The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its latest step to bridge the digital divide, voted yesterday (March 31) to expand the Lifeline phone subsidy program to include broadband Internet access.
The FCC’s 3-2 vote comes at a most-necessary time. An FCC report from February 2015 found that nearly 55 million Americans don’t have access to advanced broadband—that is, Internet with at least 25 Mbps download speeds. That 55 million includes nearly two-thirds of all Native Tribal land residents. While the FCC does not keep specific tabs on broadband access across most racial demographic groups, most research (including this Pew Research Center report from 2014) suggests that low-income Black people have lower broadband adoption rates than Whites.
The commission drafted the plan for Lifeline expansion over the past 10 months, navigating resistance from Internet-providing telecom companies like AT&T. The plan approved yesterday gives Lifeline a $2.25 million budget and provides eligible subscribers—defined as those with household incomes at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level—a $9.25 monthly subsidy. Those using the Lifeline phone subsidy are not eligible for the Internet subsidy.
Various advocacy groups voiced their approval of the FCC’s vote. Nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause posted a statement from former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps that included the following passage:
This is a giant leap forward. It helps extend awesome power of the Internet to those who need it most. School children, jobseekers, the elderly and infirm in particular will all benefit. This advance is particularly welcome in this election year, when so much political debate is occurring and so much information is being exchanged online.
In a statement emailed to Colorlines, Matt Wood of Free Press declared his organization’s support for the reforms, while making it clear that more needs to be done to bridge the divide:
We welcome the FCC’s efforts to bring Lifeline fully into the modern era. The agency is taking aim at the digital divide with today’s decision. Broadband adoption continues to lag for low-income Americans, for people in communities of color, for the elderly and for poorer families with children. … Much work remains: The FCC needs to devote additional resources to promoting affordable broadband options across the board. Consolidation and the lack of effective competition have left people of all income levels in the United States paying way too much for Internet access. It’s a shortcoming that has direct and negative impacts on everyone seeking these essential services. Lifeline is but one tool the FCC can use to address costs. If the agency’s primary goal is to get as many people as possible using broadband, it must do more to make all broadband services affordable.