The Federal Communications Commission, concerned about the high cost of broadband, wants to put cell phones that can access the Internet in the hands of America’s poor in hopes of reducing the digital divide.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing to beef up the $1.7 billion Lifeline program, funded by charges on phone bills, and originally created to subsidize the cost of landline phones. The program now reaches 12 million families and has been expanded to limited-use cellphones.
The proposal is far from being a done deal — still to come are comments on what a minimum service package should look like. For example, the amount of data usage and voice minutes to be permitted will need to be determined. Wheeler also asked for comments on how to increase competition among mobile phone providers to reduce prices.
Wheeler hopes to reduce fraud and abuse in the oft-criticized subsidy program, and shrink the digital divide. Whether that can be accomplished through a wireless connection is an open question. The program does nothing about wireline connections, which are faster, more robust and cheaper than wireless phones.
Regardless, a disproportionate number of low-income families do not have Internet connections of any sort, and low-cost wireless access may be their best option. No connection means no easy access to the wealth of online information that most Americans enjoy, such as health research, job openings, education and training, and banking and government services.
Only 48 percent of households earning $25,000 or less have broadband at home compared with 95 percent of households with incomes of $150,000 or more, putting the poor at an even deeper economic disadvantage, according to the FCC. Those percentages haven’t changed much in recent years.