"Broadband is the greatest equalizer of our time." So stated FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn as she proposed reforming Lifeline to provide affordable broadband to low-income Americans. Commissioner Clyburn outlined her vision for Lifeline modernization in remarks to the American Enterprise Institute on November 12, 2014.
In explaining why the Lifeline program should be reformed to support broadband, Commissioner Clyburn said that broadband creates opportunities for low-income households and is "key in helping to break the cycle of persistent poverty." She pointed to significant disparities in broadband connectivity between high- and low-income Americans, and evoked the reasons for the creation of Lifeline under President Reagan in 1985:
Yesterday, it was voice-only, today it is broadband-enabled networks that are “crucial to full participation in our society and economy which are increasingly depending upon the rapid exchange of information.” And quite frankly, today’s broadband “have nots,” are experiencing the same type of “division in our society” that the FCC sought to prevent when it created the Lifeline program for voice three decades ago.
Commissioner Clyburn also noted that while the FCC has recalibrated its other universal service programs to meet the goals of the National Broadband Plan, it has yet to do so with Lifeline. She cited strong support for broadband in the creation of the FCC's Connect America Fund ("CAF"), its transformation of the E-Rate program to provide Gigabit broadband to schools, and broadband investments by the Rural Health Care program. Clyburn characterized reforming the Lifeline program to address broadband as a critical next step toward reaching the National Broadband Plan's goals. She warned that investing in high-cost funding without ensuring affordability risked "building technology bridges to nowhere."
Commissioner Clyburn outlined five principles for reforming the Lifeline program to achieve the goal of affordable broadband. Those five principles envision:
- FCC-established minimum service standards for providers receiving the $9.25 federal Lifeline subsidy;
- Regulators, not providers should make eligibility determinations (alleviating privacy concerns, reducing administrative costs, and eliminating incentives for waste, fraud, and abuse);
- Streamlining the approval process for Lifeline providers, including perhaps allowing non-ETCs to participate;
- Coordinating with existing programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP"), to make enrollment more efficient; and
- FCC partnerships with public and private entities on outreach and education about Lifeline.
Commissioner Clyburn asserted that modernization in keeping with those five principles would not lead to increase costs for the program. In closing, she reiterated that reforming Lifeline to support broadband would address the digital divide in a manner consistent with the program's original policy objectives, and urged Lifeline modernization "now" to achieve those objectives.