With millions of Americans required to work, learn and function while staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the needs for better internet and telephone connectivity have never been greater. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should take action now to meet this crisis by enhancing its Lifeline program which is designed to help low-income consumers afford essential communications services. Before the pandemic, only 7 million people were enrolled out of the 38 million eligible for the Lifeline program. As a result of the pandemic-related job losses and income reduction, the FCC should make sure that the millions of people who are newly eligible for SNAP benefits or Medicaid are informed of their eligibility for Lifeline by coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services.1 Furthermore, the FCC should prohibit disconnections of Lifeline consumers; require Lifeline providers to offer unlimited voice minutes and unlimited texting and commensurate voice-only financial support; and create an emergency Lifeline broadband benefit.2
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are essential to reducing the spread of coronavirus. But the consequence of this drastic action is particularly detrimental for rural residents and communities of color. According to the FCC, 26 percent of Americans in rural areas lack access to high-speed internet.3 And as many as 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, cannot afford it or are reliant on mobile plans with data limits.4 This creates new barriers for patients now limited to telehealth services, students forced to only learn online and small businesses and workers. The racial disparity in broadband adoption for typical majority-white census tracts is 83.7 percent compared to just 67.4 percent in Black census tracts.5 In total, over 36 percent of Black households report having either no broadband internet or no computer at home.6 The South ranks lowest among U.S. regions for broadband adoption. While $100 million in grant funding was included in the CARES Act for the USDA’s Reconnect Program, municipal broadband has been roadblocked or outlawed in 9 southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia). State laws use a variety of tactics to restrict municipal broadband projects, all designed to make municipal broadband projects difficult to initiate, costly to build, and commercially unviable.7 But with our economy now in a coronavirus-induced recession and daily lives disrupted for the foreseeable future, it is more apparent than ever that these barriers to broadband access should be eliminated at the state level so high-speed internet can be made more widely available.