Bringing The Benefits of Broadband to Those Who Need It Most

Almost 90 percent of American households have broadband Internet. But tens of millions of Americans still are not connected to broadband. Those Americans tend to be older, poorer, sicker or live in rural communities. In other words, the Americans who most need the benefits of broadband Internet too often are the people who aren’t connected. We can change that. With a revamp of an existing government program, we will ensure every American that wants broadband Internet service can have it.

The Lifeline Program democratized telephone service in America. It is difficult to imagine today given the ubiquity of mobile phones, but just 30 years ago almost 10 percent of Americans and 20 percent of black and Hispanic Americans lacked access to basic home telephone service. For low-income Americans, the situation was even worse: 25 percent of low-income black families and almost a third of low-income Hispanic families were without home telephone access.

The Lifeline Program was first a legislative proposal by the late Congressman Mickey Leland, then Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. At his prodding and with strong encouragement from consumer and civil rights groups, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a program providing low-income families with discounted telephone service. The Lifeline Program has been an unqualified success. Over the past 30 years, we have seen the national percentage of homes with phones increase from 91 percent in 1985 to 95 percent today. And the percentage of low-income households with telephone service has grown from 80 percent in 1985 to 92 percent today.

The Lifeline Program, which was extended to wireless phones in 2005, now provides phone service to 14 million people. But times have changed, and the telephone no longer is the principle tool of communication for many Americans. Broadband Internet is now a critical part of our communications infrastructure. In 2015, broadband Internet is as essential as basic telephone service was in 1985. It is time that our Lifeline policies reflect that reality.

Fortunately, members of the FCC recognize the need for updating Lifeline policies. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, in particular, have outlined thoughtful approaches that can help bring the Lifeline Program into the 21st Century. There is an emerging consensus on what needs to be done:

· Extend Lifeline benefits to broadband Internet use;

· Empower consumers by providing the subsidy directly to eligible people (they could use a “Lifeline Benefit Card” with different providers);

· Level the playing field between different providers to broaden consumer choice and stimulate competition for their purchasing power; and

· Safeguard and simplify the program by taking administration away from companies and instead vest that responsibility with an appropriate government agency or agencies.

The existing Lifeline program has benefited not just low-income Americans but every American by strengthening our economy and our sense of community. Updating Lifeline so that we connect millions of Americans to broadband Internet similarly benefits us all.

The mix of homes without broadband Internet access today looks very much like the mix of homes without telephone service three decades ago. Lifeline Program reform will bring broadband to Americans who are elderly, disabled, single parents, unemployed or living in poverty. These are precisely the people who need the services, information and assistance that broadband Internet provides.

Revising the Lifeline Program for the 21st Century will allow us to connect more people to high-speed Internet, provide them with more communications choices and increase competition among broadband providers. Smart reforms will simultaneously reduce costs, waste and inefficiency in the program.

Over the past three decades, we improved millions of lives by connecting American families to a telephone. Now, we can improve lives even more by helping to connect those in need to high-speed broadband Internet. What are we waiting for?

Larry Irving is a co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA). He served as assistant secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration and as Legislative Director and Counsel to the late George T. (“Mickey”) Leland (D-TX).

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