By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. senators on Monday introduced legislation to ensure that Americans who have suffered economic hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic have access to broadband internet.
The bill would provide free or low-cost broadband service to low-income families or those who have been recently laid off or furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It would boost an existing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Lifeline subsidy program to help millions more low-income Americans qualify.
The 26 senators introducing the bill include Ron Wyden, Charles Schumer, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono, Bernie Sanders, Brian Schatz, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Menendez and Kamala Harris.
Wyden said the bill “will make sure workers and families in need don’t find themselves stranded offline at the same time they lose a paycheck.”
A similar measure was introduced in the U.S. House in May.
At the urging of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, hundreds of internet providers, including Verizon Communications, Comcast, AT&T Inc, T-Mobile US Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google Fiber -agreed in March not to cancel service or charge late fees to customers who have been impacted by the pandemic.
Those commitments end on Tuesday and internet firms are taking different approaches to how they will handle consumers who cannot pay their bills.
Pai has called on Congress to pass legislation to help consumers stay connected and asked providers to offer extended payment plans.
The Democratic bill would grant households with an out-of-work member a $50 per month benefit to fund monthly internet service costs and require providers to serve eligible households at a reduced price.
Republicans in Congress released a separate framework proposal this month that would establish programs to assist families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in remaining connected.
Congress is likely to take up the issue as it works on new coronavirus assistance legislation.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)
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