Broad­band for the poor

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment has been of­fer­ing sub­si­dies to help the poor af­ford phone ser­vice since the court-or­dered breakup of the Ma Bell sys­tem in the mid-1980s. Now the chair­man of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion wants to give low-in­come Amer­i­cans a new op­tion by let­ting them use the Life­line sub­sidy for high­speed In­ter­net con­nec­tions in­stead of a home phone line or a mo­bile phone ac­count. The change is worth mak­ing. But as the FCC ad­mits, it’s quixotic to think that merely pro­vid­ing a dis­count on broad­band will close the dig­i­tal divide.

Funded by fees on all types of phone ser­vice, Life­line’s orig­i­nal goal was to connect all Amer­i­can house­holds to vi­tal lo­cal ser­vices and to their com­mu­ni­ties at large. Rel­a­tively few peo­ple signed up for the Life­line dis­count, though, un­til the FCC opened the door in 2005 to pre­paid wire­less ser­vices. They at­tracted mil­lions of new Life­line cus­tomers by of­fer­ing cell­phones with a limited num­ber of min­utes of talk time for the price of the monthly sub­sidy.

Not­ing how im­por­tant broad­band has be­come to so many as­pects of mod­ern life, in­clud­ing em­ploy­ment, health and ed­u­ca­tion, FCC Chair­man Tom Wheeler pro­posed last week to let Life­line dis­counts be used for In­ter­net ac­cess in­stead of phone ser­vice, or for a com­bi­na­tion of the two. He also pro­posed sev­eral steps to de­ter the fraud that in­fected the pro­gram af­ter the pre- paid ser­vices be­came in­volved.

Some crit­ics of the pro­gram want to aban­don it in light of the fraud. Oth­ers worry that ex­tend­ing the dis­counts to broad­band would raise the pro­gram’s costs, which are passed on to ev­ery­one who pays for phone ser­vice. The FCC can an­swer those con­cerns by im­prov­ing ac­count­abil­ity and hold­ing the sub­sidy at its cur­rent level ($9.25 per month), as Wheeler has pro­posed.

A larger is­sue, though, is whether of­fer­ing dis­counted broad­band will be enough to bring many low-in­come fam­i­lies on­line. Less than half of the house­holds with in­comes less than $25,000 a year have broad­band at home, and although af­ford­abil­ity is a fac­tor, con­sumer ad­vo­cates and In­ter­net ser­vice providers say that the cost of com­put­ers (or smartphones) and the lack of dig­i­tal skills are at least as im­por­tant. There’s also the ques­tion of whether a broad­band con­nec­tion that can’t nec­es­sar­ily make 911 calls amounts to a Life­line ser­vice.

The FCC is aware of th­ese is­sues, hav­ing re­cently com­pleted a se­ries of pi­lot projects that of­fered dis­counted broad­band to low­in­come con­sumers. And with new an­tifraud mea­sures in place, it makes sense to al­low the cur­rent Life­line dis­count to be ap­plied to broad­band and see if it brings more low-in­come fam­i­lies on­line.

If not, it will be time for Congress to find a bet­ter way than Life­line to close the dig­i­tal divide.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.