April 28, 2020

Udall, Heinrich Urge Federal Communications Commission to Inform Eligible Families About How They Can Receive Discount Broadband Services

Americans now eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid due to job loss or reduction in income are also eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program

The FCC’s Lifeline program is the primary federal program charged with helping low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services 

WASHINGTON  U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), along with 142 lawmakers from the House and Senate, requested Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to actively notify the millions of Americans who are eligible for discount telephone or broadband access from the FCC’s Lifeline program. In the bicameral letter, the Members of Congress urged Chairman Pai to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that the millions of Americans who are now eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid due to job loss or reduction in income are informed that they are also eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program. 

Following the emergency extension of Medicaid and supplemental nutrition assistance programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, over 1.4 million New Mexicans are eligible for these expanded benefits and broadband connection under the Lifeline program. The FCC’s Lifeline program typically provides a $9.25 monthly discount on eligible wireline or wireless service, including broadband. 

New Mexicans are eligible for the FCC Lifeline program if they are also eligible for Medicaid, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the National School Lunch Program, or their Household Income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 7 million out of the 38 million Americans eligible for the Lifeline program were enrolled. New Mexico itself had a 29% participation rate in the program in 2018. 

“Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis.  For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The lawmakers continued, “While we understand that the FCC has traditionally issued guidelines for states and telecommunications providers to advertise the Lifeline program, given the critical role of internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge the FCC to coordinate directly with USDA and HHS as well as states and stakeholders to help ensure people in need are informed about their eligibility for the Lifeline program.” 

In addition to Udall and Heinrich, the letter was signed by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio),  Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bob Casey (D-PA), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Full text of the letter can be found HERE and below. 

Dear Chairman Pai: 

We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help ensure the millions of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid, due to job loss or reductions in income, are informed of their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program. The Lifeline program is the primary federal program charged with providing financial assistance to help low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services. 

The ongoing pandemic has led to financial hardships for millions of Americans. At least 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the past month alone, and states are seeing a surge in applications for SNAP benefits. Medicaid enrollment is also expected to increase significantly as a result of these unprecedented job losses and health coverage. Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis. For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it.

Congress recently passed legislation to provide states additional funding and flexibility to streamline access to SNAP for people adversely effected by the economic impact of the coronavirus. Many of the at least 26 million Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the last five weeks may also soon turn to the food assistance programs to feed their families and enroll in Medicaid to access necessary health care. This will likely lead to a significant increase in the number of individuals eligible for the Lifeline program.  

Even before the pandemic, only 7 million out of the 38 million people who were eligible for the Lifeline program were enrolled. While we understand that the FCC has traditionally issued guidelines for states and telecommunications providers to advertise the Lifeline program, given the critical role of internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge the FCC to coordinate directly with USDA and HHS as well as states and stakeholders to help ensure people in need are informed about their eligibility for the Lifeline program. We also respectfully request responses to the following questions: 

  1. What is the FCC currently doing to work with the USDA and HHS to help ensure that people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program are aware that they can receive subsidized communications services? 
  2. What data has the FCC collected on the number of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and how many of those newly eligible have enrolled in the program? 
  3. Please detail the additional resources and authorities the FCC needs to ensure qualifying people in the U.S. know that they are eligible for the Lifeline program. 

Thank you for prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to your response. 

Sincerely,