FCC's Lifeline Reform Makes Digital Inclusion A National Priority

The real key to economic and personal empowerment through broadband adoption comes when you combine Internet access with formal training and education

The Federal Communications Commission recently voted to modernize its Lifeline program, beginning to shift the program, which has traditionally made telephone service more affordable, to focus on increasing broadband adoption among low-income consumers. The key purpose of the FCC’s actions is to increase the affordability of broadband service, which remains the chief impediment to broadband adoption among low-income consumers.

The Pew Research Center estimates that 67 percent of U.S. homes subscribe to traditional, wireline broadband service. For the 33 percent of Americans who do not currently have broadband service at home, financial concerns – the monthly cost of a broadband subscription most prominently, but also the cost of a computer – loom large as barriers to non-adoption.

From Digital Divide To Digital Inclusion

The FCC finds that the cost of broadband service is not the only barrier to low-income consumers subscribing and using broadband.

Whereas discussions around the digital divide have tended to focus on individuals’ affordable access to the Internet and broadband, the FCC recognizes that ‘digital inclusion’ encompasses access, adoption, and application. Beyond affordable access, people need the opportunity, knowledge, digital literacy and 21st century skills to make full use of the many benefits of the Internet. Digital inclusion, as articulated by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is meant to signal a focus on a practical, policy-driven approach that ensures communities are able to provide access to opportunities in the digital age.

Notably, lack of perceived relevance and digital literacy are significant non-price barriers to broadband adoption. And all of these barriers are interrelated. For example, the fact that a consumer may not be able to afford broadband service may also reduce the relevance of broadband service to that consumer. Recent research published by the Benton Foundation confirms that consumers consider broadband service to be relevant if other barriers, such as digital literacy and price, are overcome.

Broadband can be a critical tool for seniors to realize many economic and health gains as well as increased socialization, but seniors lag behind other demographic groups in terms of adoption and digital inclusion. Education and awareness programs targeting seniors can be effective in overcoming these barriers and increasing broadband adoption among low-income seniors.

Digital literacy efforts can increase the digital inclusion of consumers who already have access to the Internet to make them fully “digitally ready.” Schools, libraries, and community organizations across the country have already begun developing digital learning curricula that have enabled low-income populations to more meaningfully engage with all the Internet has to offer. Some of the same community-based, grass-roots approaches to increasing digital inclusion for those who do not have access may also be useful in closing the digital readiness gap among those that already have access to broadband. As with programs promoting digital inclusion generally, a “one-size-fits all” solution to increasing digital skills may not be the most efficient or effective approach.

In 2016, Benton Faculty Research Fellow Dr. Colin Rhinesmith reported that digital inclusion organizations have found that the most successful training is provided through a trusted, community-based partner that provides the social support necessary for increasing broadband access. And, based on their experience, many digital inclusion organizations have moved from classes to one-on-one training to improve outcomes. One-on-one training can be the most effective in part because it helps lower the barrier of perceived relevance; each consumer learns how the Internet can assist them in accomplishing tasks of particular importance to them.

In its Lifeline decision, the FCC concluded that low-cost broadband -- coupled with strategic, effective digital inclusion efforts -- will significantly impact the lives of millions of consumers, particularly those with lower incomes and in key demographic groups, such as seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, rural communities, and those living on Tribal lands, many of which may also have an increased need for access to educational, public health and /or public safety services. The FCC encourages Lifeline providers to work with schools, libraries, community centers and other organizations, such as food banks and senior citizen centers, that serve low-income consumers to increase broadband adoption and address non-price barriers to adoption.

The FCC’s decision marks the beginning of an ongoing campaign at the agency to build its digital literacy capacity and to keep apprised and abreast of the state of digital inclusion across the country.

The FCC Sees The Need For A Digital Inclusion Plan

A plan to better understand the non-price barriers to digital inclusion and to propose how the FCC can facilitate efforts to address those barriers

The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) is charged with developing, within six months, a comprehensive plan for the FCC to better understand the non-price barriers to digital inclusion and to propose how the FCC can facilitate efforts to address those barriers. This plan will address promoting digital inclusion generally and also as it particularly relates to the new Lifeline program.

In its plan, CGB will:

  • Explore how to connect efforts to increase the availability of affordable service and equipment, digital literacy training, and relevance programming to make digital inclusion a reality in light of the modernized Lifeline framework.
  • Work with other FCC bureaus and offices, as well as the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers Lifeline funding, to ensure all Lifeline stakeholders’ views are incorporated into this effort.
  • Include proposals from consumer groups, community and philanthropic organizations, local government, and industry stakeholders for promoting increased broadband adoption as well as increased digital literacy of low-income and other consumers.
  • Propose how digital inclusion efforts -- which include both Lifeline and non-Lifeline broadband providers, community and philanthropic organizations, local governments, and anchor institutions -- can be tailored by trusted community-based partners to local conditions to maximize their effect.
  • Address how digital inclusion organizations can share their experience in tailoring digital inclusion efforts to local conditions.
  • Compile information and studies available from digital inclusion experts regarding best practices for increasing the digital skills of those already online and how those best practices can be spread throughout the digital inclusion community.
  • Facilitate communication among stakeholders regarding how to tailor digital inclusion efforts to deepen the value of broadband to those already online.

Towards A Fully Inclusive Digital Society

In an October 2015 speech, Gigi Sohn, Counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, noted that in the U.S., we have reached nearly universal Internet adoption for people under 50 and for those who make $50,000 or more per year. But for people over 50 and for those making less than $50,000, significant gaps in adoption remain. Sohn went on to say,

To use a metaphor, think of our adoption challenge as a marathon. They say that the race really starts at mile 20, and those last 6 miles are a bear. Considering we have about 75% percent home adoption, that math is about right. You can take this concept one step further. This marathon is an out-and-back course, where the first half is all downhill, meaning the back half is all uphill and just gets harder and harder as you approach your ultimate goal.

The FCC’s move to use its Lifeline program to make broadband more affordable for low-income households is a huge step in making sure everyone is included in our increasingly digital society. However, we should not overlook the wisdom – and the opportunity – of the FCC’s decision to embrace digital inclusion and to immediately begin planning how to break down the other remaining barriers to broadband adoption.

Additional Reading
  1. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, NTIA Broadband Adoption Toolkit, (May 2013), http://www2.ntia.doc.gov/files/toolkit_042913.pdf
  2. ASR Analytics, Broadband Technology Opportunities Program Evaluation Study (September 4, 2014), https://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/asr_final_report.pdf
  3. John B. Horrigan, The Essentials of Connectivity, Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program and a Playbook for Expanding Broadband Adoption and Use in America (March 2014), http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Final_IE_Research_Full_Paper.pdf
  4. John B. Horrigan, Deepening Ties: Comcast Internet Essentials Customers Show Broader and Deeper Ties to the Internet Over Time — Especially Among Those Who Had Digital Literacy Skills Training (January 2015), http://corporate.comcast.com/images/comcast-ie-report-2-horrigan.pdf
  5. Federal Communications Commission, Low-Income Broadband Pilot Report (May 22, 2015), https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-15-624A1.pdf
  6. Colin Rhinesmith, Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, Benton Foundation (January 4, 2016), https://www.benton.org/sites/default/files/broadbandinclusion.pdf

By Kevin Taglang.