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Published in Print: April 13, 2016, as FCC 'Lifeline' Effort Expanded to Bridge The Digital Divide

FCC Expands 'Lifeline' Program to Bridge the Digital Divide

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The Federal Communications Commission has approved an expansion of the federal Lifeline program to include subsidies for broadband service for low-income households, a move that could help bridge the digital divide that exists between disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers.

Education and civil rights groups hailed the plan as a critical step toward closing the so-called "homework gap," experienced by children who struggle to complete online assignments because they have inadequate or nonexistent Internet access at home.

Eligible families will now have the option to use the program's $9.25 monthly subsidy to cover stand-alone mobile- or fixed-broadband Internet service, as well as bundled voice-and-data-service packages. Lifeline, originally adopted more than three decades ago, had previously covered only voice services.

"Technologies may change, but the role that communications services play in bringing communities together and bridging divides remains as vital as it was in 1985," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a driving force behind Lifeline modernization.

Clyburn was joined by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Chairman Tom Wheeler, all Democrats, in a 3-2 party-line vote in support of the new proposal.

Despite agreeing in principle that Lifeline should subsidize broadband access, the FCC's two Republican commissioners, Michael O'Reilly and Ajit Pai, both voted against the plan. Their main beef: the program's lack of hard spending limits.

"This agency in this proceeding represented the worst of government," said Pai, who argued that the proposal as adopted was flawed and would fail to clean up waste, fraud, and abuse.

Next Steps For Lifeline

Highlights of the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to modernize the Lifeline program include:

Expanding Lifeline Subsidies To Cover Broadband. Eligible low-income families will now be able to use the program’s $9.25 monthly subsidy to pay for stand-alone mobile or fixed broadband Internet access, as well as bundled voice-and-data plans.

Establishing Minimum Service Requirements. Lifeline broadband providers will now be required to meet minimum speeds and standards, starting at 500 MB per month of data or 500 minutes of voice service.

Building In Third-Party Eligibility Verification. A new, independent National Eligibility Verifier will determine if program participants can receive Lifeline benefits by validating their eligibility using existing government databases. Previously, providers were responsible for determining eligibility, creating incentives for fraud and abuse.

Creating A ‘Budget Mechanism’ To Monitor Spending. Lifeline will continue with no firm spending cap, but the program will be guided by a $2.25 billion annual budget figure. If spending should reach 90 percent of that figure, the commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau will be required to prepare an analysis of the causes of spending growth and recommend actions for the FCC to consider.

Seeking Digital Equity

For more than a year, many educators and education technology proponents had watched the Lifeline debate closely, arguing that the inclusion of broadband in the program was key to supporting digital equity.

One in 5 Americans currently lack broadband access at home, and the vast majority of those who remain disconnected are poor.

At the same time, however, schools are going increasingly digital, with surveys indicating that 7 in 10 teachers now assign homework online.

James P. Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group, was among those who were thrilled with the commission's vote. "The FCC has helped to advance our understanding that access to high-speed Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity," Steyer said. "Three cheers for the FCC for taking America one step closer toward digital equality and closing the pernicious homework gap that leaves millions of low-income children at a disadvantage in education and in life."

Home broadband access is also viewed as increasingly essential for job searches, accessing public services, and participating in civic life.

As a result, more than 200 school district leaders and hundreds of advocacy groups, ranging from the Alliance for Excellent Education to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to the American Library Association, pushed hard for more than a year to expand the Lifeline subsidy to include broadband.

"Millions of families' lives will be improved," said Jessica Gonzales, the executive vice president and general counsel of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a civil rights advocacy organization. "We're giving families the tools to better their lives and lift themselves out of poverty. "Still, some experts urged caution when predicting the likely impact of Lifeline modernization.

"Even if people who didn't have it before do end up getting home broadband through this [initiative], it's a big leap of faith to assume that they'll then use the Internet in a way that will be beneficial to them," said Esczter Hargittai, a professor of communications studies at Northwestern University. "There is lots of research that has shown that people from less-privileged backgrounds, even when you control for having access, use the Internet less [frequently than more affluent individuals] for activities such as job searches and civic engagement."

Hargittai called for more robust federal data collection. "If we're spending this kind of money on subsidizing broadband access, we need to know what's happening in terms of usage," she said.

When it comes to implementation, support for the program's new mobile-broadband requirement will be phased in over five years.

The program will also now include minimum service standards—an issue that some telecommunications companies and industry groups had resisted.

Lifeline broadband providers will be required to offer fixed speeds currently set at 10 megabits-per-second for download and 1 mbps for upload. Those offering mobile broadband service will be required to offer at least 500 MB per month of 3G data by Dec. 1 (a standard that will gradually rise to 2 GB per month by the end of 2018.) Providers of mobile voice service will be required to offer at least 500 minutes per month by Dec. 1 (a standard that will rise to 1,000 minutes per month by the end of 2018.)

Opponents of the new plan argued that those standards could unintentionally lead to higher prices and low-income families losing access to subsidies for phone service. "The concern is that it will decrease participation on both the recipient and carrier sides," said Doug Brake, a telecommunications-policy analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "We think this is overly paternalistic, and that consumers should [have been] able to take a simple voucher and apply it to the communications service that best suits their situation."

Another contentious issue involved budget limits. The commission's Republican members pushed hard for a firm spending cap, even saying that a bipartisan deal was in place for a $1.75 billion limit on the morning of the vote.

But that agreement fell apart amid delays and recriminations. The modernization order ultimately adopted purports to set an annual budget of $2.25 billion, indexed to inflation, but does so without a strong mechanism for enforcing that spending limit. If disbursements through the program should reach 90 percent of that figure in any given year, the commission would be required to prepare an analysis with recommended actions for the FCC to consider.

GOP Commissioner O'Reilly denounced that "mechanism" as "a joke, not a budget."

Competition and Choice

Also a matter of dispute in the lead up to the vote was the creation of a national, independent, third-party entity to determine participants' eligibility for the program by cross-checking their status against verified government databases, a strategy the commission ultimately approved. Previously, providers themselves were responsible for determining participant eligibility—a reality that many said contributed to extensive waste and fraud in the program.

"The fox is no longer guarding the hen house," said Chairman Wheeler.

Related Blog

The Lifeline modernization vote comes little more than a year after the FCC's decision to overhaul the federal E-rate program, dramatically expanding support for broadband and Wi-Fi service inside school buildings.

In both instances, Wheeler maintained that the commission was guided by the principles of competition and choice.

"Reforms are designed to encourage more providers to participate in the program so that competition in the marketplace can increase the value of the subsidy and provide choices for consumers," he said of the Lifeline vote, in a statement.

"By dramatically improving Lifeline's management and design, and putting the program on sound fiscal footing moving forward, we will help low-income Americans all across our nation connect to the Internet and the opportunities of the broadband revolution."

Vol. 35, Issue 27, Pages 1,12

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