Today, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Bob Casey (D-PA) called on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to immediately expand access to essential 2-1-1 calls to thousands of vulnerable Americans who lack consistent cell service. The 2-1-1 hotline provides essential community services for millions of Americans seeking information related to supplemental food and nutrition programs, rental assistance, veteran services, substance use disorder support programs, and suicide prevention.
Since the pandemic began, call centers have received an influx of calls as more Americans experience food and housing insecurity, and search for critical public health information and vaccine access. While 9-1-1 and other emergency calls are guaranteed for individuals without an active contract with a cell phone carrier, 2-1-1 calls are inaccessible to thousands of Americans who do not have consistent cell service or who are only able to make calls using WiFi. The senators are calling on the FCC to quickly enact a similar policy to 47 CFR § 9.4 (“Obligation to transmit 911 calls”) that would require all telecommunication carriers to transmit 2-1-1 calls to a local point of access and to connect calls over WiFi.
“Given the unprecedented pandemic emergency we currently face and the clear need for stable access to essential information and referrals provided by 2-1-1 services, we ask you take all appropriate steps to institute a similar obligation for all telecommunication carriers to transmit 2-1-1 calls to a local point of access and to connect calls over WiFi. Doing so will ensure those who lose cell phone access do not also lose access to this crucial lifeline,” said the senators.
“It is critically important that we expand access to 211/LIFE LINE for people in need, especially as the COVID-19 crisis persists,” said Jennifer Lake, CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes. “Since the pandemic, calls to 211/LIFE LINE have increased by more than 300%, that’s more than 110,000 calls during the pandemic alone. People need vaccine information, food resources, and vital behavior health support and don’t have cell phone minutes available or even access to a working phone. This dialing access will help individuals and families in crisis in our community here and across the country. It’s a critical step toward combating the health and social crises so many people suffer daily.”
“Vermont 211 (and 211s nationally) plays a crucial role, which is even more visible and important in times of crisis. Since the start of the pandemic, many Vermonters have been faced for the first time with needs that they could no longer meet on their own. For others, the usual resources were no longer available or could not meet the demand that suddenly became too high. Vermont 211 helps everyone find accessible and available resources for everyday needs and during all phases of a disaster,” said MaryEllen Mendl, Executive Director, United Ways of Vermont/Vermont 2-1-1/Help Me Grow VT
“It is our shared responsibility to make sure that the basic needs of all citizens are met,” said Julie DeSeyn, Chief Program and Policy Officer, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. “By ensuring access to 211, you’re ensuring access to resources for housing, food, employment, childcare, utilities, and more. As we move toward recovery from the pandemic, this is a vital place to start. We are deeply thankful to Senators Gillibrand, Sanders, and Casey for supporting this work.”
2-1-1 is a free and confidential referral hotline that can be accessed by phone or computer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. A toll-free call to 2-1-1 connects individuals to a community resource specialist in their local area who can put them in touch with local organizations that provide critical services that can improve — and save — lives. In 2020 alone, New York State 2-1-1 call centers received 15,126 calls for crisis intervention services, with rates spiking during the early months of the pandemic. Additionally, in many rural areas across New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania broadband services are available where cell phone service is not, leaving WiFi as the only option to call emergency information and referral service lines such as 2-1-1.
Read the text of the letter here and below.
Dear Chairwoman Rosenworcel,
We write to you to ask the Federal Communications Commission take all appropriate actions to swiftly expand access to 2-1-1 essential community services calls. Specifically, we ask you take steps to ensure individuals without an active contract with a cell phone carrier will still be able to make 2- 1-1 calls, similar to FCC policy regarding 9-1-1 emergency calls. Furthermore, we ask you look into expanding WiFi calling requirements related to 9-1-1 and the 9-8-8 suicide hotline to include WiFi calling to 2-1-1.
Through the ongoing pandemic emergency, there have been widespread increases in the use of 2-1-1 essential community services calls nationwide. In New York State, calls to local 2-1-1 lines have nearly doubled to 500,000 calls fielded in the last year compared to roughly 260,000 calls between January 2019 and January 2020. In Vermont, calls to local 2-1-1 have increased by 50 percent in 2020 compared to the 2019 year-end total1. The vast majority of calls are inquiries about food pantries from first time users, questions about rent assistance, and requests for timely public health information about the COVID-19 pandemic. As vaccination programs expand nationwide, we expect a similar increase in 2-1-1 calls from individuals seeking critical information about local vaccine access. Moreover, 2-1-1 call centers provide crucial referrals to important mental health resources, including suicide prevention resources for callers in crisis. In 2020 alone, New York State 2-1-1 call centers received 15,126 calls for crisis intervention services, with rates spiking between March and June during the early months of the pandemic.
The ongoing pandemic emergency has forced many to make deep cuts in their personal expenditures and family budgets. All too often, this may mean cutting back on or entirely cancelling cell phone contracts. Such necessary measures are particularly pernicious because the loss of cell phone access means a loss of ready access to the vital information and referrals provided by 2-1-1 call centers.
Similarly concerning are reports from local 2-1-1 centers across the country that calls over a WiFi connection are not being connected at all. As many individuals transitioned to working from home at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, WiFi calling increased. Some telecommunications carriers, like AT&T, have reported their network’s WiFi calling minutes had increased by 75 percent. Particularly in many rural states like Vermont, broadband services are available in locations that cell phone service is not, leaving WiFi as the only option to call emergency information and referral service lines such as 2-1-1.
Under Title 47 of the U.S. Code, the FCC regulates 9-1-1 emergency calls through 47 CFR §9. Specifically, 47 CFR § 9.4 (“Obligation to transmit 911 calls”) creates an obligation for all telecommunication carriers to transmit all 9-1-1 calls to relevant local answering points. This obligation extends to guarantee the transmission of 9-1-1 calls from those without an active contract with a telecommunication carrier.
The FCC has taken steps in the past to ensure calls over WiFi to other three-digit emergency service numbers are connected. Through rulemaking in PS Docket No. 07-114, the FCC set a timeline for telecommunications carriers to connect calls to 9-1-1 over WiFi with accurate location data. Additionally, in compliance with the National Suicide Hotline Prevention Act of 2018, the FCC drafted PS Docket No. 18-336 requiring all telecommunications carriers to make necessary technological changes or upgrades to connect callers to the 9-8-8 suicide prevention hotline.
Given the unprecedented pandemic emergency we currently face and the clear need for stable access to essential information and referrals provided by 2-1-1 services, we ask you take all appropriate steps to institute a similar obligation for all telecommunication carriers to transmit 2-1-1 calls to a local point of access and to connect calls over WiFi. Doing so will ensure those who lose cell phone access do not also lose access to this crucial lifeline.