Debate is intensifying over whether the FCC should expand a Reagan-era program that subsidizes landline phone service to include broadband internet. The expansion would represent a broad shift in policy and could have a major impact on closing what some experts have dubbed “the homework gap.”
Nearly 40 percent of households with K-12 students and incomes below $25,000 do not have access to broadband Internet, according to a 2013 Pew study.
These students are put at a significant disadvantage in the 70 percent of classrooms nationally where teachers assign homework that requires Internet connectivity. Completing assignments can mean long treks to local libraries and coffee shops, or frustrating hours spent wrestling with subpar dial-up connections.
In June, FCC commissioners voted 3 to 2 on a party line vote carried by Democrats to open comments on potential expansion of the Lifeline program
As part of the ongoing debate, the Internet Innovation Alliance hosted a panel of public officials and lobbyists on Wednesday to discuss the proposed expansion. The panel was moderated by Rick Boucher, a Democrat and former congressman from Virginia and honorary chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance.
A former chairman of the subcommittee on Communication Technology and the Internet, Boucher is vocal in his support of expanding Lifeline to broadband.
Boucher also advocates reforming the program to take eligibility determinations away from “self-interested” service providers and putting them in state or federal hands, as well as moving towards a coordinated enrollment process with easily transferrable benefits to increase accessibility.
The idea of linking enrollment to other government programs, such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that have similar eligibility criteria, seemed popular with the panel.
Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president of the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, noted that linking enrollment to a program like SNAP would ensure the program reaches most low-income households with school-age children and “could be a catalyst to close the digital divide.”
The most conservative member of the panel, Randolph J. May, founder and president of The Free State Foundation, also favors expanding the program, with some caveats.
May recognized that the Lifeline program has been largely successful at widening access to phone service under its existing mandate and that expanding the subsidies to broadband could potentially benefit the economy.
However, May cautioned that the parameters of accessibility would have to be carefully constructed to keep the inevitable increases in cost manageable. He went on to note his concern about combating fraud in the program and the importance of ensuring that only those who truly need benefits receive them—including ending benefits for those who manage to move up into higher income brackets.
The Lifeline program should remain “a social safety net” rather than “another entitlement program,” according to May, who also suggested that the federal standard for receiving food stamps, incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, might be too permissive.
However, for those eligible, May noted that the existing monthly assistance of $9.25 for phone service is “probably not enough” to cover household broadband costs, and he praised the FCC’s decision to raise the definition of “broadband Internet” to connections with download speeds of at least 25Mbps from 4Mbps.
Despite May’s tentative support for expansion, the proposal remains controversial on the right in an atmosphere charged by recent bitter partisan battles among FCC commissioners over net neutrality and “robocall” regulations.
In an item for Politico, Commissioner Mike O’Rielly and Representative Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, pilloried the Lifeline program for “insufficient controls” and “rampant abuse” while calling for a hard spending cap on the program.
The FCC’s reply and comment period on the proposal closed on September 30. The commissioners are likely to cast final votes on changes to the program at some point in 2016.
In addition to Boucher, Turner-Lee and May, Ronald Brisé a Florida Public Service Commissioner and Dottie Rosenbaum a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also participated in the panel.
Photo: (Left to Right) Randolph May, Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Dottie Rosenbaum, Ronald Bris, and moderator Rick Boucher (Photo by Leo Doran for Digital Education)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.