Lifeline – Where Is It Going? A Community Perspective

A view of Lifeline modernization from community institutions

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance is comprised of local community organizations, public libraries and other institutions that are working hard to increase broadband access and digital skills among our neighbors. To improve the daily lives of all community members, we call for public policies for digital inclusion that reflect what we've learned from experience. We offer this expertise to the Federal Communications Commission to aid the reform and modernization of Lifeline.

The Internet is a tool that many of us use every day – to work, to locate information, to correspond, to shop, and to play. In the bigger picture, the Internet is a tool that can help us to achieve things like strengthening our communities, creating more responsive and efficient government, and keeping our economy moving. Civic participation, education, health care delivery, economic growth, worker training, and public safety are all among the key national purposes that Congress, in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said broadband should support.

Strategies for Increasing Broadband Adoption
We have learned broadband adoption is most effectively promoted by community-driven efforts that combine:

  • Affordable home broadband service,
  • Public broadband access, and
  • Locally-trusted technology training and support.

Public broadband access has been and will continue to be an incredibly valuable asset in our communities, but public access is insufficient. Home broadband is a necessary tool to fully participate in our 21st century society. Public access broadband tends to have limited hours. Very few of us use the Internet only during business hours. Students who do not have home broadband access are at an educational disadvantage. Adults who do not have home broadband are at an economic disadvantage.

A PC can be mobile for those who are motivated enough to move it. For these two young men, the Morton County Library's public wifi was the motivation. Morton County is located in the Southwest corner of Kansas.

Increasing adoption will mean more affordable broadband paired with training and support

To successfully increase broadband use in the U.S. we must have low-cost options AND local training and support, including a diverse set of local partners with established roots in the community. Trust -- of the individual and organization providing instruction on technology use and explaining broadband provider options -- is essential. This point has been reiterated in John Horrigan’s evaluation of Comcast’s Internet Essentials, an independent review of CenturyLink’s Internet Basics Program, and a myriad of documentation of the National Telecommunication Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), particularly the NTIA Broadband Adoption Toolkit.

We need additional detailed documentation of broadband adoption strategies, best practices and lessons learned including case studies of partnerships between broadband adoption providers and Internet service providers, local government and state support of broadband adoption services and innovative broadband access solutions.

In the United States, broadband adoption efforts have primarily been created and supported through grassroots efforts. Because these community-grown solutions have been created by a wide variety of local non-profit organizations, libraries and other community institutions, a multitude of terms is used to reference their services. It is important for the FCC to recognize this fact. These terms include (but are not limited to) broadband adoption, home broadband, digital literacy, digital inclusion, digital equity, digital justice, community technology, public access, media literacy, technology training, and new computer ownership.

The definition of "broadband adoption" for the purpose of the FCC’s Lifeline modernization proceeding should encompass both affordable broadband access and the skills needed to make use of the service. Lifeline home broadband service should include a market-driven speed standard and no data caps. In addition, the Lifeline program must address "Digital Readiness" per John Horrigan, that is the capacity to improve skill levels and knowledge base to use next generation applications.

Goal #3 of the National Broadband Plan is “Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.” This goal could be a clearly-defined component of the Lifeline reform proceeding.

The FCC should adopt goals and/or specific metrics for low-income broadband adoption. The FCC should explore how Lifeline modernization could work in conjunction with its other broadband expansion efforts.

Lifeline Broadband Subsidy
In 2013, more than half of U.S. households with incomes below $20,000 still lacked any kind of home Internet subscription including mobile or dial-up, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

Given these statistics and our experience in the field, we conclude that there should be an additional Universal Service Fund (USF) subsidy to expand Lifeline to include broadband service. This expansion is vital to local communities. The American Community Survey clearly shows the connection between poverty and lack of home broadband access. Internet access and the skills to meaningfully use the Internet are essential to the economic success of individuals and our communities.

Lifeline Broadband Service Providers
The FCC’s Lifeline proceeding should explicitly address 1) who can be Lifeline providers, 2) what will be expected of these providers and 3) how to address the needs of new broadband subscribers who need training and other support.

Can Lifeline reform expand opportunities for all Internet service providers – be they cable or wireless companies, non-profit or municipal entities – to participate in the provision of IP-based Lifeline services?

What should the FCC require of Lifeline Broadband service providers? The following issues should be fully discussed:

  • Wireless Lifeline providers should be required/incentivized to offer telephone customers Internet-capable phones (i.e. smart phones, a reasonable screen size, app-capable, Wi-Fi-capable).
  • Lifeline broadband providers should only offer plans with unlimited data.

The Lifeline program should require/incentivize participating Internet service providers to partner with local broadband adoption service providers to provide training opportunities. Questions that should be discussed include:

  • What are the key characteristics of an appropriate training model?
  • Should the USF reimburse some or all of the cost for training?
  • Are there possible non-USF-subsidized methods by which the FCC, providers and/or partners might cover some or all of the cost of such training?

Additional Ways the FCC Can Help Increase Broadband Adoption
The FCC should act on the recommendation of the National Broadband Plan and work with AmeriCorps to create a National Digital Literacy Corps. The National Digital Literacy Corps could be an additional source of support for libraries, non-profit organizations and other community institutions providing broadband adoption services.

The FCC should create and maintain a database and map of organizations providing public broadband access, home broadband programs and digital literacy trainings. Considering the grassroots nature of existing broadband adoption service providers, finding local services can be difficult. In addition, a national database would also help the broadband adoption providers to find each other which could lead to resource sharing.

The reform and modernization of Lifeline is an opportunity to strengthen the community-based broadband adoption work that has been occurring around the country. We appreciate being able to influence what will be a tremendous resource increasing digital equality in the United States.

Angela Siefer envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Siefer has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. She is now the Director of the newly formed National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a unified voice for local technology training, home broadband access and public broadband access programs. A portfolio of her written work is at Find her on Twitter @NetInclusion