February 2, 2012

By: Phil Ting

The Federal Communications Commission has recently announced long overdue reforms to a two-decade old program known as “Lifeline.”

“Lifeline” is part of the Universal Service Fund and helps to provide phone service for low-income and rural customers who depend on the program for basic communication.

While “Lifeline” continues to be a vital service for many Americans, it is also becoming rapidly outdated in terms of the service it provides. That’s why the FCC is smart to pilot a program that will transition “Lifeline” from just phone line access “to focus on reducing the monthly cost of broadband service and digital devices and improving digital literacy.”

Job Creation Through Closing The Digital Divide

This improvement in access will do more than make life better for Americans — it will make our economy stronger. A recent study found that nearly 1.6 million jobs were created between 2007 and 2011 due to the “investments and innovation entailed in the transition from 2G to 3G wireless technologies and Internet infrastructure.” The study also estimated that “every 10 percent increase in the adoption of 3G and 4G wireless technologies could add more than 231,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy in less than a year.” Bottom line, investing America’s resources in technology and specifically widening the reach of broadband access will create jobs and spur the economy.

The way Americans communicate with each other, as well as the way we acquire and disseminate valuable information, has fundamentally changed over the last two decades. We are now a digital society where Google can find almost anything we could ever want — or at least what a high-school student would need to complete a homework assignment or where a job-seeker can find the latest employment listings. News of world events are no longer delivered to us by newscasters like Walter Cronkite — but by @BreakingNews on Twitter.

Guaranteeing Equal Internet Access

But while our society progresses and moves further into a digital realm, many remain sequestered on the other side of the “Digital Divide.” According to the New Policy Institute, over eight percent of Americans live in areas without basic access to broadband infrastructure. And where access is possible, nearly one-third of American homes do not have broadband that number rises to 50% for families with a household income of less than $35,000. That is dangerous territory in a modern world where, as the FCC noted, “Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity in the 21st century.”

The federal government understands this, having included $7.2 billion in the 2009 stimulus package to expand high-speed Internet. However, we certainly need to do more, and that is why I have proposed guaranteeing Universal Access to the Internet here in San Francisco. While the chasm between those with high-speed Internet access and those without isn’t quite the same as the now famous 1% vs. 99%, the consequences contribute to our nation’s growing economic inequality. Without broadband Internet access, those in low-income communities simply do not have the tools necessary to find jobs in the digital age where most job openings and applications are housed online. Students in low-income communities without Internet access could see themselves fall even further behind without the tools necessary to do their homework, research colleges and learn the basic structures of the Internet they will undoubtedly need in this new age.

A revised “Lifeline” program is a great first step. However, with the program serving 10 million Americans — just over 30% of those eligible — there remains nearly 100 million people “who do not subscribe to broadband at home, often due to cost.”

The “Lifeline” program, coupled with greater public awareness and government intervention and participation, will help make the “Digital Divide” a little smaller. But it is just one step. Ultimately we need to recognize, as the United Nations has recognized, that equal access to information is a fundamental human right.

And that means equal access to broadband for all Americans. Find out about our proposals to guarantee Equal Access to the Internet for Californians here.