Spotlight Exclusives

Opportunity for All in the Digital Age

Michael Scurato, National Hispanic Media Coalition Michael Scurato, National Hispanic Media Coalition, posted on

This summer, the Federal Communications Commission will launch a proceeding designed to update our national commitment to ensuring all Americans have access to affordable communications services. The FCC۪s work to modernize Lifeline, a program born to help make telephone service affordable for all, to more fully support broadband Internet access will be essential to helping all Americans succeed in the digital age.

This effort could have a significant impact on helping to close the digital divide between those that have a broadband Internet connection and those that do not. Moreover, it could offer many more the opportunity to take advantage of Internet access, which has increasingly become a basic necessity.

Currently, Lifeline provides a modest $9.25 subsidy to low-income households to help make telephone service, or very limited bundled offerings, more affordable. To be eligible for the one-per-household benefit, a family must be living at or below 135 percent of the poverty line or participate in another federal benefit program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A number of states provide an additional benefit amount beyond the federal subsidy.

By many accounts, Lifeline is working well to provide struggling families with phone servicean essential tool for families to stay connected and overcomepoverty with the goal of, ultimately, leaving their days on federal assistance behind. Lifeline currently helps more than 12 million households — a number that has declined as the economy has recovered and after the FCC has put in place more stringent efficiency measures.

Given the population the program serves and its many success stories, there is no better time to modernize Lifeline and make sure that it is helping constituents access the essential form of communications in the 21st century: a broadband Internet connection. In fact, one of the nation۪s largest Lifeline providers estimated that 90 percent of its Lifeline subscribers did not have home broadband access.

When my colleague Jessica Gonzalez, a former Lifeline subscriber, testified before the U.S. Senate this month, sheexplained that the digital divide is real, and it has terrible consequences. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 30 percent of Americans lack home broadband. These people are more likely to be poor, African American, Latino, Native American, rural, and/or seniors. Fewer than half of households earning less than$25,000 have broadband at home. For people under 65, the primary reason cited for non-adoption is cost.

These numbers are striking and, as NHMC recently told President Obama۪s Broadband Opportunity Council, a failure to address the underlying problem with swift, significant, and wide-ranging efforts could help cement the growing levels of inequality in this country.

In today۪s society and the future Internet access is essential. More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including huge employers like Wal-Mart and Target, only accept job applications online. Further, in the next decade, nearly 80 percent of jobs will require some digital literacy skills. Students with broadband at home graduate at a higher rate than students who lack such access and, indeed, nearly 100 percent of high school students say that they are required to access the Internet to complete homework assignments outside of school.

Unfortunately, and despite popular perception, in recent years broadband adoption has remained stagnant. And, perhaps moretroubling, the latest data indicates there has actually been a slight decline in broadband adoption among low-income communities. Those who are unsubscribing from broadband cite cost as their number one reason for disconnecting.

Some of the important questions that this dire situation raises are obvious: How are students without broadband expected to overcome the “Homework Gap” and succeed as lesson plans and testing move online? How are seniors without broadband expected to take advantage of remote medical monitoring services or access electronic medical records? How is someone who is unemployed and lacking broadband expected to find a job when almost all job applications are online? How can rural communities knock down geographic barriers to health, education, and commerce opportunities if they do not have broadband at home?

Luckily, Lifeline, the only federal program that provides a direct-to-beneficiary subsidy to make communications services more affordable, has thepotential to provide significant assistance to those that currently go without broadband Internet access. The idea of modernizing Lifeline hasbroad support and, at theNational Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), we hope the process will be completed within the year.

Ensuring that all communities have access to the tools necessary to fully participate in our society offers profound benefits across sectors and is among the best investments that we can make. In the 21st century, broadband Internet access is one of those essential tools.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Michael Scurato is the policy director for the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelScurato.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 

If you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives