Last month the FCC passed reforms to a program that officials said should encourage providers to expand broadband to low-income areas. In a party-line vote, the agency voted 3-2 to expand the Lifeline program, which previously had subsidized the cost of cell phones for low-income individuals, to include fixed Internet service. Eligible participants can receive a $9.25 a month discount off their fixed broadband bill, paid for by the FCC. Officials hope the $2.25 billion program, funded by the existing universal service tax on customers’ Internet bills, will create a market in poor areas that Internet providers will want to reach.
FCC officials note that the agency’s $4 billion-a-year “high-cost” universal service program also includes subsidies to encourage wiring areas underserved by providers. The $1.7 billion Connect America Fund requires providers who accept money to offer a speed of at least 10 Mbps download as well as follow other requirements. But not all providers have accepted the cash. Verizon was offered $29 million in federal funds to expand service in Virginia, including about $265,000 in Goochland, but it didn’t take the money, according to the FCC. Other providers did, such as CenturyLink. Verizon didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But some are skeptical of how much these programs will help. It is unlikely Lifeline will provide a big enough incentive to providers to upgrade networks or to expand wired service to poor areas.
Lifeline’s individual subsidy “is unlikely to make a dent in the under-supply of broadband in sparsely populated rural areas,” said Richard Bennett, who studies technology policy at the American Enterprise Institute, in an email. “Solutions to the extreme rural coverage dilemma are more likely to come from advances in technology and investment by public-private partnerships to bring new technologies … to market.”
Bennett said wireless broadband companies such as Bluebird Broadband, which offers service with no data caps, are likely one option for low-income households going forward. Bluebird Broadband, which services Northwest Louisiana and neighboring parts of Texas, offers a 20 Mbps package for about $89 a month, including a $9 router rental fee. That’s still more costly than most wired connections with faster speeds.
In Virginia, Last Mile Broadband LLC has begun to deploy an advanced wireless LTE technology to serve portions of Hanover County, just north of Goochland, that it says is faster and more reliable than current wireless technology. The company plans to cover Goochland County by the end of 2017. The company will offer speeds of 10 Mbps at about $80 a month, after a $199 fee to install equipment on a customer’s home, without any data caps.
“We’re going where no other company serves,” said Keith McMichael, Last Mile’s chief operating officer, who grew up in the area. “We’re trying to solve everyone’s problem. Low income or high income, everyone gets it the same way.”
But the cost may still be out of reach for low-income families, and the service doesn’t include TV or phone, requiring families to pay for a TV or satellite package with another company. Most providers that offer a wired broadband connection of 25 Mbps or more charge less per month and include phone and TV. Besides, the wireless companies are still in startup mode and have yet to spend the money to expand coverage.
Back in Goochland, Brown, the toy maker, says he can’t wait much longer.
“Our kids need this,” Brown said. “If wealthy people have better access, they're going to have more opportunities, which will increase their potential for wealth. While if you are in poverty and you have reduced access, you're going to basically fall further behind.”
Correction, May 12, 2016, 4:22 p.m.: An earlier version of this article identified Ashley Brown as working for the Goochland County department of education. She works for the Virginia Department of Education.