Bringing Lifeline into the 21st Century

Last week, Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn outlined five principles to bring the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service for low-income Americans, into the broadband age. The principles focus on two things we all care about. First, they call for the FCC to improve how the program functions so that more funds go to those who need it, while lessening administrative burden on the companies that provide the benefit to eligible consumers. Second, the principles provide a vision of what consumers and taxpayers get in return. In Commissioner Clyburn’s words: “Broadband is the greatest equalizer of our time.” Now, such a sweeping statement about a technology some people think is good mainly for viewing cat videos might seem like a stretch. But the statement stands up when thinking about the benefits that come with home broadband access. The opportunities Commissioner Clyburn identifies are familiar to Benton readers: economic and educational opportunity, civic engagement, social inclusion, and more. I want us to take a look at two other kinds of benefits that are crucial to the digital inclusion equation. The first is time management. There was a short piece in the Wall Street Journal over decade ago which was entitled “Technology and Time for the Poor.”(1) Simple transactions that can be carried out quickly for those with online access – applying for a government benefit, looking for a job, renewing a driver’s license, or shopping for groceries – eat up enormous amounts of time for low-income individuals with lengthy commutes on public transportation and jobs with little flexibility. It is no surprise that my 2012 survey of Illinois residents found that 70% said “saving time on day-to-day activities” was an important benefit to having a home high-speed Internet subscription. The efficiencies broadband brings to the household can seem even more magical to low-income families that must spend a lot of time carrying out common tasks. The second benefit has to do with expectations. In my 2014 survey of low-income households who had recently gotten home broadband access through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, 83% said their children’s schools expected them to have broadband at home and two-thirds (65%) said banks and financial institutions expected that they had broadband at home, and 53% said this about health insurance companies. Improving time management and becoming aligned with society’s expectations are crucial pathways to making people “digitally ready” for a society where broadband mediates so many interactions and transactions. New Internet users grow to trust the Internet when home access means they don’t have to take time out of their workday to deal with the health insurance company. Parents gain a sense of efficacy when they can give an email address to their child’s school to receive the same online newsletters about school activities that others do. This gives people an immediate sense of the value of connectivity. Yet the benefits I’ve discussed underscore the challenges to getting non-broadband adopters to subscribe. Feelings of efficacy and improved time management make broadband an “experience good”; consumers know the value of such a good only after they have consumed it. That’s why music distributors today let people sample music online and why record stores of yesteryear often had booths for people to listen to music before buying. This mitigates the risk to a consumer to buying a good whose future value is uncertain. For broadband – especially when a household’s disposable income is limited – the benefits to subscribing to service may not be clear absent experience with what the Internet offers. This is why getting the price subsidy right for non-adopters – which is an important aim of Lifeline reform – will only get us so far in attracting new broadband adopters. We need “boots on the ground” to help non-adopters learn the value of connectivity and thus change how they assess the decision to subscribe to a new service. Looking at the benefits to broadband in the way I’ve described highlights a tension in our discourse about getting people online. Policymakers understandably tout the macro benefits of greater inclusion, such as better educational outcomes or more efficient service delivery for government. Those benefits are prospective; they might not persuade a low-income household to purchase service today. Recognizing this tension in the digital divide discourse should make us think differently about policy solutions. Price becomes a less relevant lever, while reaching into communities to spark interest in the value of being online becomes more important. This brings us to Commissioner Clyburn’s final principle which calls for “public-private partnerships and coordinated outreach efforts” to reach those without broadband. Operationally, this means expanding the scope of players involved in promoting broadband adoption to include banks, health care providers, and government agencies which have stakes in having more people online. It also means supporting established community institutions – non-profit groups and libraries – that already know how to foster trust among the population of Americans without broadband. Cultivating such public-private partnerships will take time and treasure from companies, philanthropists, and government. But doing so will bolster the impact of a key part of the Lifeline reform, namely directing the Lifeline subsidy to beneficiaries in a fair and effective way. Commissioner Clyburn has set out strong principles to guide the debate. The Commissioner’s fifth principle about public-private partnerships should serve as an anchor in Lifeline reform. It offers an opportunity to embed the Internet in communities where online connectivity often takes secondary status to more urgent needs, but is a pathway to meeting them and reaching higher educational and economic aspirations.

John B. Horrigan, PhD is an independent communications and technology policy consultant. Horrigan’s work focuses on consumers’ adoption and use of information and communications technologies, as well as ICTs’ impacts on states and localities. Horrigan has served in senior positions at the Pew Research Center, the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, and TechNet. At the Federal Communications Commission in 2009-10, he led development of the broadband adoption and usage portion of the National Broadband Plan.


  1. Jonathan Kaufman, “Technology and Time for the Poor.” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2001, p a1.

By John Horrigan.