A group of Democrat senators urged Congressional leaders to include $1 billion in funding for the Lifeline program, which provides a discount on phone services for low-income consumers, in a future COVID-19 relief package.

In a letter sent today, the senators explained that “as Americans face new financial hardships, turn to distance learning, attend religious services virtually, and are required to telework, access to fast, robust, and reliable home internet and telephone services is essential for their economic, social, and civic wellbeing.”

With that in mind, the senators said that “Congress should provide the dedicated funding necessary to meet the urgent increase in demand for Lifeline assistance and keep tens of millions of Americans connected.”

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets a minimum Lifeline service standard for mobile carriers of 1,000 voice minutes and 3 Gb of data on 3G connections. The senators said that these service plans “resemble 2010, not 2020.” The letter further stated, “the current baseline is woefully insufficient to last a few days for students taking online courses or families using video chat services, let alone for a full month in times of isolation.”

The letter’s signatories, which include Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that increased funding would allow for a better reimbursement rate and would help secure the levels of service needed for modern applications. The letter also noted that increased funding would allow the FCC to expand the choice of eligible broadband providers, which would mean opening up the program to other broadband providers and allow for more mobile hotspot coverage.

To buoy their case for increased funding, the senators pointed out that the Lifeline program will experience a surge in demand as business close, workers experience reduced hours and new financial pressures. More Americans will qualify for the program and further funding will be needed to meet demand. “The Lifeline program does not have the financial resources to equitably support even a moderate but prolonged increase in demand, in response to an economic downturn,” the letter says.

“We urge you to provide additional funding for the Lifeline program in any future Coronavirus relief packages to ensure that Americans can continue to depend on critical assistance when they need it,” the Senators said in their letter addressed to the Senate Majority and Minority leaders as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.