By Sunne Wright McPeak | February 23, 2016
Rarely is there a moment in time when just five people hold in their hands the destiny of millions, but such is the case for the Federal Communications Commission. In the next few weeks, the five commissioners will decide on a Broadband Lifeline Program and the corporate consolidation application by Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Hanging in the balance is whether or not more than one fifth of America’s poorest and most disadvantaged populations will be able to get online and participate in the digital economy. Will the FCC take bold steps to make the Internet affordable for low-income Americans?
Today, about one in five households are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, left behind at an accelerating pace without 21st-century tools to become self-sufficient taxpayers fully contributing to the nation’s overall economic productivity. They are almost disenfranchised from the democracy itself, given how much government information and how many public services are available only online. Students can’t do their homework or apply for college; adults can’t apply for a job or take online courses to improve their workforce skills; and people with disabilities are further isolated. The lack of affordable high-speed Internet access is part of interrelated factors that constitute a “wall of poverty” for millions of Americans.
The FCC has been a trailblazer during the Obama administration, including adopting rules on net neutrality, beginning to modernize E-rate for schools and libraries and approving affordable broadband programs offered by Comcast and AT&T. Under Chairman Tom Wheeler, building upon the foundation established by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and embracing the imperative to close the “homework gap” highlighted by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel—the FCC is moving to approve an affordable Internet subscription offer for low-income households, which will transform a Reagan administration discounted telephone service program called Lifeline. This is to be commended. A recent Rutgers University/Joan Ganz Cooney Center study found that more than 20 percent of families rely on mobile-only access with data limits, and don’t have home Internet service because they can’t afford it.