Although broadband is a means for people to have access to the tools they need in the 21st century, the rate of change in broadband adoption is slowing down and, in fact, posted a decline for the lowest income households in 2013. Cost is a significant factor contributing to low rates of adoption. A rapid and bold effort to update the Lifeline program for broadband is necessary to address the serious gap in broadband adoption among low-income communities.

The Reagan administration established the Lifeline program in 1985 to help low-income Americans afford access to vital communications, and in the 2000s, it was updated during the Bush administration to include both wired and wireless technology. The program is, in essence, a public-private partnership that leverages marketplace competition. The program provides financial incentives to private carriers that, in turn, compete to provide free or reduced price telecommunications to eligible households.

Lifeline was created to close the connectivity gap but it needs to be recalibrated for the digital age. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recognizes this limitation and is currently developing proposals to improve and modernize the program. We are working with our allies across the civil rights and public interest communities to develop principles that should guide the Commission’s work to modernize the program: universality; excellence; choice and competition; innovation; and efficiency, transparency, and accountability.

In addition to modernizing Lifeline, the federal government is in a unique position to make real the opportunity of broadband for all people in the United States. We are raising awareness of the need to:

  • Increase the collection of data about broadband access and adoption, particularly among underserved communities, across the federal government.
  • Identify, quantify, and study the concrete potential benefits to our national goals if all people in the U.S. fully utilized broadband.
  • Study, identify best practices, and adopt policies to set minimum standards for federal-state benefits programs’ use of websites and online web portals.
  • Move beyond public-private partnerships to employ policy levers that will increase broadband adoption.
  • Institutionalize this analysis by repeating it at regular intervals and by designating staff positions responsible for implementing agency broadband adoption plans.

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