FCC Extends 'Lifeline' Program to Include Broadband Services

NEWS ANALYSIS: The FCC's Universal Service Fund can now be used to bring broadband Internet service to poor and rural communities as a way to narrow the persistent "digital divide" that makes it difficult for poor people to acquire computers and Internet access.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has announced a plan that would expand the Universal Service Fund'sLifeline program to include broadband communications. Currently, Lifeline provides funding for landline telephone service for people who can't afford it or who otherwise couldn't get phone service because the cost of extending phone service would be too expensive. Many poor and rural telephone customers depend on Lifeline for basic calling services.

The new plan would extend the Lifeline program to bring broadband Internet access to those same people. The new program would effectively bring Internet access to millions of consumers who can't get it now because it costs too much or because ISPs are reluctant to serve their communities.

The new extension to Lifeline would include significant changes to help control costs to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. It would establish national criteria for measuring performance, budgeting, and establishing eligibility criteria and accountability.

Genachowski made the announcement at the offices of Third Way, a self-described moderate think tank. "Tomorrow, I will circulate to my fellow Commissioners an order toreform and modernize the Universal Service Fund's Lifeline program," Genachowski said. "This is an opportunity to take another major step forward in our efforts to modernize our programs for the digital age, and to make them efficient and fiscally responsible."

Genachowski said this move implements congressional directives that all consumers, including low-income consumers, should have accessto telecommunications and information services. He said the FCC started reforming the Lifeline program with the release of the National Broadband Plan in 2010. "Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity in the 21st century," Genachowski said.

Genachowski pointed out that between the time that the Lifeline program was initiated 20 years ago and now, broadband Internet access has become critical. "It's essential for finding a job, for example, as job postings have moved online, and for landing a job, as companies increasingly require basic digital skills. But one-third of Americans haven't adopted broadband at home and the majority of low-income Americans are non-adopters."

The new plan includes a pilot program that would be used to determine the best methods for increasing broadband adoption for low-income Americans. It would also determine how to improve digital literacy so that people could use their broadband connections when they become available.

The expansion of the Lifeline program is critical to reducing what's long been called the "Digital Divide." Where once the primary cause of the divide was the inability of poor people to buy computers, it's now the inability of rural and poor communities to acquire Internet access even if they can acquire computers.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...