On June 10, a broad coalition of more than 50 civil rights, media, public interest, and labor groups issued a public letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler, urging the FCC to rapidly update the Lifeline program to support broadband access for low-income people. In its letter, the groups also detail a set of principles that they believe should guide the Commission’s work to modernize the program.
Created in 1984 under President Reagan, the Lifeline program supports low-income people’s access to telephone service, whether they use either wireless or traditional technology. Though successful, Lifeline remains trapped in outdated technology. The FCC recognizes this limitation and is currently developing proposals to improve and modernize the program.
In today’s digital age, broadband access is absolutely essential in connecting people to educational opportunities, jobs, health care and more. Yet, for many low-income Americans—those who would gain the most from the advantages of broadband—high speed internet services are simply unaffordable. While 92 percent of households with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 have broadband service, the adoption rate is only 47 percent for households with incomes below $25,000, 64 percent for African Americans, and 53 percent for Hispanics.
“[Broadband] is also critical to increase our national competency in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. And yet disparities in broadband adoption continue, depriving historically disadvantaged communities of the very opportunities they need to participate fully in America’s success,” wrote the groups.
Outlined below are the principles that the groups are urging the Commission to consider while it works to modernize Lifeline:
1. Universality: The Lifeline program must provide sufficient resources and be designed to ensure that all eligible households receive the support the need to afford the broadband services that are essential for participation in our nation’s economic, social, and political life.
2. Excellence: Broadband Lifeline must support Internet connections of sufficient capacity to enable people to perform a full range of online activities, including access to digital education, health care, social services, applying for jobs, performing job-related functions, closing the homework gap, reaching out for emergency services, accessing diverse and independent media, and participating in civic discourse. Substandard services are not worthy of federal support through the Lifeline program.
3. Choice and competition: A strength of the current Lifeline program is that it leverages marketplace competition. The Commission should maintain this feature as it expands Lifeline by adopting mechanisms that will increase users’ knowledge of their choices and enhance their ability to compare products.
4. Innovation: The Lifeline broadband program should be structured to support continuous innovation to improve program design and efficient operations.
5. Efficiency, transparency, accountability: The FCC must continue its progress in reforming Lifeline to protect consumers’ pocketbooks and privacy. The Commission should also increase its data collection and analysis of the program’s effectiveness.