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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act in a largely party-line vote Friday evening. The COVID-19 relief legislation, introduced by Democratic leadership earlier in the week, provides billions of dollars for emergency broadband-benefit programs.

The HEROES Act includes an emergency broadband benefit, available to current participants in the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program and to those who have lost their jobs or lost income due to the current crisis. The Act provides up to $50 per household per month for any broadband connection an eligible customer chooses.

The legislation also contains a continued-connectivity guarantee, making it unlawful for broadband providers to shut off service to individuals and small businesses during the national emergency, or to impose data caps and overage fees while people are at home and relying so much on their internet connections.

The HEROES Act incorporates the COVID-19 Compassion and Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act in light of the fact that it’s always unjustified and cruel to charge exorbitantly high phone and internet fees to the families of incarcerated individuals, but especially so during a pandemic when in-person visits to prisons and jails have been banned. The bill also includes funding for educational institutions to connect more students who don’t have internet service at home, and for the FCC to improve its broadband-coverage maps as the agency funds faster broadband networks in unserved areas.

The HEROES Act now moves to the Senate, which could take up discussions of COVID-19 relief legislation as early as next week.

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

“The HEROES Act would provide much-needed relief for people who were on the wrong side of the digital divide before the COVID-19 crisis as well as those who have lost their jobs since the pandemic hit and are now struggling to get by.

“The landmark broadband legislation in this bill would be welcome at any time, but these truly progressive measures are especially timely and vital right now. Everyone can see that more affordable broadband connections are absolutely essential when necessary physical distancing has moved so much of our lives online. The HEROES Act delivers real aid to put robust internet connections within reach for millions more people.

“Now the bill moves to the Senate, where Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have signaled their unwillingness to take up any further COVID-19 relief bills. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker also spent a lot of time in a hearing earlier this week congratulating internet providers for their alleged success, and suggesting that the country can largely say ‘mission accomplished’ on broadband because the Trump FCC has supposedly done a heck of a job already. Yet this sentiment would be laughably out of touch with the views of senators’ constituents back at home in the best of times, and it’s a remarkably ignorant and arrogant attitude right now when so many people are struggling to stay connected and stay afloat.

“The price of Senate inaction, if that’s what we get, would be paid by the people who are suffering the most during this pandemic. That means the newly jobless, the longtime unemployed, and the low-income families, students and seniors who already had trouble affording an internet connection. It means the essential workers who may still have jobs, but who face both dangerous working conditions and financial hardships in this difficult time. And it means people who are overrepresented in all of these categories: people of color, immigrants and others who bear the brunt of systemic discrimination, and who are bearing the brunt of this crisis while dying in disproportionate numbers.

“The HEROES Act would enable people to stay connected during these extraordinary times. The flexible emergency broadband benefit offering up to $50 per month would let recipients pick a broadband service of their choosing rather than confining them to low-priced and low-capacity packages. The continued-connectivity guarantee would take internet service providers’ spotty promise to keep people online and make that the law of the land. And the prison-phone-justice provisions would put a meaningful cap on the high price of phone calls between incarcerated individuals and their families.

“The HEROES Act touches so many parts of our society and economy that there’s no way to sum it up easily in a single statement like this. But the broadband-connectivity piece of the bill is an amazing achievement and a great start on getting and keeping the country connected. The Senate must rise to the challenge and take the next step toward providing the relief that people so sorely need to stay in touch and stay healthy.”
 

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