By Sunne Wright McPeak
March 2016 is an exciting month for those of us who have worked long and hard to convince the FCC that the Lifeline program to help low-income Americans with vital communications should be extended to broadband. For many of us, the reasons for this extension are obvious. Internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. It’s a 21st Century Civil Right—access delayed is access denied.
We applaud the proposal released by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program for the broadband age. The proposal is focused on three decisions:
- Speed: Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn explain their proposal sets minimum service standards for voice and broadband.
- Management: They write their intention is to “streamline program rules and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations to reduce administrative burdens and make it easier for broadband providers to participate,” so that telecoms will want to participate and Lifeline consumers will have more competitive options.
- Eligibility Verification: They aim to establish an independent National Eligibility Verifier to take the onus off companies and provide a check against waste, fraud and abuse.
These are all excellent provisions, which should be in the final ruling. But the proposal is vague on a number of points that must be addressed before the FCC votes on March 31.
- Cost: Wheeler and Clyburn are well aware that there is a broadband affordability gap when they write: “Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society, but nearly one in five Americans is still not benefitting from the opportunities made possible by the most powerful and pervasive platform in history.” Yet there is no mention in their statement of what an affordable rate should be or whether than rate should include a router and an installation. The Californian Emerging Technology Fund increasingly has found that a $9.25 subsidy only goes so far when companies charge $5 per month for a router and $50 for installation. The FCC must compel companies participating in Lifeline to include a router and free installation as part of its offer to eligible consumers. I am not arguing that Lifeline Broadband should be free; it just needs to be affordable for people with low incomes.
- Relevance: Wheeler and Clyburn also make no mention of whether current Lifeline participants will have to choose between a subsidy for home broadband or landline telephone service. For many households, telephones are still a priority. Research shows that if forced to choose, many will choose telephone over Internet service.
- Digital Literacy: Internet access remains high among low-income populations because of language and cultural barriers. Broadband companies are not in the business of doing this kind of outreach; whereas “trusted messengers”—schools, libraries and community-based organizations—have the proven expertise. We urge the FCC to capitalize an independent fund to provide grants to these trusted messengers for outreach, digital literacy training and sign-up assistance for Internet service, especially in poor communities where the percentage of unconnected is acutely high. The corporate conglomerates can afford such a fund and the FCC can demand this necessary public benefit.
It is also important that the vote for Lifeline Broadband be bipartisan. This is a policy decision that need not cut across party lines, because the cost of Lifeline Broadband will be subsumed by greater economic inclusion, independence and success for low-income Americans.
These recommendations are not made lightly. They come out of working for years and within broad coalitions to narrow the Digital Divide in California from 45% in 2008 to 21% in 2015. They come out an understanding that the three primary barriers to broadband adoption are Cost, Relevance and Digital Literacy. If the FCC and Obama Administration want to get all Americans connected, then they must seize this opportunity to design and adopt a workable Broadband Lifeline program.
Sunne Wright McPeak is CEO and President of the California Emerging Technology Fund.