The head of the Federal Communications Commission says he wants to make it a little easier for all Americans to get online. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, shared a proposal last week urging the commission to update its Lifeline program, which currently provides a subsidy to qualified low-income households to help them pay their landline or mobile phone bills. The suggested updates would allow those households to use the same subsidy to help cover the cost of broadband—meaning more families could afford Internet at home.
The catch? The subsidy is just $9.25 per month.
The proposal shows that federal regulators are finally beginning to acknowledge what many of us already know—the Internet is a crucial gateway to economic opportunity. But broadband tends to be costly, even with discounted plans. Will such a seeming pittance be enough to make broadband affordable for families strapped for cash? Advocates for bridging the so-called digital divide, it turns out, say it might be. Not only that, they say that expanding the Lifeline program to broadband could open up a whole new competitive marketplace for low-cost Internet access.
A Life Line
The Lifeline program was originally established in 1985 during the Reagan era with the explicit goal of ensuring that low-income consumers would not lose phone service if rates changed. At the time, Congress determined that landlines had “become crucial to full participation in our society and economy, which are increasingly dependent upon the rapid exchange of information.”
But today that rapid exchange of information predominantly happens on the Internet—and many Americans are missing out. In a 2013 study, Pew Research found that while most Americans have Internet in their homes, only half of all adults who make less than $30,000 per year do. And 15 percent of Americans don’t have access to the Internet at all, most notably senior citizens, adults without a high school education, and low-income families.
For those children, adults, and seniors, access to the Internet is about far more than getting Facebook or Netflix—it can mean not having access to educational resources, employment opportunities, and social programs that have started to move online. Nonprofit organizations looking to help close the digital divide have found that a family’s lack of Internet access at home often doesn’t mean they don’t want it, or don’t see the potential benefits. It comes down to cost. “We struggle with families who do realize that they should have Internet, but their money is so tight that adding on another cost like broadband is so ridiculous,” says Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.