A new bill backed by Democratic lawmakers aimed at keeping US consumers connected during the pandemic emerged this week as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's voluntary Keep Americans Connected Pledge with hundreds of ISPs approached its expiration date.
Introduced Monday by four US Senators (Ron Wyden, D-Ore; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; and Chuck Schumer, D-NY) and co-sponsored by 26 other Democratic senators, the Emergency Broadband Connects Act aims to help laid-off or furloughed workers retain their high-speed Internet services so they can find jobs and access healthcare and education services.
Under the bill, eligible households with people who had been laid off or furloughed would be entitled to a $50 benefit (or $75 on tribal lands) to be put toward the monthly price of broadband service. It would also require ISPs to service those homes at a price reduced by an amount up to the emergency benefit. In addition, the bill would seek to provide devices such as laptops and tablets to eligible households.
The bill's backers said the measure would "fill an essential need" as the FCC's Keep Americans Connected Pledge expires on June 30, and "parallels" the provisions of the House HEROES Act and the Emergency Broadband Connections Act introduced by Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas).
"There's every indication the fallout from the coronavirus will drag on for months," Wyden said in a statement. "Our legislation will make sure workers and families in need don't find themselves stranded offline at the same time they lose a paycheck. It's critical to bridging the digital divide, and helping Americans get back to work and school as soon as possible."
He also bristled at suggestions that the legislation is "just a so-called 'blue state bailout.'"
Added Wyden: "That is wrong, wrong, wrong. I bet teachers getting pink slips in Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida don't believe that saving their jobs is a blue state bailout ... The virus doesn't care about political parties."
The bill enters the picture soon after Pai, the Republican FCC chairman, asked Congress to craft legislation that would keep consumers and small businesses connected to broadband services in the coming months.
ISPs that have participated in the already-extended FCC pledge agreed to avoid suspending service terminations to residential or small business customers if they can't pay bills because of the pandemic, to waive late fees, and to open up Wi-Fi hotspots. Pai has also urged ISPs to relax usage-based data policies temporarily.
Some cable operators and telcos have already extended support for parts of the Pledge, such as opening up Wi-Fi hotspots, through the end of the year. However, some service providers, such as Cox Communications and Cable One, plan to reinstate usage-based policies starting next month, while modifying them with higher monthly data limits. Comcast's temporary move to provide all residential broadband customers with unlimited data for no additional charge will expire at the end of today, but the MSO has not announced any alterations to its pre-COVID-19 data usage policies.
The Democratic-backed bill has been endorsed by dozens of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Sense Media, Communications Workers of America (CWA), Consumer Reports, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Knowledge.
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