Fcc Must Make Broadband Access Universal

August 09, 2009|By Deborah Taylor Tate

The Federal Communications Commission now has a full complement of five commissioners, bringing decades of professional experience to the task of overseeing the dynamic information, communications and technology sectors that make up one-sixth of our national economy.

Their first major assignment is to develop a congressionally mandated nationwide broadband plan. That process has begun, although unfortunately much of the $7 billion in federal stimulus funds appropriated to further increase broadband deployment and adoption will already have been distributed by the time the FCC's plan is released early in 2010.

However, there are tools available to increase broadband adoption that the FCC can utilize immediately, specifically the Lifeline and Linkup federal subsidy programs that provide discounts on initial home telephone installation fees, as well as for monthly service charges. These discounts are available for qualified, low-income subscribers who meet stringent income eligibility criteria. There are strict audit controls in place.

The Lifeline/Linkup programs, which have been somewhat underutilized, could be expanded to provide discounts for installation and monthly charges for today's broadband services, just as they have for old-fashioned telephone services. In addition to helping the urban poor who can't afford broadband, this expansion would help people in remote areas.

This step, which should not require congressional action, could be taken immediately.

Clearly, the nation has already made substantial progress regarding deployment and adoption of broadband as broadband providers have invested more than $200 billion in private capital in recent years. State-funded broadband efforts, as well as newly blossoming public-private partnerships, have played a positive role as well. More than 93 percent of American households now have access to a broadband provider, and a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that home broadband adoption stood at 63 percent of adult Americans.

However, we must remember that the remaining 37 percent is not merely an abstract number but represents millions of American families who are still "offline" in today's wide-band world. There are a variety of reasons for nonsubscription, some of which have nothing to do with affordability. But the Pew study shows that income level does have a significant effect on broadband adoption.

Facilitating broadband deployment has been compared as historically analogous to last century's building of the interstate highway system or electrification of rural America. Today, this technology superhighway is central to the delivery of services, cost efficiency of business, and the overall improvement of the quality of life. Quickly extending Lifeline/Linkup to broadband would help "keep the lights on" for those at the lower end of the income scale once the country undergoes similar "broadband-ification."

If a full-scale effort to increase broadband adoption does not occur, the digital divide between information technology "haves" and "have nots" will continue to grow. The first sentence on the FCC's Lifeline-Linkup Web page states: "Telephone service is considered a necessity for daily modern life. Yet the cost of starting and maintaining such service may be too high for some consumers." I hope the newly reconstituted commission will act quickly to update both its Web site and the nation's policy to reflect the fact that broadband is indeed the lifeline of today.

Deborah Taylor Tate is a Distinguished Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Free State Foundation, a nonpartisan free market-oriented think tank in Potomac. From January 2006 to January 2009, she served as a member of the FCC. Her e-mail is dtaylor tate@comcast.net.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.