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Senator Murray and her colleagues urged internet providers to expand services for federal Lifeline program participants during coronavirus pandemic 

Expansion could help 9 million low-income Americans better work, learn, and access telehealth resources from home

Last year, Senator Murray introduced the Digital Equity Act to help bridge the digital divide in Washington State and across the country – MORE HERE

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) joined 21 of her Senate Democratic colleagues in calling for better mobile internet service for people with low incomes impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Improved internet access is crucial to helping families in Washington state and across the country better work and learn from home and access vital telehealth resources.

In a series of letters to Lifeline internet service providers, Senator Murray and her colleagues wrote, “During this public health crisis, it is imperative that internet providers, like your company, act to ensure that the millions of American families who depend on the Lifeline program are not left behind by an ever-growing digital divide.”

The federal Lifeline service program, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), provides free and discounted voice, text and cellular internet service to 9 million low-income Americans. Basic wireless Lifeline service currently only provides 3GB of data per month, enough data to read emails and access the web, but not enough to telework or access telehealth resources. Many Lifeline providers also do not enable Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities for their devices, preventing children and families from using devices with larger screens, like tablets, laptops and desktop computers to work or learn effectively from home.

Last April, Senator Murray introduced the Digital Equity Act of 2019 to create new federal investments to help close the digital divide impacting communities in Washington state and across the nation by expanding digital literacy programs and access to broadband. Currently, 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children do not have access to high-speed internet, and this divide disproportionately affects tribal communities, with only 53 percent of Native Americans on reservations subscribing to a high-speed Internet service. With millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders, including all of Washington State, equitable access is more critical than ever.

The senators requested Lifeline service providers take a number of steps to expand their service:

  • Enable hotspot access for all Lifeline subscribers, so they can connect laptops or tablets to smartphones that support this feature;
  • Ensure all Lifeline subscribers have access to 4G service, where available, with at least the same speed and priority of service that other resellers of mobile services of that network offer to their customers;
  • Provide no-cost upgrades to existing subscribers using older smartphones provided by the Lifeline provider that lack hotspot functionality;
  • Allow consumers to roll over some or all of their voice minutes and data allowances from one month to the next;
  • Work with their network operator — such as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile, who have all pledged to help American families during this crisis — to substantially increase the monthly data allowance beyond 3 GB, at no cost to Lifeline subscribers; and 
  • Provide subscribers with clear instructions on how to access their smartphone hotspot capability, including via text message.

“As a Lifeline provider, you have a unique opportunity to improve the education, health and economic outcomes of your subscribers during this pandemic,” the senators stated.

Senator Murray and her colleagues requested responses from the internet service providers by April 8, 2020. The senators sent individual letters to the following Lifeline providers: Airvoice Wireless LLC, American Broadband and Telecommunications Company, Amerimex Communications Corp., Assist Wireless LLC, Boomerang Wireless LLC, Cellular One, Cintex Wireless LLC, Global Connection Inc of America, I-Wireless, Q-Link Wireless LLC, Sage Telecom Communications LLC, TAG Mobile LLC, Telrite Corporation, Tempo Telecom LLC, TerraCom Inc., TracFone, TruConnect Communications Inc., True Wireless Inc., U.S. Cellular, Virgin Mobile USA and Yourtel America Inc.

A digital copy of the letter text is available here