The federal Lifeline program that was established in 1985 to ensure affordable basic telephone service for low-income Americans should now be updated to also include affordable broadband offerings to help reduce the digital divide between the haves and have-nots.
That's the idea being raised by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler as the agency begins looking at how low-income Americans can gain access to broadband services, which can offer educational, job and other benefits for users.
"Our nation's enduring promise is opportunity for all, and helping financially struggling Americans access basic communications empowers individuals to pursue new opportunities and build better lives," Wheeler wrote in a May 28 post on the FCC Blog. The Lifeline program has helped make that happen with telephone access over the last three decades, he wrote, and the program must now be expanded so that fast Internet services can be made available even to those who can't afford typical broadband bills.
Essentially, "as communications technologies and markets evolve, the Lifeline program also has to evolve to remain relevant," wrote Wheeler. "As I told Congress earlier this year, it is time to overhaul Lifeline to make sure it is still performing the critical function for which it was formed."
Under his proposal, Wheeler is suggesting that Lifeline be rebooted for the Internet age, he said.
To do that, the agency is proposing minimum standards of service for voice and broadband "so both beneficiaries and those who pay into the fund can know that they are getting the best value," he wrote.
Broadband services today are important to Americans because having such services can increase their prospects of finding and keeping a job and enable them to manage their own health care; plus, broadband services are integral to the education of the nation's students, wrote Wheeler.
"Broadband is key to Lifeline's future," he wrote. "A 2012 study estimated that broadband helps a typical U.S. consumer saves $8,800 a year by providing access to bargains on goods and services."
Yet despite the importance of a broadband connection, only 48 percent of Americans making less than $25,000 have such services at home, according to the FCC. In comparison, more than 95 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 have broadband services in the U.S., the agency says.
"A world of broadband 'haves' and 'have-nots' is a world where none of us will have the opportunity to enjoy the full fruits of what broadband has to offer," wrote Wheeler.
At the same time, to ensure that the Lifeline program is properly serving the low-income people it is meant to serve, the FCC is also proposing to overhaul how eligibility for Lifeline is determined, he wrote. "Currently, Lifeline providers are responsible for ensuring eligibility, a situation that invites waste and fraud while burdening those providers who do want to comply."
To help with its overhaul, the FCC is seeking public comments about how it can encourage more providers to participate in the program, as well as ideas for increasing competition and consumer choice on price and service offerings.
Earlier reforms were done in 2012 that began the process of making Lifeline more sustainable and fair, according to the FCC.