Congress Can Help America Stay Connected During the COVID Crisis

Since the invisible but deadly microbe arrived on America’s shores, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our nation. In addition to the tragic loss of life that has shattered families, more than 36.5 million Americans are now unemployed, through no fault of their own, and that number will only grow. Those figures are particularly catastrophic for minority populations, with one poll finding that 20 percent of Hispanic adults and 16 percent of African Americans report having been laid off or furloughed since the pandemic began in the United States. Likewise, millions of small businesses such as restaurants and dry cleaners are collapsing as the result of stay-at-home orders, which have proven to be the best weapon against the virus but are devastating to the economy. It’s no wonder that about 69 percent of our workforce is either unemployed or fears job loss in the next 12 months, according to a Marketplace-Edison research poll.

We served together on the Federal Communications Commission for nearly four years as commissioners: a Democrat from South Carolina and a Republican from Virginia. While we sometimes disagreed, we worked hard with our colleagues to expand broadband deployment and adoption to all Americans — especially the unserved and underserved. And the need to do so is made more acute by the current pandemic.

In the midst of this scourge, the importance of broadband to help save lives, jobs and the economy has never been clearer. But too many people affected by the COVID crisis are at risk of not being able to pay for their broadband connections, thus threatening their ability to find a new job, further their children’s education, communicate with a doctor who could save their lives and maintain critical connectivity to friends and family. Thankfully, Congress can pass legislation that will help Americans stay connected with a simple program that uses competitive market forces and that will last only as long as the COVID crisis. A Senate hearing Wednesday looked at some options.

Bipartisan and fiscally responsible legislation could be passed to include a temporary monthly broadband connectivity voucher to help for those in need. It would provide families and households currently eligible for the full economic benefits of the recently enacted bipartisan CARES Act with two $50 vouchers per month to support payment for any type of broadband connectivity. The voucher would empower consumers to cover existing telecommunications services and outstanding service bills, or to shop around for the best deal to meet their needs. And it would further spur broadband providers to compete for their business by providing competitive market pressures to provide the best service at the lowest price. Limiting the vouchers to only qualifying households would put a sensible spending cap on the program. The program would be technology neutral, meaning that a consumer could choose any provider of broadband services be it cable modem, wireless, DSL or satellite.

The bill could call for our former agency, the FCC, to create the program’s framework quickly and the Department of the Treasury to administer the distribution of the vouchers. This temporary voucher program would complement the FCC’s long-standing universal service programs, not replace them, and would reach many in need who do not participate in those programs.

Broadband connectivity has provided Americans with a vital, irreplaceable conduit to stay connected to employers, job opportunities and loved ones, as well as to receive information and medical expertise during this trying time. The government shares in the responsibility to assist those who need help staying connected and in the manner that suits their individual needs.

A recent Pew study revealed that 87 percent of Americans view broadband as “essential” or “important” to enduring the COVID pandemic. In that spirit, a long-standing hallmark of broadband policy making in Washington has been a bipartisan consensus that broadband should be deployed and available to all Americans. The proposed program’s commonsense, fiscally responsible and compassionate approach will help achieve that noble goal during the worst global crisis since the Internet was created. Congress should waste no time in enacting this vitally helpful program.

Mignon Clyburn served as a commissioner of the FCC from 2009 to 2018 serving as Acting Chair from May 2013 to October 2013.  Robert McDowell served as a commissioner of the FCC from 2006 to 2013 and is a partner at Cooley LLP, where he is co-leader of its global communications practice.

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