When the Federal Communications Commission last year issued the Lifeline Reform Order and created the Broadband Pilot Program, we suggested that it would eventually lead to a free government internet program similar to the existing free government cell phone program. Others scoffed at the time, but it now appears that we were 100% correct.
The Wireline Competition Bureau (we could solve a lot of our problems if the government were as good at effective programs as it is at creating bureaus and commissions and panels) has chosen 14 pilot projects and authorized a $13.8 million budget to support those projects in 21 states and Puerto Rico. The selected projects will study a variety of ways to implement broadband services for low-income families.
But this is the program that interests us most:
TracFone Smartphone Project (FL, MD, TX, WA, WI, MA): The project will study the effects of subsidy amounts and discounted hardware. TracFone, in partnership with Technology Goes Home, will test the effect of both discounted price and hardware cost on mobile broadband adoption and retention using four variations in its broadband service plans and one control group randomly assigned over a large, geographically diverse sample. By offering varying combinations of free or discounted hardware and $10 or $20 per month service, low-income customers’ sensitivity to upfront and ongoing prices can be measured. By comparing the two variations in offers with the control group, which is priced at market rate, TracFone will be able to estimate the take-rate for each price point with two GB on data limits.
Translation: This is a pilot program that will for the first time provide low income Americans with smart phones with which they can access the internet.
In other words, this program brings together the best of the free government cell phone and cheap government internet programs. If it is successful, customers will be able to access the internet with smart phones. And it’s likely that a successful program will be rolled out nationally and be made available to many more needy Americans.
That, of course, will allow low-income students to leap across the digital divide that separates them from higher income students. It will allow the unemployed and underemployed the search for and apply for better jobs offered online. It will allow low income Americans with medical conditions to research their own conditions and to access better health care. And it will improve public safety by allowing low-income parents stay in closer contact with their children and vice versa.
We wish TracFone the best of luck in this important pilot program. It’s exactly what low-income Americans want and need.