The Lifeline from Digital Desert to Digital Opportunity

This week, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal, first articulated and championed by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in 2014, that will make broadband Internet service more affordable for millions of low-income consumers. For these people who are some of the most vulnerable in our society, the FCC will be providing a lifeline to opportunity.

There’s no argument that Internet access is essential to full participation in American society today. But 1 in 5 Americans are not connected at home. And the primary barrier to broadband adoption is cost. Less than half of the lowest-income households are using the Internet – compared to 95 percent of the wealthiest.

The proposal before the FCC would transform a traditional safety net program called Lifeline, that has helped make basic and wireless telephone service affordable for millions of households, and refocus it on broadband. Lifeline modernization will turn this safety net into a trampoline that can catapult us into a new world of opportunity:

  • Broadband makes healthcare and medical information more convenient and accessible.
  • Broadband enables access to lower-cost online education and allows students with Internet-dependent homework to complete their assignments.
  • Broadband promotes civic engagement, connecting people to national and international news sources. And is growing as a primary source of news about presidential campaigns.
  • Broadband connects people to open job listings and helps the unemployed find new jobs more quickly.

People without broadband live in Digital Deserts. Making broadband more affordable for low-income families is like bringing water to these deserts and transforming them into oases of digital opportunity.

Some may argue that the FCC’s move is unnecessary. They say schools and libraries provide enough public Internet access, that social workers are always available to poor veterans and seniors, and that the reforms will cost too much. [But these arguments miss the mark.] Schools and libraries do do a great job providing public access, but their hours and computers are limited. In some communities now, kids have to hang out at fast food restaurants in order to complete their studies. Broadband connections empower people to help themselves, which each of us want for ourselves and our children. And, although Lifeline modernization will cost more, the New York Times estimates it will be 9 cents per telephone line per month. Over the course of a year, that’s about what one pays for a gallon of bottled water, but the cost will deliver all the benefits of broadband to the families that need it most.

Most importantly, Congress, in 1996, directed the FCC to ensure all Americans have affordable access to the Internet. Twenty years later, how much longer can we wait to fulfill Congress’ promise?

Benton research finds that low-income families know how important Internet access is. They know how vital it is for their kids’ education, for finding jobs, for access to health care, to engage in our democracy. What they have been faced with is the decision between paying for Internet access or paying for groceries. The FCC’s proposal, which subsidizes access for less than 10 dollars per month, makes broadband possible for millions of households.

In this Digital Age, universal, affordable, and robust broadband is the key to our nation’s citizens reaching for – and achieving – the American Dream. Modernizing the Lifeline program for the 21st Century is the most effective way we can make broadband service affordable for low-income consumers across the nation. And there is no better time for the FCC to act than right now.

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director and Amina Fazlullah is the Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.