A Step Toward Closing The Digital Divide

11 11 2010

Ars Technica contributer Matthew Lasar recently posted a piece, “Would you like some broadband with those food stamps?” The eye-catching title led me to coverage of one of the latest government attempts to close the digital divide (that being the divide between those Americans who have access to broadband Internet, and those that do not).

Described in an FCC news release (click for PDF), the planned reforms aim to help lower-income families obtain access to phone service, and eventually broadband Internet access. The Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, the group that designed these proposals, ambitiously urges the FCC to encourage automatic enrollment in Lifeline and LinkUp when families apply for food stamps and other federal assistance programs.

Lifeline and LinkUp are components of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (which also provides public libraries and rural hospitals with federal telecom subsidies); Lifeline allows consumers up to $10 in monthly subsidies toward phone bills, and

South Dakota's Public Utilities Commission promotes the Lifeline and LinkUp services.

LinkUp provides up to $30 toward broadband.

The news release also mentions that the FCC had additionally asked the Joint Board for “suggestions regarding the most effective approaches to addressing potential waste, fraud, and abuse in the program while also improving its efficiency and reach.”

Such recommendations from the Joint Board include:

  • “Encourage automatic enrollment, triggered when low-income families sign up for other benefits, such as food stamps.
  • Adopt minimum standards for states and carriers to use to verify a participant’s eligibility, with stricter standards allowed, in order to prevent potential waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • Seek comment on establishing a centralized national database for certification and verification of eligibility to eliminate duplicative claims and speed enrollment, and address potential waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • Seek comment on increasing eligibility for the program by allowing households earning 150% or less of the federal poverty guidelines to participate, up from the current 135%.”

Lasar’s article also mentioned the problem of unforeseen costs, should subscriptions to the Lifeline and LinkUp services increase; I would hope that the government finds a way to provide for the program, rather than be forced to trim it down as a consequence of its own success. While the FCC would have a harder time passing a subsidy-creating tax bill through the newly Republicanized Congress, perhaps we can count on an executive signoff on a subsidy directly from the federal budget.

It is hugely important that both federal and state governments work together in tackling the problem of the digital divide; the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service are an excellent example of progressive thinking, focused on the well-being of the general population. What fuels the success of a democracy is the well-informedness of its citizens; ensuring that each American citizen has quality access to the vast network of information that is the Internet guarantees success in our country’s future.

Check out the FCC’s Lauren H. Kravetz discuss Lifeline Awareness Week:

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