Susan Walters | April 7, 2016
On March 31, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made an historic decision to subsidize high-speed Internet service for low-income Americans - and dozens of influential news and advocacy organizations reported that a victory had been sealed.
For broadband advocates, the expansion of the federal Lifeline program certainly is good news. Established in 1985 to give low income people affordable telephone service, Lifeline was updated in 2010 to enable poor Americans to pay less for wireless phone service. Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reasoned that a subsidy for broadband was needed, because most homework and job applications are now done online. And on the last day of March, three out of the five FCC Commissioners voted in favor of using the Lifeline program “to help low income consumers afford access to the 21st Century’s vital communications network: the Internet.”
But the declaration of victory may be premature.
For one thing, no one yet knows the exact details of the FCC’s decision. The specifics will not be released until mid-April - and those details could have a serious limitation on the ability of the Lifeline broadband program to close the digital divide, in which 43 percent of nation’s poorest households can’t afford broadband service. We do not yet know, for example, what the price will be to consumers. The only number the FCC approved is a $9.25 per customer/per month subsidy to telecom and cable companies (not to poor consumers), which will continue to be funded by a surcharge on our phone and cable bills.