Why It’s Too Soon to Declare Victory on Broadband Access

The Federal Communications Commission’s lauded expansion of its “Lifeline” program for low-income broadband access could end up being less than promised.

On March 31, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made an historic decision to subsidize high-speed Internet service for low-income Americans – and dozens of influential news and advocacy organizations reported that a victory had been sealed.

For broadband advocates, the expansion of the federal Lifeline program certainly is good news. Established in 1985 to give low income people affordable telephone service, Lifeline was updated in 2010 to enable poor Americans to pay less for wireless phone service. Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reasoned that a subsidy for broadband was needed, because most homework and job applications are now done online. And on the last day of March, three out of the five FCC Commissioners voted in favor of using the Lifeline program “to help low income consumers afford access to the 21st Century’s vital communications network: the Internet.”

But the declaration of victory may be premature.

For one thing, no one yet knows the exact details of the FCC’s decision. The specifics will not be released until mid-April – and those details could have a serious limitation on the ability of the Lifeline broadband program to close the digital divide, in which 43 percent of nation’s poorest households can’t afford broadband service. We do not yet know, for example, what the price will be to consumers. The only number the FCC approved is a $9.25 per customer/per month subsidy to telecom and cable companies (not to poor consumers), which will continue to be funded by a surcharge on our phone and cable bills.

In fact, the price to low income Americans could be anything – instead of $60 per month for broadband, customers might pay $50 a month, about $35 more than what is deemed “affordable” by the California Emerging Technology Fund, among other advocates for affordable broadband for the poor. The only certainty is that no low income Americans will be offered a $9.25 monthly deal for high-speed Internet service.

This has not stopped reporters from all manner of respected news organizations from misreporting the details of the decision – and from failing to mention that the FCC order on Lifeline broadband has not yet been released. NPR’s Marketplace, for example, reported that “the Federal Communications Commission is banking on [the new] subsidy being enough to get a lot more people online.” The report also quoted Tony Schloss, who works with a non-profit that provides Wi-Fi in Brooklyn housing projects: “Saving $10 goes a long way in communities like Red Hook,” said Schloss.

There is no explanation in the Marketplace piece or a March 31, 2016 New York Times article about how the subsidy to Internet service providers really works. Nor is there mention of the fact that low income consumers will have to choose one service – landline, or wireless or Internet service – for that subsidy. Yet this choice is crucial. What form of communication would you choose if you could afford only one? I might choose wireless phone service, which would mean I could not easily apply for jobs, college or loans online.

The New York Times article closes with a victory quote from Hannah Sassaman, a director at the Media Mobilizing Project: “Inexpensive options for access have dwindled, not grown,” she says. “A broadband subsidy for Lifeline will transform access to this basic human right in American cities, where such access is necessary to apply for even the lowest-wage jobs.”

I hope Sassaman is right. But I worry that when the actual order is released by the FCC this month, there will be no designated price to telecom and cable companies for low income customers, which could mean home broadband remains unaffordable. I also worry that in 26 states there will not be the authority to complement the federal Lifeline program with a state Lifeline program for fixed and mobile phone service. And I worry Lifeline broadband will take years to implement, during which time millions of low income people will slide further down the income and opportunity ladder.

Part of the problem for overworked staff reporters today is that they are not given the time and resources to understand the complexity of government decisions. And, in this case, the government is not helping. Nowhere in the FCC’s March 31 press release is there mention of when the details of the Lifeline broadband decision will be made public. Instead, the press release provides the six decisions of the “Order,” and fails to mention that the full order is coming.

This is misleading information based on a federal decision that has not been published yet – and in this age of mass, instant, and transparent communications it demands a correction. Or it demands more accurate coverage.

The millions of low-income American households waiting for affordable broadband access deserve no less.

Susan Walters

Susan Walters is senior vice president of the California Emerging Technologies Fund and a former director at Pacific Bell.