 is hitting poor people and communities of color the hardest — communities that are already disproportionately stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.
“We need to bridge that divide now — when staying home, staying informed and staying connected is a matter of literal survival. To do that, we need the kind of funding offered by the HEROES Act. The bill would get people connected to the networks they have available to them today, not merely look ahead to funding broadband deployment in rural areas sometime in the distant future.
“The HEROES Act builds on the Federal Communications Commission’s successful Lifeline program, but offers a more significant $50-per-month benefit to an even larger range of people in need right now. That should allow millions more people to afford internet connections at home, serving the whole family during these difficult times rather than keeping them exclusively dependent on less robust mobile connections.
“The HEROES Act also prohibits internet service providers and phone companies from disconnecting people and small businesses that can’t pay their bills during the crisis — vastly improving on the voluntary pledge put forth by the FCC, which implored these corporations to make similar promises but had no real ability to ensure those pledges were kept.
“The HEROES Act also includes the COVID–19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice bill, which would set price caps on phone calls and other communications to and from prisons and jails, and bar exploitative practices providers of these services so frequently engage in. While this kind of legislation was sorely needed before the pandemic, the suspension of visitations and the rapid spread of the virus in prisons, jails and detention facilities has made the status quo untenable. People who are incarcerated and their families must have access to communications services at just and reasonable rates. This bill would give the FCC the authority to take action.
“The United States has seen massive job losses and spectacularly high unemployment rates. Despite what Congress, the FCC and ISPs have already done, the country needs federal spending to replace lost incomes and keep society functioning.
“The need to get and keep everyone connected to the internet isn’t up for debate, but we must act quickly to ensure that kids can continue to learn, seniors can move their routine doctors’ office visits online, and as many workers as possible can continue to do their jobs remotely. The HEROES Act is an important step in that direction.”