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WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate plans to vote on a third relief bill in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a reported price tag of $2 trillion. Despite the massive size of the spending package, the Senate reportedly provided next to no funding to help make broadband services more affordable and available to those in need.

Ensuring better internet connections for everyone is a must in the midst of the ongoing economic crisis. Millions of people could not afford to get online before COVID-19 hit; millions more could lose the connections they have as they lose their jobs and their ability to pay for essential services like internet access. The Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program — which offers modest subsidies to poor households seeking affordable access to communications, including education and emergency services — is the best vehicle for such additional funding in the near- and mid-term.

As it’s currently drafted, the Senate bill provides no additional funding for Lifeline or other FCC initiatives that could keep large numbers of students online. It offers minimal funding of just a few hundred million dollars in allowances for telehealth, and small grants to build broadband networks months or even years from now.

On Monday, Free Press Action released Keeping Connected Amid Crisis: Policies to Keep People Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic, calling on Congress to allocate up to $100 billion in emergency aid to get and keep people connected during the coming weeks of quarantine and the much longer road toward economic recovery. The full report is available here (PDF), and a separate summary is available here (PDF).

Free Press Action Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matt Wood made the following statement:

“Members of Congress like to make speeches about the lack of broadband back home. But when given a chance to spend some money and improve internet access and affordability during this critical moment, they’ve failed spectacularly. This is a political farce, and a tragedy for tens of millions of people who are already disconnected during this time of crisis, to say nothing of the tens of millions more who could lose their income and, with it, their ability to pay for internet connections in the coming days.

“As Free Press Action explained in reports published this week, the United States is on the verge of massive job losses, which could result in soaring unemployment rates. What the country needs right now is federal spending to replace lost incomes and keep society functioning while most people are confined to their homes. 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.

“What we’ve gotten instead from this Republican-led Senate relief package is next to nothing. There’s very little that will help people get online and remain engaged and informed during this extraordinary time when most people have been sent home and told to stay connected.

“Let’s be clear on the math: The Senate relief package spends less than 3 cents out of every 100 dollars on internet initiatives — at a time when people must rely on the internet for so many basic interactions, and when access to quality health information, schoolwork, and online jobs and job opportunities is so crucial.

“The FCC’s Lifeline program has been under attack for too long, from ideologues and racists who falsely portray it as an unnecessary handout dreamed up by President Obama. In fact, this program has been a literal lifeline for millions since its inception under Ronald Reagan and its expansion under George W. Bush. Rather than continuing misguided efforts to shrink it, Congress should be funding Lifeline abundantly right now — to increase service for those already in the program, and prepare for an influx of newly eligible people during the coming economic crisis. The Senate bill ignores this glaring need, and also offers hardly anything to help get students schooling at home online.

“The money for broadband in the latest version of the Senate bill is a pittance. So many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle bemoan the lack of connections in rural areas. Yet today’s bill spares just $100 million in grants for rural broadband construction, for networks offering speeds that people would have considered slow a decade ago.

“Rural buildout alone will not close the digital divide, as millions of people in urban and rural areas alike cannot afford to connect right now, even when they have internet-access services available to them. But members of Congress who talk a good talk about rural deployment are missing in action on this bill too.

“Congress must do better, and we hope it will in future relief bills aimed at addressing the aftershocks of the COVID-19 crisis. Today’s effort falls woefully short on meeting people’s vital communications needs.”

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