There's no mere digital divide in the United States; it's a chasm. It ensures that the have-nots will always have less, and those with broadband access will have more. It's time to finally end that, and guarantee that everyone in the country, no matter how poor, gets broadband and its many benefits.
That's what the FCC is trying to do, with a proposal to overhaul the 30-year-old Lifeline program, originally established by the Reagan administration to help pay for landline phone service for people who couldn't afford it. The reasoning back then was that people couldn't find work, participate in the economy or get out of poverty unless they had a telephone.
That same reasoning is behind the new FCC proposal -- just substitute "broadband service" for "telephone." FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, on the official FCC Blog, notes that more than 80 percent of job openings in Fortune 500 companies are posted online, that an increasing number of jobs require digital skills and that people need broadband access to keep their jobs. Children can't even do their homework without broadband, he adds.
People with broadband also pay less for goods and services than do people without broadband. Wheeler cites a 2012 study that found that a typical consumer saves $8,800 a year by getting online bargains that those without broadband can't get. He also cites studies that found that only 48 percent of households that make under $25,000 have home broadband access, while 95 percent of households that make over $150,000 have it.
Wheeler wants to, in his words, "reboot' Lifeline for the Internet age." Currently, Lifeline gives the poorest households $9.25 a month toward subsidizing their cellphone or landline service. Twelve million households get the subsidy, and the total cost of the program is $1.7 billion a year, The New York Times reports.
Under Wheeler's proposal, people could apply that subsidy to broadband, phone service or a combination of the two. The proposal would also establish service standards for broadband, which might include minimum broadband speeds. And it would include antifraud measures.
The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler's proposal in mid-June. If it passes, the agency staff would write rules for putting it into effect. By the end of the year, when the rules are finalized, it would go before the FCC again for a final vote.
With a majority of the FCC's board members appointed by Democratic presidents, the proposal will likely pass. When it does, expect conservatives to howl, calling it government overreach and an expensive handout. But those charges, if they come, will be disingenuous at best, and hypocritical at worst. After all, the Lifeline program was launched by the conservative's much-loved icon, Ronald Reagan. He was far from a big-spending liberal.
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