A Historic Moment for Broadband Adoption

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Robbie’s Round-Up for the Week of March 7-11, 2016

President Barack Obama and the Federal Communications Commission unveiled significant proposals to increase broadband adoption in the U.S. this week. If successful, these plans will reduce the digital divide and pave the way for people with lower-incomes to seize the opportunities that digital technologies and connectivity provide.

ConnectALL: Making Broadband More Affordable and Accessible
President Obama launched the ConnectALL initiative to help Americans from across the country, at every income level, get online and have the tools to take full advantage of the Internet. The goal: Connecting 20 million more Americans to broadband by 2020. This would push adoption rates to about 82%, up from 76% at the end of 2014.

The ConnectALL initiative calls on nonprofits, businesses, technology experts, and government to join a national effort to connect more Americans to broadband. In response the the President's call, a number of partnerships and projects were announced including:

  • Initiating a national service effort to deliver digital literacy skills. To increase access to digital literacy training, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) are collaborating on a Digital Literacy Pilot Project.
  • Increasing access to affordable devices. In order to promote the reuse of equipment no longer needed by the federal government, the General Services Administration (GSA) will lead an inter-agency effort to re-engineer the Computers for Learning program to expand access to devices for more organizations that help provide digital literacy and training for low-income Americans.
  • Community Connectivity Initiative: A tool to support broadband planning. To empower more communities with strategies to support and accelerate local broadband planning efforts, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BroadbandUSA program is launching the Community Connectivity Initiative, which will create a comprehensive online assessment tool to help community leaders identify critical broadband needs and connect them with expertise, tools, and resources for overcoming the challenges to expanded broadband deployment and adoption.
  • Private sector delivery of affordable connectivity. Cox Communications will host more than 200 events across the nation for low-income K-12 families, automatically qualifying attendees for its low-cost broadband option.
  • Marshaling philanthropic support for digital inclusion. To increase access to resources to support digital inclusion efforts under way in communities across the country, later this year the Administration will convene leaders in the philanthropic, non-profit, and private sectors to a summit.

Research Measures the Impact of the Digital Divide
The Council of Economic Advisers released a new issue brief, The Digital Divide and Economic Benefits of Broadband Access, providing an overview of the state of broadband in the U.S. The report reviews the benefits of Internet connectivity, highlighting better labor market outcomes that can accrue to American workers from accessing broadband Internet. Among the findings:

  • A digital divide remains, with just under half of households in the bottom income quintile using the Internet at home, compared to 95 percent of households in the top quintile;
  • Areas with more wireline providers have higher Internet subscription rates;
  • Broadband provides numerous socio-economic benefits to communities and individuals, improving labor market outcomes for subscribers, increasing economic growth, providing access to better health care, and enhancing civic participation;
  • Academic research shows that using online job search leads to better labor market outcomes, including faster re-employment for unemployed individuals, yet because of a digital divide, low-income households are less able to use these tools than high-income households;
  • Unemployed workers in households with Internet were 4 percentage points more likely to be employed one month in the future than those in households without Internet. This difference persists over time.

ConnectALL and Lifeline

As part of the ConnectALL announcement, the Obama Administration submitted its recommendation to the Federal Communications Commission to reform the Lifeline program, the $1.5 billion per year Reagan-era phone subsidy program, to turn it into a 21st Century national broadband subsidy to help low-income Americans get online.

The Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), on behalf of the Obama Administration, filed comments in support of the FCC’s Lifeline reform efforts. Specifically, the NTIA recommended the FCC make the following enhancements to the Lifeline program:

  • Expand the Lifeline program to support broadband services while ensuring that voice service remains available for low-income individuals and communities;
  • Subsidize Lifeline services for as long as subscribers’ incomes qualify them for program benefits and they desire the supported services;
  • Leverage other federal and state low-income assistance programs, including coordinating enrollment and outreach, to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Lifeline and these other complementary low-income assistance programs; and
  • Establish a national third-party verifier to determine low-income consumers’ eligibility to receive easy-to-use portable Lifeline benefits, either through a direct benefit or other means.

FCC Unveils Proposal to Modernize Lifeline
The Obama Administration’s Lifeline comments build on the Lifeline proposal unveiled by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn earlier in the week. Wheeler and Clyburn’s proposed order, now being reviewed by all the FCC commissioners, is the result of many years of discussions and is expected to be voted on at the March 31 FCC open meeting.

For an excellent in-depth primer on the upcoming Lifeline vote, see Raphael Leung’s benton logoWhat to Expect When You’re Expecting Lifeline Reform: A Public Interest Perspective on Making Broadband Service Affordable for All”, and for the history and legal underpinnings of Lifeline, be sure to read Andy Schwartzman’s benton logoLifeline - Where Did It Come From?” and benton logoLifeline Reform Reaches the Home Stretch.

The Wheeler-Clyburn reform proposal:

  1. Re-orients Lifeline for the broadband era and sets minimum service standards for voice and broadband. Lifeline subscribers will be able to take full advantage of the many benefits reliable Internet access can bring – from jobs to education to healthcare. And the hard-working Americans who support the program won’t be paying for second-rate service.
  2. Improves Lifeline’s management and design. The reforms streamline program rules and eliminate outdated or unnecessary regulations to reduce administrative burdens and make it easier for broadband providers to participate. Providers will have a better business case for participation – and Lifeline consumers should enjoy more competitive options. By increasing competition and bringing market forces to bear on the program, the reforms get at the heart of the historic issues that have undermined the program’s efficiency in the past.
  3. Shuts the door on the program’s final remaining vulnerability. Under the proposal, the FCC would establish a National Eligibility Verifier as a powerful check against waste, fraud, and abuse. Currently, Lifeline providers verify the eligibility of their subscribers, creating both an administrative burden for providers and an opportunity for unscrupulous marketers to admit ineligible consumers. The National Eligibility Verifier will use existing, trusted, means-tested programs -- such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- to determine eligibility. A National Eligibility Verifier also will provide the added benefit of increased subscriber portability, meaning more consumer choice. The result should be a more dignified process for enrollment and better protection of consumer privacy and security.

What’s Next
As Raphael Leung wrote in his post, expect the FCC to vote on the Lifeline proposal on March 31 during its monthly open meeting. Although there’s been some opposition to the reform proposal voiced by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the FCC is expected to adopt new rules this month.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

Events Calendar for the Week of March 14-18, 2016

ICYMI From Benton

By Robbie McBeath.