Plan to help low-income people access broadband is a 'mistake,' its creator says

Levin said the agency should phase out two programs that help people pay for phone service rather than expanding them to include broadband, as he had previously recommended.  

He said connecting broadband to low-income groups is a different kind of problem than spreading access to phone lines.  

"Cost is an issue. But it is just one issue," he said. The spread of broadband comes with challenges around device literacy, search literacy, and even basic word literacy.

"No one needs these [skills] to use a phone," he said during a speech at the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies.

Levin targeted two FCC assistance programs for elimination: Lifeline, which subsidizes phone service, and Link-up, which helps households pay to install traditional phone lines or activate wireless phones. 

The former FCC official detailed a new way forward, proposing a new assistance program focused solely on broadband with a heavy emphasis on training people in computer skills.

Levin stressed the importance of conditional subsidies in such a program. A family could receive a broadband subsidy, for instance, if their child uses the Internet for homework and maintains a certain grade point average. 

He also suggested ways to drive down costs, including auctions allowing broadband providers to compete for the chance to offer low-cost service, which would win them business from the people receiving subsidies.

Vouchers would also help lower the cost of broadband if groups who currently work with underserved populations have to ability to offer broadband subsidies. 

In a final proposal, Levin asked the government to overhaul how it does business. He said the president should direct federal agencies to eliminate paper operations within a reasonable time — "say, five years," he said.

"Through this program, the government would both send a signal and provide an inventive for all to move from the analog to the digital platform," he said. 

Levin noted that the speech wouldn't be his final thoughts on the question of broadband for the underserved. 

"If I don't have it right, once again, I hope that this discussion today is part of a process that moves us in the right direction," he said.