The FCC has done a whole lot of talking about Lifeline Broadband, but has taken precious little action to make it actually happen.
Lifeline Assistance, commonly known as the free government cell phone program, has been helping low income Americans for a generation. Those same Americans desperately need a similar program that offers free or cheap internet, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is taking far too long to approve the program.
FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler recently proposed such a program designed to help low-income consumers. According to Wheeler’s proposal, those consumers would be helped with the cost of high-speed broadband internet access through Lifeline Assistance, the same program that helps them with their cell phone and landline bills.
Before we go into the specifics of Wheeler’s plan, it would make sense to explain how the Lifeline Assistance program works:
Low-income Americans are currently provided with subsidies of $9.25 per month on either cell phones or landline telephone service. In the case of landlines, those who qualify are offered a $9.25 discount off the price of regular telephone service. In the case of cell phones, an entire industry sprung up after one company realized it could offer the phones and service for free and still turn a profit on that $9.25 per month per account government subsidy.
Here’s how Chairman Wheeler’s plan would work based on the sketchy details provided:
The plan would expand the Lifeline Assistance program and give low-income households the choice of applying the $9.25 subsidy to either wireless or wired broadband access.
Unfortunately, the wheels of progress turn very slowly in Washington, DC and high-speed broadband internet is still a long way from reality.
After a 3-2 vote approving Wheeler’s plan, the FCC will now go into red tape mode and begin seeking comments from the public and other interested parties (such as cable and telephone internet service providers and consumer protection groups) as to whether internet service providers should be required to provide some as yet undetermined minimum level of service as part of the program, what those service levels should be, and what they should be allowed to charge.
Truth be told, the only thing Wheeler’s proposal does is say “We’d like to expand the program and we’d like to offer the same $9.95 per month subsidy.” In other words, the FCC has been studying this program for years and Wheeler put something in writing to make it look like progress is being made when it really isn’t.
If we sound a little testy about this subject, well, we are. The Lifeline Assistance program has been studied and test marketed and sliced and diced and we are quite frankly disgusted that this is the best the FCC can come up with after all this time. Pardon us, but thousands of needy Americans cry out to us every month seeking affordable ways to get internet access for their families. More than 12 million households, each of them already eligible for free government cell phones because they participate in state and federal aid programs like Medicaid or food stamps, desperately need access to cheap internet, too.
“Over a span of three decades,” Wheeler said in a blog post, “the program has helped tens of millions of Americans afford basic phone service. But as communications technologies and markets evolve, the Lifeline program also has to evolve to remain relevant.”
Sorry, Mr. Wheeler, but actions will speak much louder than nice, warm words posted on an official government blog.
How critical is the situation? How severe is the Digital Divide that separates internet usage among America’s richest citizens from its poorest? Consider these startling statistics.
Among households making less than $25,000 a year, less than half have internet access at home. On the other hand, 95% of households with incomes of more than $150,000 have internet access. There is also a steep Digital Divide between the races. White and Asian-American households are far more likely to have home internet access than African-American and Hispanic households.
We would like to make two suggestions:
- Fast track the public comments. We know what the Democrats are going to say. We know what the Republicans are going to say. We know what the public comments are going to be. Schedule the public comment sessions. Get them over with and move on.
- Think about increasing the $9.25 per month subsidy. Even middle class Americans find internet access to be outrageously expensive. Reducing those expensive cable bills by $9.25 per month for low-income Americans will still leave the monthly fees out of the reach of most needy Americans.
- Come up with a plan to incentivize cable and telephone companies to offer free government broadband similar to the way they’ve been able to offer free government cell phones.
If you don’t heed those three suggestions, Lifeline Broadband will eventually be added to the already long list of failed government boondoggles.