Congresswoman Proposes Broadband Internet Subsidies For Low-Income Families

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For years, it was essential that every family had a phone line. The U.S. government started the Lifeline program to help impoverished families afford this essential communication tool. Now the Internet has overwhelmingly replaced traditional phone lines, but the Lifeline program hasn't adapted to this reality. One Congresswoman is hoping to change that.

Ars Technica reports that Rep. Doris Matsui has introduced the Broadband Adoption Act of 2013. The bill would modify the Lifeline program to provide cheaper broadband Internet services to low-income families across the country.

“In today’s digital economy, if you don’t have access to the Internet you are simply at a competitive disadvantage. For example, more than 80 percent of available jobs now require online applications,” said Congresswoman Matsui. “The Internet is increasingly the economic engine for growth and innovation. The Lifeline program provides a tangible service to lower-income Americans and it is imperative that the Lifeline program be reformed and modernized to account for broadband services. We must ensure lower-income Americans have a greater opportunity to participate in the digital economy, whether it be for workforce training, education, finding a job or creating the next big idea.”

Matsui says that a recent FCC report found that nearly 100 million Americans are without broadband Internet services. She places the blame squarely on the high cost of broadband Internet in America. Many low income families simply can't afford the high cost of broadband Internet. The bill would help to make faster Internet affordable to all.

Of course, the Broadband Adoption Act of 2013 isn't just about providing faster Internet to low-income families. Matsui has envisioned a number of reforms to the Lifeline program for the FCC to enact if the bill were to become law:

  • The bill directs the FCC to establish a broadband Lifeline Assistance program that provides low-income Americans living in rural and urban areas with assistance in subscribing to affordable broadband service.
  • The proposal would require the FCC, in calculating the amount of support, to routinely study the prevailing market price for service and the prevailing speed adopted by consumers of broadband service.
  • The bill is technology neutral to promote competition from broadband service providers under the program.
  • The bill allows eligible consumers to choose how they would like their Lifeline support- whether for broadband, mobile, basic telephone services or a bundle of these services. The bill clarifies that eligible households will qualify for only one lifeline support amount for one of those functions, not for multiple purposes.
  • The bill requires the FCC to establish a national database to determine consumer eligibility for Lifeline and to prevent duplication.
  • The bill encourages the FCC to consider providing a preference to participating broadband service providers that include components involving digital literacy programs as part of their offerings.
  • Eligible households must meet federal low-income guidelines or qualify for one of a handful of social service programs including, but not limited to: SNAP, Head Start, WIC, National School Lunch Program, Tribal TANF or Medicaid.
  • It's hard to see how anybody in the telecom industry would be opposed to this bill. It would net ISPs more subscribers to their expensive broadband plans while receiving plenty of free government money. There's an argument to be had that we can't be spending more money on social welfare programs, but the counterargument is that universal Internet access is worth it.

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