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Booker and Colleagues Urge FCC Action to Expand Broadband Access, Close Digital Divide

Senators say: Modernization of the Lifeline program is critical to eliminating the “homework gap” and expanding economic opportunities

March 28, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ)Chris Murphy (D-CT)Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Democratic colleagues urged the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Thomas Wheeler to move forward in modernizing the Lifeline program to cover broadband access for eligible low-income individuals. The FCC has estimated that nearly 100 million Americans remain unconnected to broadband Internet services at home. Additional studies by Pew and the FCC show that broadband penetration is less than 50 percent in households making under $30,000. Modernizing the Lifeline program to include broadband will make modern communication services more accessible and affordable nationwide. 

 The FCC’s move to modernize the Lifeline program follows legislation introduced by Sens. Booker and Chris Murphy (D-CT) last year. The Broadband Adoption Act of 2015 would make broadband services more accessible to low-income individuals by expanding and reforming the Lifeline program. The legislation, cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), has received widespread support from the civil rights community and industry stakeholders. The Senators’ letter underscores the need to bring Lifeline into the 21st Century.

 “One of four Universal Service programs, Lifeline was established in 1984 during the Reagan administration to provide support for landline telephone service to low-income families. The program was later updated under President George W. Bush to cover cell phone service. We applaud the Commission for its extensive work ensure the integrity of this program and tamp down on waste, fraud, and abuse. Now, the time has come to update this program to ensure it keeps pace with the most ubiquitous form of modern communication,” the Senators said.

 

 The need for more affordable broadband access cannot be overstated. Today, one in three U.S. adults lacks broadband at home, while one in five has neither a home connection nor a smartphone. Yet 80 percent of students report they require the Internet to do their homework and 90 percent of job applications have gone online… The Lifeline proposal will make critical strides in improving accessibility for these individuals. The proposal preserves consumer choice and sets minimum service levels on supported services, to ensure low-income Americans have access to and can afford voice and broadband services.”

 The Senators conclude, We trust that the Commission will strike a balance on these questions, striving not only to promote customer choice among new and existing Lifeline providers, but also to ensure the availability and reliability of such services, including the availability of no-cost-to-consumer options. Broadband access enables social and economic mobility, and provides expanded opportunities for those who have every desire to work hard and succeed but otherwise lack the information resources to compete.”

 

Co-Signers include:

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Patty Murray (D-WA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

 

 

 

Full text of the letter follows:

 

 

 

 

March 28, 2016

 

The Honorable Thomas Wheeler

Chairman

Federal Communications Commission

445 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20554

 

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

 

We commend the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to improve access to broadband for low-income Americans by modernizing the Lifeline program.  One of four Universal Service programs, Lifeline was established in 1984 during the Reagan administration to provide support for landline telephone service to low-income families. The program was later updated under President George W. Bush to cover cell phone service. We applaud the Commission for its extensive work to ensure the integrity of this program and tamp down on waste, fraud, and abuse. Now, the time has come to update this program to ensure it keeps pace with the most ubiquitous form of modern communication.

 

As you know, access to broadband is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity to connect individuals to employment opportunities, to complete an education, and to access important services online. Improving access to broadband, particularly for those with limited financial means, is an important national goal; and leveraging the existing Lifeline program will undoubtedly have a major impact on closing the digital divide for thousands of Americans in our states and across the country. The current proposal is an important step forward and we look forward to the FCC’s vote later this month.

 

The need for more affordable broadband access cannot be overstated. Today, one in three U.S. adults lacks broadband at home, while one in five has neither a home connection nor a smartphone. Yet 80 percent of students report they require the Internet to do their homework and 90 percent of job applications have gone online. We have seen reports from across the country of lower-income students who fall into this so-called “homework gap,” huddling outside their public libraries in the evening hoping to pick up a free Wi-Fi signal to complete their homework.  As a country, we must do better.

 

The Lifeline proposal will make critical strides in improving accessibility for these individuals. The proposal preserves consumer choice and sets minimum service levels on supported services, to ensure low-income Americans have access to and can afford voice and broadband services.

 

We recognize the Commission is still finalizing the details of the modernization proposal. Please take care to ensure that any proposal to decrease over time the support for mobile “voice only” options currently covered by Lifeline undergoes careful review and considers the ongoing affordability of the service, including for those consumers that currently receive the service at no cost. Diminishing support for voice-only offerings may have unintended consequences for vulnerable communities who still rely on such services. We understand that the proposed order includes a requirement that the FCC conduct a thorough review of the Lifeline market during the transition period and trust this further data will be analyzed prior to any final changes to mobile voice support. We welcome news of that review process.

 

We also recognize that the Commission continues to gather input on potential minimum service standards and other broadband provider eligibility requirements. We trust that the Commission will strike a balance on these questions, striving not only to promote customer choice among new and existing Lifeline providers, but also to ensure the availability and reliability of such services, including the availability of no-cost-to-consumer options.           

 

Broadband access enables social and economic mobility, and provides expanded opportunities for those who have every desire to work hard and succeed but otherwise lack the information resources to compete. Thank you again for your efforts to advance access to modern communications for all Americans by modernizing the Lifeline program.

 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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