Building a digital Lifeline for America's families
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Late last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to modernize the Lifeline program in the most wide-ranging national effort ever enacted to remove cost barriers to broadband. By doing so, the FCC formally recognized that in the digital age, broadband access is a fundamental tool, rather than a luxury.

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While significant, the FCC decision is only one step toward achieving robust broadband adoption for millions of low-income American families. Having consistent, quality access to broadband is critical to resolving the "homework gap" between low-income kids and their more privileged peers. Quality connectivity is no less important for their parents, for whom opportunities for employment and skills training are increasingly migrating online.

Equitable access to quality Internet is becoming more and more fundamental to reducing social inequality in the U.S. However, the most recent data available clearly show that connectivity is still anything but equal. In February 2016, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published results from the first nationally representative survey of parents with school-age children living below the median U.S. household income, detailing their experiences and history with the Internet and digital technology. (A co-author of this piece, Vikki Katz, was principal investigator for the study.)

The good news is that 94 percent of the 1,191 surveyed families have some kind of Internet access, whether via a broadband or dial-up connection to a computer, or a data plan on a mobile device. But, over half are "under-connected" in some way. Among parents with home Internet access, 52 percent say it is too slow, 26 percent share their computer with too many people, and 20 percent have had interrupted connectivity in the past year due to non-payment. For the 23 percent of surveyed families who only connect through a mobile device — which, in and of itself, is more limited than connecting via a computer — 29 percent have hit their data limits, and 24 percent have had phone service cut off due to non-payment, in the past year.

Being under-connected has real costs for lower-income parents and children. Most obviously, intermittent access means that families have no connection at all for stretches of time. But there are other, more hidden stressors that Katz and her research team have documented in interviews with 336 low-income parents and their children in school districts in Arizona, California and Colorado. Parents reported having to decide whether to pay for Internet or fix failing cars, and taking multiple buses to get children to a library to complete their homework.

Making broadband more affordable would reduce these kinds of challenges for parents who often also work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The high proportion of parents whose connectivity had been interrupted by late payments shows that cost remains a major barrier to quality access. Furthermore, 40 percent of surveyed parents without a home computer say they cannot afford to have one, and 42 percent of those without home Internet access say the same.

These financial barriers have not gone unnoticed. At its meeting, the FCC extended the scope of the Lifeline subsidy to support standalone broadband access. It also set minimum standards for Lifeline broadband offerings, ensuring that eligible households can now choose to apply their subsidy to a usable broadband service or bundle. These updates address cost barriers to broadband adoption while also empowering low-income households to use their Lifeline subsidy for services that make most sense for them.

More must be done to address other barriers to digital equity. Some progress is being made on infrastructure. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced new programs to connect residents in public housing and evaluate community-level adoption efforts. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also implemented programs alongside the FCC to connect rural areas that are the most expensive portions of the country to serve.

Social infrastructure matters, too. Programs that promote broadband adoption must be paired with person-to-person digital literacy programs to help adults and children develop the skills they need to use their connectivity to full effect. Such programs are crucial to ensuring that families have full access to the educational, occupational and social opportunities that are increasingly found online.

The success of such efforts will depend in part on how well they respond to the varied challenges, geographies, demographics and funding opportunities in diverse local communities. Families experiencing digital inequality are uniquely situated to help develop sustainable solutions to address challenges they face. As community leaders work to implement broadband solutions at the local level, they should strive to incorporate families directly into the planning and development of those projects and programs.

The next phase of digital equity work will involve prioritizing low-income families' educational and workforce development needs. The challenges to doing so will require innovative partnerships and new commitments aligning government, industry, education and community leaders and members. The FCC's bold moves last week make it clear: The next phase of work must start immediately.

Morris is senior counsel and director of open Internet policy for New America's Open Technology Institute. You can read her full bio here. Katz, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and a senior research scientist at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. You can learn more about her work here.