You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have swift, reliable access to the internet. You couldn’t be reading it if I didn’t.
We all, I suppose, take our high-speed connections for granted — except when our service is interrupted. Yet costs are apparently a barrier for well over half of our country’s poorest households. And that barrier is a barrier to many opportunities we also take for granted.
Two Democratic Senators and a Congresswoman, also a Democrat, have proposed a bill that could enable low-income people to afford broadband connections. The Federal Communications Commission has just voted to explore a somewhat similar plan the Chairman floated, thanks to the Democratic majority there.
Both would expand the Lifeline Assistance program, which currently provides low-income households with discounts for landline or cell phone service. It’s what you may have heard of as free Obama phones, an allegedly fraudulent, wasteful use of our taxpayer dollars — another liberal “dole-out to dead beats” on welfare.
But the phone service isn’t free. And though welfare recipients are poor enough to qualify for discounts, eligibility extends to households at or below 135% of the federal poverty line and to some whose incomes are higher, e.g., certain recipients of federal housing vouchers.
The dollars that pay for the discounts don’t come out of our federal taxes. They’re often collected as one of those mysterious charges tacked onto our monthly phone rate. And the Lifeline program dates back to the notoriously liberal Reagan administration.
Both the Democrats’ bill and the FCC Chairman’s plan seek to bridge the so-called digital divide — a marked disparity in ready access to a broadband connection that’s increasingly income based. In 2013, only 42% of the poorest households had high-speed internet service in their homes, as compared to 90% of those with incomes of at least $100,000.*
Don’t suppose I need to say that children are now expected to do homework involving internet use or that it’s all but impossible to find and apply for jobs, except via the internet. Far less possible these days to develop job-related skills and networks — or to keep up with relevant news.
So it would seem that a Lifeline expansion would make it somewhat easier to move up from the bottom of the income scale. It could also lead to better opportunities in other ways, e.g., by creating a broader base of informed, engaged voters.
Neither the FCC Chairman’s plan nor the Congressional Democrats’ seems like quite the right answer, however. Both would require Lifeline beneficiaries to choose between a high-speed connection and phone service.
And the Chairman apparently envisions the same subsidy — just $9.25 a month. That’s obviously less than what companies generally charge for phone service.
It’s a much smaller fraction of a DSL connection, which cost, on average, $59.40 a month two years ago, according to an FCC estimate. Hard to imagine that many poor and near-poor households would pick up the whole cost of phone service, plus anything close to $50 a month.
Harder to imagine many would opt for the ‘net instead of a phone, if for no other reason than safety.
My mother-in-law, for example, is now in her mid-90s and coping with frailities common to someone of her age, e.g., a tendency to lose her balance and fall. She has one of those low-cost phone services, with an automatic dial for emergencies.
It’s been a genuine lifeline for her — and one I’m sure she’ll never swap for the chance to see photos of her grandchildren online or keep up with local news now that her hometown paper is delivered only three days a week.
The Democrats’ bill would direct the FCC to monitor prevailing broadband access prices, as well as some other relevant information, e.g., the prevailing speed households use. The agency would use these findings to set the subsidy rate.
Where the extra money would come from isn’t clear — at least, to me. If from a hike in the Universal Service Fund fee (our contribution to the subsidies), we should expect pushback. If not that, what?
The FCC will probably adopt some fleshed-out version of the Chairman’s plan. But the initiative itself will almost surely into flack on Capitol Hill, as The New York Times has predicted.
Not much enthusiasm for broadband expansion there. Only nine more Senators and House members have signed on to the proposed Broadband Expansion Act. Not a single Republican.
So it’s far from certain that we’ll soon help low-income people gain home-based access to the diverse opportunities the internet offers. And as I’ve suggested, the proposals seem problematic.
On the other hand, some influential policymakers have recognized a problem and come up with an approach to solving it. If it needs tweaks and/or clarifications, well, that’s what rulemaking and legislative processes are for.
So as with many issues affecting low-income people (and others), this one boils down to political will. Which in this case (and others), boils down to how we choose to view those low-income people and our government’s role in helping them surmount barriers that marginalize them.
* The FCC Chairman cites somewhat higher percents, based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The differences reflect differences in the income bands the ACS analysis and my source, Pew Research, use.