As Black History Month comes to a close, we must continue working to ensure the African American community and all Americans have access to the resources they need to succeed in a modern world. According to a recent New York Times article, expanding access to home broadband and public Wi-Fi, especially in low-income communities, should be a top priority for our country.
This issue has special importance since next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider changes to the roughly $2 billion-a-year federal Lifeline subsidy program. Among possible changes, the Commission will consider expanding the current phone-only subsidies to include home broadband.
According to The New York Times, in certain areas of Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband. Students go to libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots. In some neighborhoods, school buses with free Wi-Fi are sometimes parked overnight in residential neighborhoods to allow students without home broadband to do their homework.
Given the overwhelming need for Internet access, Lifeline's lack of support for home broadband is a serious shortcoming - so is Lifeline's ongoing problem with waste and fraud, as one of the FCC's own Commissioners has documented.
The Commission's duties next month are clear-cut: First, Lifeline should be expanded to cover home broadband, both wireline and wireless. This will help young students in underserved communities gain Internet access in the convenience of their own home.
Second, the Commission should reduce the potential for fraud by having state agencies, not phone companies, determine eligibility. This step is every bit as important as the first. The Commission will miss the mark entirely if it only expands a flawed, inefficient program. Reforming the process for determining eligibility is an equally important step because it will channel program funding to where it is most needed.
The benefits of having a home broadband connection in regard to education has grown sharply in recent years and will only become more integral. Students need it for basic research, joint projects, and submitting homework. And an increasing number of teachers - approximately 7 in 10 - assign homework that requires access to the Internet.
In order to create a society with equal opportunity to quality education and employment, the FCC cannot wait any longer. It must modernize the Lifeline program now.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn nailed it:
Lifeline has remained unchanged for 30 years. We need to retool, update and future proof this program, while preventing fraud.
January 21, 2016
Commissioner Clyburn tweeted this after last month's appearance at MMTC's Broadband and Social Justice Summit. That event focused on the crucial links connecting broadband adoption with empowerment and social equality.
MMTC and Commissioner Clyburn each deserve praise for their efforts not only to draw attention to broadband adoption but also for highlighting an obvious solution: reforming the FCC's outdated Lifeline program, which offers phone service discounts for low-income consumers.
As Commissioner Clyburn noted, Lifeline's goals are noble but the program itself has become ridiculously outdated. Its focus is entirely on phone calling instead of Internet service. Moreover, even granting changes in 2005 to include pre-paid wireless calling, the program still focuses on "solving" a problem that for most people hasn't existed in a decade or more.
Free phone calls and free texting long ago became staples of wireless service. On the wired side, bundles of broadband and entertainment services have for years included unlimited calling as a free add-on.
Yet Lifeline soldiers on with an outdated emphasis solely on phone calling. Fraud is a problem and by ignoring broadband adoption, the program effectively undercuts efforts to promote health care, education and social justice. (For more on the health care implications, see my Dec. 4 entry, "A lifeline for mHealth.")
The way to modernize Lifeline is obvious, particularly given the growth of discounted bundled services: allow the program's funds to be used for fixed or wireless broadband Internet service. A coordinated enrollment process managed by state agencies instead of providers would play the key role in determining eligibility for Lifeline. This approach will make Lifeline more efficient and reduce fraud.
Most important, it will give low-income consumers what's they truly need in today's society - an Internet link to opportunity, health care and a better life. Average broadband speeds in the U.S have tripled since early 2011 so today's access should be easily sufficient for most needs.
Technology and consumer preferences have both changed radically since the Lifeline program was created over three decades ago. It's time that Lifeline changed too.
"Net neutrality has become an illusion in that its rhetoric leads to the appearance of giving customers greater opportunity and controlling market power. The reality is that it is keeping the poorest and most economically vulnerable among us from getting the services the rest of us take for granted. Let's resolve to stop this."
The overlooked impact of last February's FCC vote to begin micromanaging the Internet with 1934 "Title II" rules is that it hits hardest on society's disadvantaged. First, they're less likely to have broadband service. Second, they have the greatest needs since broadband gives them access to services such as mHealth, and telehealth that they're less likely to have elsewhere.
The FCC's decision to saddle broadband technologies with Title II rules directly undercuts our ability to deploy high-speed broadband. Therefore it also directly undercuts any effort to expand health care access.
The latest evidence of these problems came last Tuesday, as an Arkansas Internet provider told Congress how the FCC's action had forced her company to delay plans to deploy across Central Arkansas. Elizabeth Bowles, head of Aristotle ISP, testified, "Before [the FCC's action], it was our intention to triple our customer base by deployment of a redundant fixed wireless network...." But the firm had to pull back because of what she called "the risks [and] expense" of complying with the FCC's rules.
So tens of thousands of residents in Central Arkansas lost a broadband option that could have linked them to quality health care access.
To put this in perspective, consider the health care challenges faced in that state. Arkansas ranks 48th in overall healthcare, according to a 2015 survey. Nearly 40% of rural residents are obese, and there is a growing health disparity among the less educated.
Nor is Arkansas alone in these problems. Rural healthcare access remains a crucial issue across much of the U.S., particularly in areas without public transportation. A 2013 study found that transportation barriers limit health care access, especially for those living in lower income communities. These individuals are more likely to miss appointments which leads to delayed care and an inability to properly manage chronic illnesses.
Telehealth and mHealth will not solve every healthcare problem. But they can solve many - and at an affordable cost.
The FCC should stop undercutting online health care access - and broadband deployment in general - in a misguided attempt to regulate the Internet.