Help is making its way to millions of Americans thanks to the latest round of stimulus checks included in the American Rescue Plan. However, more than $1 trillion of the latest COVID-19 relief bill is allocated to fund additional projects, including $7 billion for increasing internet access for low-income Americans.
Without wasting any time, dozens of Democrats led by Reps. Peter Welch and James Clyburn, as well as Sen. Amy Klobuchar have capitalized on the American Rescue Plan’s momentum by unveiling multiple broadband proposals ranging from $80-100 billion to make broadband more accessible across the country. Hopefully, a bill with bipartisan support will be passed to close the digital divide that low-income Americans have disproportionately faced for years, exacerbated by the pandemic.
During a recent webinar on Combatting Systemic Inequality by Closing the Digital Divide, Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks spoke on the need for internet access for low-income Americans, saying, “If you are having food insecurity, I’d say you’re likely having digital insecurity, as well. We need to focus on supporting families that are struggling right now.”
Continued broadband funding is necessary to eliminate digital insecurity and achieve digital equity. In today’s environment, a reliable broadband connection is an essential service for remote learning, working, medical services, entertainment, and importantly, securing COVID-19 vaccination appointments. These essential services should not be kept out of reach just because of one’s socioeconomic status.
For society’s most vulnerable consumers, the low-income and the elderly, having a broadband connection at home is far less likely than it is for the general population. According to Pew, only 56 percent of Americans with an income below $30,000 had broadband in their home.
While some low-income consumers use a smartphone to connect online (26 percent), this is not the case for older adults, with only 12 percent connecting online using a smartphone. We know that smartphones, while great for all our communications and connecting needs, don’t function well for working at home — or for kids logging onto school online and doing their homework.
In 1985, the Lifeline program was established to offer low-income individuals discounted phone service, initially for wireline and then subsequently for wireless service. Then, in 2016, Lifeline underwent an overhaul in which the FCC approved an order to modernize and expand the program to include support for broadband services.
However, Lifeline’s benefit of $9.25 set in 2016 is simply not enough to help cover the cost of high-speed broadband services. To level the playing field and achieve digital equity, the Lifeline program must do more.
Unfortunately, Lifeline cannot offer the necessary benefits to provide low-income consumers’ high-speed broadband service under its current structure. For years, concern about the financial solvency of the Lifeline program as it currently stands has been mounting.
It is finally time for Lifeline to undergo the overhaul it needs, first to address the appropriate increase in benefits to adequately support broadband, and second to reform the system for funding Lifeline to ensure its long-term viability. Several excellent proposals have surfaced that offer steps to fine-tune Lifeline to ensure its efficacy and financial stability.
One such plan from the National Urban League suggests tangible and effective solutions. First, if you’re a low-income household already enrolled or eligible for one government subsidy program, then you get broadband support. Second, the government should provide a more long-term sustainable funding source for the program through appropriations provided directly by Congress. Next, eliminate the ETC (Eligible Telecommunications Carrier) requirement for providers. Lastly, give the broadband benefit directly to the customer in the form of a voucher to debit card, which will maximize choice and reduce waste and fraud.
The Lifeline program is an all-important part of the foundation of Universal Service. Without a sustainable Lifeline program, the opportunity to ensure that low-income consumers receive the same broadband services won’t be achievable. The National Urban League’s Plan for Digital Inclusion said it best: “We all gain … when the unemployed can train online for new careers …getting them back in the workforce quickly … everyone benefits when at-risk communities can receive telehealth at home …lowering costs for government medical programs. Finally, everyone wins when all children have the tools to do their homework and engage in online learning in their homes, improving educational achievements.”
Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL) and president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace; she currently serves as the vice chair of the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee.
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