In May, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a plan to expand the Lifeline program to include broadband Internet service. Last week, Microsoft voiced its support for the plan.
Established in 1985, Lifeline provides low-income Americans with affordable access to phone service. Decades later, the Internet has not only reshaped telecommunications, but it has also had transformative, wide-ranging effects on commerce, education, careers and everyday living. Wheeler wants Americans across the entire economic spectrum to have access to this increasingly vital resource.
"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," wrote Wheeler in a May 28 FCC Blog post. He proposed that Lifeline be expanded to cover Internet services, bringing affordable broadband to low-income earners.
In showing support for the plan, Microsoft last week officially submitted comments to the FCC.
"Affordable broadband connectivity is often essential to harnessing the power, productivity, and delight that technology enables, and the importance of it will only increase as more and more of our daily actions move to a cloud-based model," wrote Microsoft Senior Attorney Gunnar Halley in a Microsoft on the Issues blog post. "It's important that we as a society adopt measures to make sure everyone is empowered to contribute, and to be their best and most productive selves."
In its comments to the FCC, Microsoft said affordable wireline and wireless broadband is the next logical step in Lifeline's evolution. The program was changed once before "to include wireless telephony as consumer practices shifted," noted the company. "Lifeline's continued evolution to support affordability of broadband service would be consistent with the history of the program."
The Redmond, Wash., tech behemoth argues that expanded access to broadband will aid society by increasing educational opportunities and bringing health care into the 21st century.
"Affordable broadband service enables students to go online to learn the programming skills needed for success in a modern digital economy, and continue learning and creating even when they're not at school," stated Halley. "Using online mobile health management tools, patients can dramatically improve their health in cost-effective ways. People with disabilities can use broadband connections and online tools to overcome traditional barriers and maximize their productivity."
The potential financial benefits to the federal and state governments outweigh the cost of the extending broadband coverage, argues Microsoft. In its 13-page filing, Microsoft points to the encouraging early outcomes from a pilot program with TracFone and the Health Choice Network, a Miami-based health care IT and business services firm.
While the final results are still being compiled, "preliminary figures suggest that making mobile broadband available to low-income individuals allows them to utilize these health care tools which, in turn, improves their health, reduces missed doctors' appointments, and reduces the number of costly—but avoidable—emergency room visits," stated Microsoft. "Medicaid wins; health care providers win; and the patient wins."