There are 64 million Americans who can’t read Medium. Because they don’t have high-speed Internet, they also can’t check email or stay connected with their loved ones through social media. Among those trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide are unemployed workers who miss out on job openings posted online and students who can’t research their term papers. Accessing government and social services is a serious struggle. Like many of us, they’d love to follow breaking news events, binge watch TV shows, and shop for deals online. Unfortunately, for too many families, broadband is just too expensive.
But relief could be on the way: On Thursday, March 31, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on a plan to give low-income consumers $9.25 a month to buy home broadband service or mobile data.
I’m urging the five commissioners to vote “yes” because this subsidy is an important step toward ensuring universal communications access. When disconnected populations plug into high-speed Internet, all Americans benefit. Inner-city kids can tap into the same Internet resources as kids in the most affluent suburbs. Reliable and fast broadband opens the door to launching home businesses and telework, spurring economic growth in communities around the country. Suddenly, telemedicine and e-government are possibilities. This is about US competitiveness and opportunity as much as it’s about people-to-people communication.
The FCC’s plan would expand the Lifeline program, which was originally designed in 1985 to help low-income consumers get landline phone service. In 2005, those discounts became available for pre-paid wireless service plans. It only makes sense in 2016 to start covering high-speed Internet. Today, broadband is as vital our modern lives as telephone service was in the last century.
The biggest reason these Americans don’t sign up for broadband is cost. Only half of the nation’s households in the lowest income tier subscribe to broadband. And 43 percent of all people who don’t subscribe to broadband at home say that affordability is the reason.
While 92 percent of households with incomes over $100,000 have broadband service, only 47 percent of households with incomes below $25,000 subscribe to broadband.
Yes, more low-income consumers are depending on smartphones for an Internet connection. But 48 percent of these subscribers have had to cancel or shut off their service for a period of time because of financial hardship.
Working families shouldn’t be forced to camp out at their local coffee shop or public library to fully participate in our economy and society.
The Communications Workers of America (CWA) has long supported universal service programs to ensure that every American has access to critical communications services. In 1985, CWA endorsed the establishment of the Lifeline program. More recently, through our Speed Matters program, CWA has been a strong advocate for modernizing the program to better serve low-income families.
Last week, our union and allies Public Knowledge, MAG-Net, Color of Change, and OC Inc., delivered 22,000 signatures to the FCC supporting this plan to subsidize broadband for low-income families. The petitions will be added to the public record, which the commissioners will consider before their March 31 vote.