Can the F.C.C. close the U.S.'s digital divide?

Mar 08, 2016, 2:08 PM EST
(Source: Devon Christopher Adams/flickr)
(Source: Devon Christopher Adams/flickr)

Making good on its controversial overhaul of its Lifeline project, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) announced on Tuesday a plan to expand a telecom subsidy of $9.25 a month for low-income households to include broadband. This move is part of a much larger effort to close the digital divide in the U.S. Given that the U.S. is viewed as one of the central technological hubs of innovation and progress in the world, the stark gaps in internet access are embarrassing, to say the least.

The 2015 Broadband Progress Report, voted on and adopted by the F.C.C. in January, found that 55 million Americans — 17% of the population — lack access to advanced broadband, and that over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads service. Telcos and web service providers decried the findings, pointing to the fact that the F.C.C. raised the definition of standard broadband from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps last January, creating a shake-up in the number of Americans considered to have access to sub-standard broadband.

Reuters reports that the F.C.C. estimates that some 95% of U.S. households with incomes of $150,000 have access to high-speed internet, while less than half of households with incomes lower than $25,000 have internet access at all.

Regardless of your take on whether or not the F.C.C. should have raised the web standard, those numbers still apply. And the F.C.C.’s proposal to approve its broadband subsidy will no doubt be met with the same outcry. The New York Times reports that the new plan will go to a vote on March 31, and is expected to be approved by the F.C.C.’s commissioners, who have a Democratic majority. The news outlet quotes F.C.C. Chairman Tom Wheeler:

“When we talk about digital equity, we need to remember that we’re talking a key part of the answer to many of our nation’s greatest challenges — issues like income inequality, job creation, economic growth, U.S. competitiveness.”

Lifeline began as an effort to get more Americans access to telecommunications technology back in 1985. Since then, the focus has clearly changed to providing broader internet access alongside the increasingly popular notion that web access is a right rather than a privilege. Of course, ISPs and telcos don’t see it that way, or if they do, they’d prefer it if the government weren’t stepping in to obstruct their nuanced pricing structures. But the F.C.C. has insisted that these changes and subsidies relate to education, among other public services. F.C.C. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that the lack of broadband access leads to a “homework gap” for children in lower income families.

Whether or not the subsidy gets approved, or whether it is challenged down the line, the proposal alone demonstrates the bold moves the F.C.C. is making to close America’s digital divide.