Amid delays and partisan recriminations, the Federal Communications Commission approved today through a 3-2 vote a proposal to expand the federal Lifeline program to include subsidies for broadband service for low-income households.
Eligible families will now have the option to use the program’s $9.25/month subsidy to cover standalone broadband service or bundled voice and data service packages. The 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 Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the driving force behind Lifeline modernization for well over a year.
Education and civil rights groups hailed the decision, saying it will make it easier for low-income families to access home broadband and thus complete schoolwork, search for jobs and public services, and take part in the civic life of their communities.
“Millions of families lives will be improved,” said Jessica Gonzales, the executive director 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.”
Many educators and education-technology proponents have been watching the Lifeline debate closely, arguing that the inclusion of broadband in the program is critical to reducing the “homework gap” experienced by children whose struggle to complete online homework because they have poor or nonexistent Internet access at home.
“The FCC has helped to advance our understanding that access to high-speed Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” said James P. Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group.
“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,” Steyer said.
While there was widespread support for adding broadband to Lifeline, not everyone was thrilled with the vote—or the process that led to it.
The FCC’s two Republican commissioners, Michael O’Reilly and Ajit Pai, both blasted Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler for what Pai described as an effort to “undermine and unwind” a bipartisan agreement that would have placed a firm budget cap on the Lifeline program.
“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.
At issue was a proposed $1.75 billion spending limit for the program, which has never before had a spending cap. The start of the meeting was delayed several times, apparently as the commissioners attempted to salvage a deal.
As adopted, the modernization order purports to set an annual budget of $2.25 billion. But the program will contain no real lever 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 a report and have the option of taking action.
Commissioner O’Reilly denounced that “mechanism” as “a joke, not a budget.”
Also contentious in the lead-up to the vote was the issue of minimum service requirements for Lifeline providers, which some telecommunications companies and others argued 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.”
The new proposal will require that providers offer at least 500mb of data or 500 minutes of voice service.
And the commission approved 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. 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 Wheeler.
The 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.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.