The digital divide -- the persistent gap between those who have affordable access to information technology and those who do not -- is among the many issues that the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) believes is holding Latinos back in the U.S.

Now dozens of members of Congress have rallied to submit a letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to press forward in modernizing the Lifeline program, to bridge the digital divide in the age of broadband. 

The FCC's Lifeline program was established when the Internet was not more than the proverbial mote in Al Gore's eye, under the Reagan administration in 1985. Lifeline was established to help low-income Americans afford landline telephone connections.

The program was later updated to include basic wireless service in its purview, but last year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed another refresh of Lifeline, arguing that in the current Internet-driven age, basic broadband is as important for the average American's economic life as a phone line was three decades ago. The proposal set $9.25 subsidies for phone and Internet access, available only for low-income households making less $25,000 per year or less. 

Wheeler's proposal was not without its critics -- including members of the FCC -- who argued Lifeline, especially since it moved into subsidizing wireless telephony, has been rife with waste, fraud, and abuse. 

NHMC & 81 Members of Congress in Support

Many have supported Wheeler's Lifeline modernization plan, and on Thursday, 81 members of Congress joined the NHMC in urging Wheeler to press forward with the initiative.

"We are writing in support of the FCC's proposal to modernize the Universal Service Fund's Lifeline program," opened th letter, which was cosigned by Democratic Representatives Mark Takano, Keith Ellison, and Raúl Grijalva, among many others. "In order to fulfill its purpose of meeting the changing needs of low-income Americans, the FCC should update the program to reflect the increasing importance of the Internet. Broadband has evolved to become an essential vehicle for expanding access to information, health services, educational resources, and employment opportunities."

The letter went on to urge that the FCC make Lifeline subsidies portable to all telecommunications services, whether standalone or as a service bundle, along with allowing beneficiaries the flexibility to opt out or switch service providers without incurring transfer charges, installation or other fees. Moreover, the letter emphasized that subsidized connections under Lifeline should not be treated as second-tier service.

"The broadband services available to the eligible households should not sacrifice quality for affordability. The standard would allow for functional, not subpar, Internet access to define the entry-level Lifeline plan. Its flexibility would reflect evolving provider capability, program requirements, and support for higher speeds," wrote the letter from Congress. "Establishing a minimum standard prevents providers from taking advantage of the subsidy by offering second-class service that would not best serve the digital needs of an average American."

A Lifeline Benefiting Latinos

The NHMC lauded the letter of support on Thursday, saying that if the FCC modernized Lifeline the right way, the program would be a big step towards ending the digital divide, especially for Latinos and other communities of color.

"Lifeline is a program that supports telephone access in 14 million low-income homes today and, if updated to include broadband, has the potential to bring communities of color online," wrote Michael Scurato, VP of Policy for NHMC, in a statement released to Latin Post. "Throughout its history, Lifeline has provided families with a pathway out of poverty and modernizing the program is a critical investment in our communities, giving them access to the resources and tools they need to learn, work, stay connected, and thrive in the 21st century."

As the NHMC pointed out, half of Latinos in the U.S. lack home Internet access, and broadband subscriptions have declined in recent years, especially among diverse communities, low-income households, and other disadvantaged groups.

"With this new service, low-income Americans would have the means necessary to access essential health and social services, educational resources, employment information, and communications networks," the letter to the FCC concludes. "We encourage the Commission to implement the expansion as soon as possible, as we cannot be inactive and allow the digital divide to further deepen at the expense of 53% of low-income households without broadband access."

Wheeler, for his part, said last week that the commission was close to finalizing the overhaul. According to Law360, Wheeler said the plans should come to a final vote in the "not too distant future."