June 29, 2020 / 6:13 PM / 4 days ago

U.S. senators urge funding for internet access during pandemic

WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. senators on Monday were to introduce legislation to ensure Americans who have suffered economic hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic have access to broadband internet.

The bill, which was seen by Reuters and will be made public later on Monday, 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 Lifeline subsidy program to help millions more low-income Americans qualify, with more than 20 million Americans out of work.

The 25 senators introducing the bill include Ron Wyden, Charles Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Brian Schatz, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Menendez and Kamala Harris.

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 and small businesses 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. Funds could be put toward the monthly internet service costs and require ISPs to serve eligible households at a reduced price.

Republicans in both houses of Congress released a framework this month that would establish programs to assist families who have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic to remain 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)

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