FCC plans to subsidise broadband for low-income households

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FCC Crafting Plan to Subsidize Low Income Broadband | Broadband News & DSL Reports

From the horse’s mouth


Commission Document (Press Release)

Lifeline – explanation guide (worth reading for those of you who don’t live in the USA)

My Comments

The Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman Tom Wheeler has put a proposal amongst the fellow Commissioners to create a subsidised broadband program for the USA’s low-income households.

This will be a modification of the Lifeline subsidised-telephony program which the Reagan administration started in the 1980s in order to extend its remit to broadband Internet service. The Lifeline program, funded by a universal-service-obligation levy that is paid by the US’s telephone customers or the telco they use, provides a discount on telephony services to eligible low-income households.

The modification will also incorporate stronger anti-fraud measures so that the money goes to the subsidised-communications programs rather than telcos “taking the money and running”.

It has been found that marginalised communities like blacks and Latinos are not likely to as connected as white people. But there is an “elephant in the room” that is not mentioned concerning computer literacy which drives the desire to connect to broadband service. From my recent experience with helping some households with their personal IT, I have seen some cases where computer literacy being linked to general literacy. Here, a subsidised-broadband program could also be about facilitating local computer-literacy programs in the affected neigbourhoods such as through schools offering “after-hours” classes or community centres running workshops.

Oh yeah, you may think that a subsidised broadband program for low-income communities will lead towards waste in the form of constant YouTube-viewing or “one-handed surfing” (viewing of pornographic material). But broadband is become increasingly relevant because it is becoming the norm to do business online including applying for jobs, getting a business up and running, or interacting with government agencies.

The Universal Service Fund programs like Lifeline and eRate have been subject of criticism due to fraud and waste occurring within carriers and other companies. Primarily this is where the companies simply “take the money and run” and the FCC are in the dark about how it is being used. There is also the issue of how to raise this money, especially where new or increased universal-service-obligation levies on Internet and other communications services are not popular with customers where they are paying a premium for these services.

Other factors that the FCC want to consider include redefining the minimum “at the door” bandwidth that constitutes a broadband service along with overriding protectionist state laws that protect incumbent operators by prohibiting the existence of competing broadband service.

The former issue concerns the actual bandwidth that a customer benefits from because of DSL services that are affected by line distance and quality or cable services which are affected by the line quality and number of subscribers. The latter affects cities being able to “open the door” to fibre-optic installations or Wi-Fi hotzones ran by themselves or independent operators like the Google Fiber installations or municipal Wi-Fi hotzones.

I would still like to see this also factor in mobile-broadband setups which will be considered important with homeless and nomadic people. This is more so as the scope of homelessness is encompassing continual couch-surfing or living in emergency and “inn-like” accommodation like refuges, hostels and motels rather than a long-term home. Similarly, the Lifeline program could be evolved to encompass mobile telecommunications for people in these situations.

Similarly, there has to be a minimum level of quality expected for carrier-supplied customer-premises equipment that is used for Lifeline-subsidised Internet services. Here, it would prevent ISPs and telcos supplying underperforming equipment to these customers.

What is really needed for the US broadband market is to see real competition rather than a cosy duopoly or cartel of providers providing the service. This will then lower the prices that people pay for broadband and increase real value-for-money for these services.

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