FCC Finalizes Lifeline Modernization Proposal to Fix Digital Divide
Even in the age of seemingly ubiquitous Internet access in the U.S. there remains a persistent gap between those who can and cannot afford access to Internet connections and the related hardware.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has a new plan to tackle the problem, known as the "digital divide," and the vote on that plan is coming up soon.
21st Century Reboot
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been working on modernizing one of the commission's long-running programs that makes telephone lines affordable for those without the means to pay for them by providing subsidies. The program is called Lifeline, and Wheeler floated a reworked proposal this week to "reboot" the program for the 21st century by expanding the subsidies to help low-income families afford broadband Internet service.
Under Wheeler's plan, the government would provide a $9.25 per month broadband subsidy to low-income households as part of an update to the $2 billion Lifeline program. The new rules would set a benchmark for minimum broadband access at 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, along with a minimum monthly data allowance of 150GB for fixed-line Internet service.
The vote on Wheeler's proposal is expected to take place on March 31. With democratic commissioners in the majority expected to pass the measure, a new effort to bridge the digital divide looks imminent.
Lifeline for Latinos
The plan has garnered support from many on the Democratic side of the aisle, along with Latino advocacy groups like the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which urged Wheeler to press forward with the initiative last month, saying it would benefit the many Latinos who lag behind in digital adoption.
"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 NHMC's VP of policy Michael Scurato. "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."
Though Latinos as a consumer group lead in mobile adoption, many have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide as well. According to Pew Research in 2013, nearly 70 percent of Americans have access to broadband Internet at home. But as much as half of low-income households lack the same Internet access. This means households have no access to modern tools for students with homework, adults searching for jobs online or entrepreneurs seeking to get their businesses off the ground.
For Latinos, especially recent immigrants, mobile Internet can help bridge the gap. But still, 44 percent of immigrant Latino families lacked computers with Internet connections at home, work or school.
Preventing Waste, Abuse
The Lifeline modernization plan is not without its critics, including some in the FCC. Commissioner Ajit Pai responded to initial moves toward expanding Lifeline subsidies to Internet access last June.
"We still have a long way to go if we are going to fix this program. Waste, fraud, and abuse are still rampant," Pai said, referring to the last expansion of the subsidy program in 2008 from fixed-line telephone access to wireless telephony, which helped private companies like TracFone Wireless grow by offering "free government phones."
Wheeler has included a measure to combat waste, fraud and abuse in the new plan. His proposal would provide subsidies for families making below $25,000 per year and would establish a National Eligibility Verifier system -- a neutral party that would oversee and validate eligibility -- to prevent consumers or providers from cheating the system.
Lifeline is paid for by the Universal Service Fund charge added to every ratepayer's bill. To minimize the impact on consumers' bills, the new expanded program would have a set budget of $2.25 billion, indexed for inflation.
A vote is set for the Lifeline modernization proposal on March 31. If passed, it will represent the biggest change in Lifeline's purview since the program's inception under President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
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