Progressive watchdogs are hailing the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) decision Thursday to modernize the Lifeline program as a step towards closing the digital divide.
The Lifeline program was created in 1985 during the Reagan administration to help low-income Americans afford phone services, and it was expanded in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration to include wireless services.
The change, the FCC said in statement (pdf), will expand "access to the 21st Century's vital communications network: the Internet."
The statement adds that "consumers need Internet access for full and meaningful participation in society. Yet 43 percent of the nation's poorest households say they can't afford modern broadband service."
The modernization means the program will now help cover broadband Internet service for those who qualify for the program.
And it marks "a giant leap forward," according to Michael Copps, special advisor on Media and Democracy Reform for the advocacy group Common Cause.
"It helps extend awesome power of the Internet to those who need it most. School children, jobseekers, the elderly, and infirm in particular will all benefit. This advance is particularly welcome in this election year, when so much political debate is occurring and so much information is being exchanged online," Copps, who is also a former FCC Commissioner, added.
Also applauding the modernization was Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who said the change meant "the FCC is taking a crucial step in narrowing our country's digital divide and ensuring that all Americans have access to the essential communications services they need to live, learn, and work in today's digital age." He also noted also "the critical and urgent task of building the bridge to connectivity for children, seniors, job seekers, low-income communities, and communities of color."
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Consider education -- seven in ten teachers assign homework requiring access to the Internet, and students with a computer and broadband access at home have six to eight percentage point higher graduation rates.
For people seeking jobs, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies -- such as Wal-Mart, Target, and ExxonMobil -- require online applications. And more than half of all jobs require digital literacy skills, with that number expected to rise to more than three quarters of jobs within a few years.
For healthcare, 70 percent of Internet users look for health information online, and broadband access can help those who live far away from their doctor, improving healthcare access and outcomes.
Internet access can also help low-income households to save money -- one study shows that households with broadband Internet access save $8,400 per year on things like housing, food, transportation, and clothing.
Modernizing the Lifeline program to make broadband more affordable is key, as low-income households are less likely to be connected to the Internet. Only 48 percent of households earning less than $25,000 per year subscribe to broadband Internet access service, while 95 percent of those with incomes over $150,000 are online.
Still, according to Matt Wood, policy director of the digital rights group Free Press, "Much work remains," as problems with fundamental affordability of broadband and lack of provider choice still affect all consumers.
"The FCC needs to devote additional resources to promoting affordable broadband options across the board. Consolidation and the lack of effective competition have left people of all income levels in the United States paying way too much for Internet access. It's a shortcoming that has direct and negative impacts on everyone seeking these essential services. Lifeline is but one tool the FCC can use to address costs," Wood added.
"If the agency's primary goal is to get as many people as possible using broadband, it must do more to make all broadband services affordable," he said.