Three Democratic senators have launched an effort to keep Americans connected to the internet throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic and amid one of the most devastating economic downturns in nearly a century. Legislation introduced on Tuesday seeks a national “moratorium” on phone and internet shutoffs until the crisis fully abates.
More than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the nationwide lockdown began seven weeks ago, according to the latest Bureau of Statistics figures. Twenty million jobs were lost in April alone. A University of Chicago study released one week ago also showed a 35 percent drop in employment among America’s lowest-paid workers.
Economists are now bracing for a much slower recovery than originally anticipated. Some experts are now estimating it could take years for the U.S. to bounce back.
U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, and Bernie Sanders maintain that the internet will play a key role in the rebound and that stripping the unemployed of access will only further hamper the economy. It also remains unclear for how long U.S. students will need to be home-schooled, as public health officials warn a second wave of the virus is not only likely but inevitable.
CDC Director Robert Redfield suggested in an interview with the Washington Post last month that it’s possible we’ll see a winter assault of the virus that “will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.”
Mother Nature will not place her wrath on hold while waiting for the virus to clear. The Atlantic hurricane season is only a few weeks away. And a second round of the virus this winter would coincide with the regular flu season, placing added strain on America’s already battered health care system.
Introduced by Merkley, Wyden, and Sanders, the CONNECT at Home Act would require voice and internet providers to reinstate service for Americans who were cut off as far back as March 13, the start of the nationwide shutdown. With few exceptions, providers would be required to maintain service to customers, regardless of whether their bills are paid, for 180 days past the conclusion of the national state of emergency.
“Now—as millions of Americans hunker down, work from home, and engage in remote learning—would be the absolute worst time for Americans to lose a critical utility like internet service,” said Merkley, the junior senator from Oregon.
“Oregonians and people across America deserve to know that as we weather the social and economic consequences of this storm together, they will still have be able to go to work, go to school, buy groceries, and stay connected to loved ones—all of which many depend on the internet to do. Congress should include this protection in the next coronavirus response bill,” Merkley said.
The CONNECT at Home Act—short for “Continuing Online Networking, Negating Economic Conditions on Technology”—further empowers the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to exact financial penalties from service providers that violate the law, though the fines cannot exceed $100 for each day the service is terminated for a single customer. The FCC is required to use all proceeds collected via fines to assist low-income Americans who lack access to affordable broadband service.
The Act also enables consumers to take independent legal action against providers who violate the law, provided they are not hindered from doing so by state law.
The bill’s introduction follows a letter to congressional leaders last month by a coalition of 830 environmental, digital-rights, and faith-based groups, which called for a moratorium on broadband, electricity, and water shutoffs. The unprecedented loss of income due to the pandemic, they wrote, “threatens the ability of families to pay their rent or mortgage, to buy food, and to shoulder monthly bills for electricity, water, broadband, heat, and other essential utility services.”
“Broadband access is essential for low-income students who face being left behind as education moves online, for people who have lost jobs to search for new employment, and for families to receive up-to-date information about the coronavirus during shelter-in-place orders,” the letter said.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives unveiled a new stimulus bill that includes, among many other allowances, a $50 per month subsidy for residential broadband service, as well as additional funding for the FCC’s E-Rate program, which offers subsidies to schools and libraries. Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, called the funding “vital.”
“The House bill makes clear what most Americans have known for months – that every American must have access to robust broadband Internet during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sohn, a former top advisor to the FCC.
The FCC has also asked broadband providers to “pledge” not to terminate service to residents and small businesses based on an inability to pay their bills, to waive late fees that are incurred due to financial strain, and to make wifi hotspots more widely available to the public. Some 700 companies and associations have signed the pledge, the agency says.
Free Press Action Policy Manager Dana Floberg, whose organization is among those pushing for a moratorium, applauded the introduction of the CONNECT at Home Act on Tuesday, calling broadband access a “literal lifeline” for communities amid the crisis.
“With unemployment levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, millions of people can’t afford to pay for broadband, but they can’t afford to be disconnected either. Efforts at the Federal Communications Commission have not been enough,” said Floberg, noting that the promises of internet providers thus far are “voluntary, unenforceable and far from universally adopted.”
“And the harms are real,” she said. “Every week, more and more stories show people are still losing service. The CONNECT At Home Act would ensure that everyone struggling to afford their internet or phone service is protected.”