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Leonard Edwards has been trying to ration his phone's calling minutes and data plan as COVID-19 continues to spread. Edwards, a 59-year-old Marine veteran living in Washington, D.C., gets his phone package through Lifeline, a federal phone and internet service for low-income Americans. Ordinarily, to save on data, he checks his email at the charity where he works. Now that it's closed, his cell phone has become his only channel to his two children, his doctor and the outside world.
But despite his best efforts, over the weekend, Edwards says both his calling minutes and his data plan ran dry and weren't set to re-up until Friday. "You're talking about a week being blind. A lot is happening in a week," Edwards said. He was able to speak with Protocol by phone only after the nonprofit MediaJustice gave him money to top up his account. "This service is like life or death."
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Today, hundreds of nonprofits and advocacy organizations are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to give Lifeline customers like Edwards unlimited calling and texting services and subsidized data plans.
In a letter sent to the FCC on Monday, some 250 organizations argued that limited connectivity poses a health risk to the public: As the nation rushes to embrace telemedicine as its first line of defense against the virus and Americans turn to digital services for everything from grocery shopping to banking, Lifeline users find themselves left out because of limited phone and internet plans.
"Just this week a community health care professional was alarmed to see many low-income patients coming in person to the clinic because they could not afford to use voice minutes to call ahead," the letter reads. "Public health and the economy will be severely impacted if millions of low-income people do not have access to adequate telephone and Internet connections."
The signatories, which include groups like Common Sense, Access Now and MediaJustice, are asking the FCC to require phone and internet service providers involved with Lifeline to give these users unlimited phone and texting plans within one week. Those providers include telecom giants like Verizon and T-Mobile, as well as smaller, regional companies. The advocacy groups also want the government to give Lifeline users $50 a month to cover the cost of broadband within three weeks. These changes are necessary, the advocates say, to keep millions of Americans safe at home and connected to the people and services they need to get through the crisis.
"If you didn't have internet, would you really stay in your house?" said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "I think most people, if they're being honest, would not."
The FCC already took some action related to the Lifeline program last week, when it waived recertification requirements for people already enrolled in the program for 60 days. A long list of providers have, meanwhile, pledged that for a 60-day period, they will waive late fees and won't terminate service to people and businesses that can't pay their bills because of coronavirus-related disruptions. FCC chairman Ajit Pai recently told Protocol that more changes could be on the horizon and that he is already pushing the private sector to extend their low-income offerings.
"Absolutely, we recognize that low-income consumers in particular are going to need connectivity just as much as anybody else," Pai said.
But Siefer says these voluntary actions by the industry are not nearly enough. "We don't have time for baby steps," Siefer said. "Everything's on fire. I don't know how to express it more clearly."
Even when Edwards, the ex-Marine, does have connectivity, he says his phone can't handle things like Zoom calls that the rest of his colleagues at the charity are using to coordinate their work. He certainly couldn't afford to sit on hold for hours with local health officials or the Center for Disease Control if he got sick. And, if he had school-age children at home, a single phone wouldn't be enough to keep them on top of their school work while schools are closed. That's to say nothing of the data required to do things like grocery shop or bank online. Yet Edwards is still relatively lucky, considering 18 million households across the country have no access to the internet at all.
For years, advocates and even current and former FCC commissioners have called for changes to Lifeline. Former FCC acting-chair Mignon Clyburn — a Democrat now consulting in the private sector for companies including T-Mobile and Microsoft — told Protocol the program was in need of expansion long before the crisis, but never was expanded because it had been "demonized" by some to score political points.
"We're seeing the negative results of that," she said. "I still feel that there could have been some things already put in place that would have made this part of the answer to this crisis easier — if our Lifeline program were, you know, in place, up and running in ways that address the critical need of those who are living paycheck to paycheck."
Instead, the digital divide is being exacerbated by the pandemic, she says. Now is not only a time for the agency to deal with the immediate crisis, Clyburn argues, but to lay the groundwork for an expanded program that meets the needs of low-income people and the modern economy.
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Some technology advocates argue that the program should be expanded as part of a coronavirus-related stimulus package. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation proposes expanding participation criteria, turning it into a flexible voucher system where households are given subsidies for a minimum of two services. That way, families wouldn't need to choose between wired internet and smartphone access, as the program currently requires.
For now, Siefer and her fellow advocates aren't asking for anything more than a temporary change. She acknowledges what they're proposing would require some federal spending, but she says it's the only way to protect a community that's already at risk.
Andrea Peterson ( @kansasalps) is an independent journalist with extensive experience reporting on technology policy. Peterson was a staff writer for The Washington Post from 2013 through the end of 2016. Her byline has also been published by POLITICO, Ars Technica, The Daily Beast, Slate and other outlets.