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Broadband Proposal Would Expand Opportunity for Low-Income Americans

March 11, 2016 at 10:30 AM

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote March 31 on a new proposal from the FCC’s chairman and a fellow commissioner to expand broadband Internet access among low-income households.  It would modernize FCC’s “Lifeline” program, which provides low-income households with monthly subsidies to help cover basic telephone services, by subsidizing broadband services as well.  Increasing broadband access would help many low-income households and their children overcome a large obstacle to advancement and, as such, the proposal is both justified and overdue.

Less than half of low-income households have a high-speed Internet connection at home, despite mounting evidence that Internet use has become central to fully participating in modern society.  As, for example, this CBPP report details, broadband access is critically important to:

  • Job search and work performance.  The federal government and over 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies —including Target and Walmart, which are large employers of low-income individuals — use online applications.  Unemployed people conducting Internet job searches between 2005 and 2008 found work about 25 percent faster than workers with comparable skill levels and other characteristics who didn’t search online.  Broadband access at home and Internet skills are also important for job training, employment scheduling, and job performance, studies find.
  • Education.  Homework increasingly demands Internet use; 94 percent of school districts serving low-income populations reported that at least “some of their teachers assign Internet-based homework” and 27 percent said “more than half of their teachers do so,” a 2007 study found.  (The proportion may have grown since then.)  Yet 40 percent of households with school-age children and incomes under $25,000 lack a high-speed connection at home.
  • Health care.  “Broadband provides consumers the ability to research health issues, obtain and share their personal health information with third parties, and to communicate with doctors, including specialists who may work in a different city,” a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found.  Telemedicine (where patients connect with health professionals remotely) and Internet use to research health issues may also reduce health costs.
  • Government information and services.  Information ranging from consumer financial education to product safety to nutritional guides is increasingly Internet-centered.  Further, “Broadband provides an opportunity to obtain information about and apply for most government public assistance programs, such as Social Security, and to complete tasks such as tax filing,” a GAO study found.
  • Electronic commerce.  Home broadband use facilitates online sales transactions, which allow consumers to compare prices, search for discounts, and consequently pay less for goods and services.  Particularly for low-income people in smaller and rural communities, some important products they may need, such as assistive devices for people with disabilities, may not always be available in brick-and-mortar stores. 
  • Civic participation.  The diversity of information online makes Internet access essential to informed voting and other civic participation.  Also, federal, state, and local laws are available online, enabling low-income people who can’t afford legal assistance to better understand their rights and responsibilities.

Low-income households face several barriers to obtaining broadband access, the chief of which is cost, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found.  It also found that “Roughly two-thirds (69%) of Americans indicate that not having a home high-speed internet connection would be a major disadvantage to finding a job, getting health information or accessing other key information — up from 56% who said this in 2010.”