Opinion by Preston Gralla

Broadband for all

The FCC should follow through on the proposal to extend the Lifeline program to broadband, but more needs to be done to close a digital divide that has become a digital chasm

ethernet cable
Credit: Pixabay

There’s no mere digital divide in the United States; it’s a chasm. It ensures that the have-nots will always have less, and those with broadband access will have more. It’s time to finally end that, and guarantee that everyone in the country, no matter how poor, gets broadband and its many benefits.

That’s what the FCC is trying to do, with a proposal to overhaul the 30-year-old Lifeline program, originally established by the Reagan administration to help pay for landline phone service for people who couldn’t afford it. The reasoning back then was that people couldn’t find work, participate in the economy or get out of poverty unless they had a telephone.

That same reasoning is behind the new FCC proposal — just substitute “broadband service” for “telephone.” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, on the official FCC Blog, notes that more than 80% of job openings in Fortune 500 companies are posted online, that an increasing number of jobs require digital skills and that people need broadband access to keep their jobs. Children can’t even do their homework without broadband, he adds.

People with broadband also pay less for goods and services than do people without broadband. Wheeler cites a 2012 study that found that a typical consumer saves $8,800 a year by getting online bargains that those without broadband can’t get. He also cites studies that found that only 48% of households that make under $25,000 have home broadband access, while 95% of households that make over $150,000 have it.

Wheeler wants to, in his words, “‘reboot’ Lifeline for the Internet age.” Currently, Lifeline gives the poorest households $9.25 a month toward subsidizing their cellphone or landline service. Twelve million households get the subsidy, and the total cost of the program is $1.7 billion a year, TheNew York Times reports.

Under Wheeler’s proposal, people could apply that subsidy to broadband, phone service or a combination of the two. The proposal would also establish service standards for broadband, which might include minimum broadband speeds. And it would include antifraud measures.

The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler’s proposal in mid-June. If it passes, the agency staff would write rules for putting it into effect. By the end of the year, when the rules are finalized, it would go before the FCC again for a final vote.

With a majority of the FCC’s board members appointed by Democratic presidents, the proposal will likely pass. When it does, expect conservatives to howl, calling it government overreach and an expensive handout. But those charges, if they come, will be disingenuous at best, and hypocritical at worst. After all, the Lifeline program was launched by the conservative’s much-loved icon, Ronald Reagan. He was far from a big-spending liberal.

But today’s conservatives have demonstrated again and again that they no longer believe in any kind of social contract. Michael Scurato, policy director of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, told The New York Times, “The program has been under attack, and the F.C.C. is currently facing incredible political pressure. It wasn’t always this contentious to make sure our neighbors in this country are connected to communications of the day.”

There is reason to criticize the program, but not because it goes too far. It doesn’t go nearly far enough. Have you looked at your broadband bill recently? Less than $10 a month doesn’t pay for much, does it? The FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps access and up. According to the Open Technology Institute’s report “The Cost of Connectivity 2014,” the median price of a 30 Mpbs connection in the U.S. was $54.97 in 2014, the median price of a 50 Mbps connection was $59.95, and the median price of a 100 to 150 Mbps connection was $69.99. That would leave poor households having to come up with more than $45 a month for a broadband connection under the FCC proposal, something they can’t afford. And that would also leave them paying for their entire phone bill.

The government alone shouldn’t subsidize broadband access. So should broadband providers. And that subsidy should be large enough so that the poorest among us will be able to afford broadband. Unless that happens, the digital chasm will remain one over which people simply can’t leap.

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