We all know that it’s long past time to update the federal Lifeline program, which provides telephone subsidies to low income people. We all are looking forward to have FCC support broadband service. But we also need to ask the feasibility of having a program like this. Is it enough to have the program for Subsidized Internet Service for the Low-income Group? Are they ready to utilize the free service to its full extent? Have we taken in consideration with regards to the challenges we might face while implementing such program? Lots of queries, with no answers in sight.
Let’s start with the basic details. Lifeline provides qualified users a discount of $9.25 on monthly charges for the primary home phone line, even if it’s a cell phone. Tribal lands residents may receive an additional $25 under the discount. Whereas, Link-Up offers a 100 percent reduction, up to $100, off installation charges to qualifying residents of Tribal lands. Link-Up will NOT cover the cost of a phone or wiring your home. We also have a Telephone Assistance Plan (TAP) provides a monthly discount of $3.50 on home phone service (excluding cell phones).
Lifeline subsidizes about $10 of phone service per month for qualifying consumers. Under the proposed plan, that amount wouldn’t essentially rise, but customers could opt to have it cover the data on their smartphone or their home broadband connection.
But subsidizing broadband access for the poor has the potential to explode into another partisan controversy. The fund for Lifeline is given by the government that collects fees on customer’s monthly phone bills, and traditionalists have criticized the program as an improvident government handout. Even supporters of the $1.7 billion program admit that it has been plagued by fraud and abuse. The FCC and the Justice Department have tried to crack down in recent years on companies scamming the program.
FCC believes it’s possible to cover broadband service without increasing the overall size of the program—which would avoid increasing the fees on consumers’ phone bills. However, this is not the only hurdle.
According to research conducted by Connected Nation, low-income families continue to face challenges with accessing computers and high-speed Internet. Almost 5 million low-income households say the price of broadband or a computer as the main reason why they don’t take up, and 2.6 million say deficiency in of technical knowledge is the main cause for the same.
Approximately 2.3 million low-income adults in the US do not subscribe to broadband because they do not know how to use or access the Internet, while another 2.3 million do not know how to use a computer. Also, this number is increasing every day. Isn’t it a staggeringly huge hurdle that FCC will have to face?
It’s only the tip of the iceberg. We have a long list of top barriers such as awareness on broadband, technical training, compute and affordability to technology adoption that need to be addressed to help vulnerable populations overcome the barriers.
We all know that it’s long past time to update the federal Lifeline program, however it’s also long past time for FCC to commit to enhancing digital learning, workforce development, and improvement of individual life skills – that will help FCC achieve the vision of universal technology adoption and meaningful use.