It’s widely accepted that the combination of broadband and digital technology can be a great equalizer that connects society’s have-nots with vast opportunities for greater knowledge, better jobs, and higher incomes. But this hopeful future assumes that every person has the broadband connectivity to join the digital economy. Otherwise, digital technology could end up widening gaps instead of closing them. Those starkly contrasting futures are why the Federal Communications Commission’s new bid to help lower income Americans pay for broadband is so important.
On June 22, the Commission issued an official notice of proposed rulemaking for updating the Lifeline program established in 1985 by the Reagan Administration to help every American afford a phone. Today broadband is our core communications medium and the FCC wants to extend Lifeline to cover it.
Perhaps most importantly for the long term, Lifeline for broadband would help ensure that every American school child can enjoy the broadening experience of digital life. For our youngest citizens, digital immersion should be a foundational experience —a 21st century supplement to the three R’s on the path to opportunity.
Recent data indicate that millions of low income schoolchildren lack reliable high-speed connectivity or enjoy it only sporadically. The Pew Foundation says that more than 30 percent of households with school-children and incomes below $50,000 lack high-speed connectivity at home. Of special importance to me, a disproportionate share of these households are African American or Hispanic.
High-speed connectivity can enrich the learning environment by providing virtual access to digital libraries, online tutorials, artwork, cultural experiences, and a host of video and audio interactions. It enables virtual field trips so students can see and experience where an event happened and feel it alive right in the classroom.
But students who can’t get online or can do so only sporadically face a real-life cap on learning. More than half of teachers of low-income children say their students’ lack of technology resources is a major challenge that limits lesson plans. These teachers face a conundrum – assign work that uses online resources even if that means some students are disadvantaged, or limit the assignments in a way that short-changes every student equally. Either choice exacerbates the disadvantages that resource-deprived and lower-income children already face when they have to compete against more fortunate and better-prepared peers. Indeed, a majority of teachers surveyed by the Pew Foundation fear that technology is widening existing divides among students.
Walling off students from full participation in the digital economy sets them behind in educational opportunity and economic competition. Some will overcome these challenges because exceptional people with determination often succeed against great odds. But most will start behind and stay behind – not because they lack skills, or intelligence, or ambition, but because they weren’t given the right tools.
Some critics say the FCC wants to move too fast; that before extending Lifeline to cover broadband administrative fixes are required. Indeed, the current program is broken and some smart adjustments would ensure that it operates more effectively for both consumers and interested providers so that the dollars go further and deliver the largest benefit. Allowing the current benefit to cover voice or broadband and making the program run better can and must be done together – sooner rather than later. For those without broadband, every day of delay causes them to slip further behind.
So, what should the FCC do?
First, Lifeline should be revised so consumers can decide for themselves which communications services meet their needs, and receive the financial assistance directly from the government to maximize this right to choose. Second, the program must be reformed to wring out waste, fraud, and abuse.
That means closing one of the biggest sources of Lifeline fraud by giving the government, not providers, the responsibility for identifying the consumers who are eligible for subsidies. The FCC also should make the program operate more efficiently by adopting a coordinated enrollment and automatic de-enrollment process.
Consumers should be able to sign up for Lifeline at the same time they apply for other government benefits – as with other government programs such as SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. Program controls can be vastly improved by having Lifeline de-enrollment linked to whether these consumers have been de-enrolled from the government program that affirmed their eligibility.
Closing the digital divide and giving the country the workforce needed for the 21st century will require ready access to broadband and a concerted effort to ensure students receive an education tailored to the digital era. If we can do that, Americans of every race, ethnicity, and income group will have a fairer chance to seize the digital future and the opportunities that go with it.
Ralph B. Everett is an experienced telecommunications lawyer, policy expert, and leader in civic and government engagement. Previously he had served as a board member for President Bill Clinton’s White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, was appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to the International Telecommunication’s Union’s Plenipotentiary Conference. Everett most recently served as the President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation’s leading think tank for policy analysis and research on issues of concern to African Americans and other people of color.