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May 15, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
“There were times when I didn’t have a phone. I was so disconnected from the world that my family drove from New York to North Carolina to find out if I was dead or not.”
These candid words are from Leonard Edwards, a disabled veteran who found himself unable to work or afford a telephone for several years. In 2011 he turned to Lifeline, a Federal Communications Commission program that offsets the high price of communications. Using a Lifeline phone, he was then able to connect with family, doctors and order groceries. “Without Lifeline service at that time,” he said, “I would have been lost.”
There’s just one problem: The FCC has proposed a package of fatally flawed plans that would fundamentally undercut Lifeline and disconnect people like Mr. Edwards. Today’s FCC oversight hearing is an opportunity for Congress to hold the agency accountable for its disastrous proposals.
Lifeline began during the Reagan administration to promote universal telephone service, and was expanded under President George W. Bush to support mobile phones. In 2016, Lifeline was modernized to include subsidies for broadband. Today, the program provides $9.25 a month for low-income households struggling to afford service.
Affordable phone and internet access offer huge opportunities for marginalized communities, and can be a literal lifeline in times of crisis. Yet the Trump FCC has shown increasing hostility toward Lifeline and the people it serves, many of whom are people of color. At the end of 2017, the agency issued a series of bad proposals designed to shrink the program — a thousand tiny cuts that cumulatively would leave millions of Americans stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.
One of the proposals would ban wireless resellers from participating in Lifeline. Resellers, who serve a whopping 70 percent of Lifeline recipients, buy capacity wholesale from major telecommunications companies like AT&T or Sprint and then resell it to customers — typically at lower prices than the big brands offer, and without burdensome conditions like racially discriminatory credit checks. As major wireless carriers have largely abandoned Lifeline, banning resellers threatens to disconnect millions who have few alternatives for affordable service.
The FCC also proposed a “self-enforcing” budget cap for Lifeline, which would artificially cap a program that has only a 30 percent participation rate. The cap would also prioritize money for rural populations over urban ones, pitting disconnected communities against each other.
Free Press research shows there’s a racial and economic gap in broadband adoption. This gap is widest for low-income families — but it exists at all income levels. This isn’t just a case of dollars and cents: There’s systemic racism in the broadband market. More than 80 percent of white people have home-internet access, compared to only 70 percent of Census-identified Hispanic people and 68 percent of black people.
Marginalized communities want internet access, but are prevented from adopting primarily because broadband options are too expensive. In fact, 31 percent of Hispanic households and 32 percent of Black households rank internet affordability as their top concern.
That’s why 29 percent of households making less than $20K are mobile-only – double the rate of those making $100K or higher.
Yet the FCC’s proposals expose the agency’s desire to redefine who needs support, and who deserves to be connected. Anyone who doesn’t fit within these arbitrary distinctions gets disconnected, making the agency’s commitment to universal service much less universal. Virtually no one supports these changes – not Lifeline subscribers, not resellers, not even big industry players like Verizon and trade group USTelecom.
Lifeline is vital, and the FCC’s threats to it are real. Yet there’s reason for optimism: Earlier this year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that similar FCC changes to the Tribal Lifeline program were unlawful. The court rejected the FCC’s failure to consider the impact of kicking resellers out of the Tribal Lifeline program, and for failing to justify its arbitrary decision to reduce support for Tribal urban areas.
The FCC’s proposed changes to the Tribal Lifeline program were pernicious and unjustified — and so are the agency’s parallel proposals to gut the Lifeline program nationwide.
It’s time for Congress to tell the FCC to stop these attacks on Lifeline. The FCC must terminate the proceeding and abandon any future its plans to gut the program. The FCC should remember its core purpose: to connect people like Mr. Edwards, so that our country’s most vulnerable aren’t left behind.
Dana Floberg is the policy manager at Free Press, Carmen Scurato is the senior policy counsel at Free Press and Erin Shields is a national field organizer for internet rights for the Center for Media Justice.
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