Proposed Lifeline Reforms a Mixed Bag, Still Ignore Real Issues

[Commentary] Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai contends his proposed reforms to the Lifeline program will “more effectively and efficiently help close the digital divide by directing Lifeline funds to the areas where they are most needed.” Opponents, however, believe the proposed changes “will gut the program and continue to widen the digital divide.” The likely outcome, if the proposal is enacted as currently written, will be somewhere in between. Some of these proposed reforms are important, positive steps that will improve the Lifeline program’s efficiency. Some are unlikely to lead to any benefits and may yield net costs. Most importantly, the proposed reforms fail to acknowledge key problems with the Lifeline program: First, we still do not truly understand why many low-income people do not subscribe to broadband, as the Commission’s own experiments demonstrated, although studies point to lack of interest or perceived relevance followed by price as key determinants. Second, the program provides no mechanism for evaluating whether it is actually helping to close the digital divide. Answers to two crucial research questions might radically improve Lifeline’s efficiency. First, how many people have service specifically because of Lifeline? Second, how do we get the remaining unconnected low-income people online? Until the FCC takes these questions seriously then it will not be possible to determine whether Lifeline has much, if any, effect on the digital divide. Until then, reforms are just window dressing.


Proposed Lifeline Reforms a Mixed Bag, Still Ignore Real Issues