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House Bill Would Undercut FCC Effort to Promote Upward Mobility

Just two weeks after House Republicans released their poverty plan with the principle that all “should have the chance to make the most of our lives” and “break free” from poverty, they’ve proposed legislation that would do the opposite.  Among other impacts, the bill, scheduled for a House vote tomorrow, would undercut the Federal Communications Commission’s rule that modernizes its “Lifeline” program by letting it subsidize broadband services.

Lifeline now provides low-income households with monthly subsidies to help cover basic telephone services, but a new FCC rule expands its reach to broadband, which would help many low-income households and their children clear a large hurdle to advancement.  The House bill, however, would prevent the FCC from providing such subsidies for mobile devices and would restrict its current program for mobile phones.  (Under the House bill, the FCC could subsidize broadband services provided through landlines, but in part due to the cost of computers, a significant — and growing — share of low-income and other households rely on mobile phones for Internet services.)

Less than half of low-income households have a high-speed Internet connection at home, despite mounting evidence that Internet use is now central to fully participating in modern society.  As detailed in this CBPP report, it is especially essential to promoting upward mobility.

  • Broadband access is critical to learning opportunities.  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.
  • Broadband access is central 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.

The CBPP report also describes how access to broadband is increasingly fundamental to other aspects of life as well.

  • 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 let consumers 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.

The House bill would undercut the rule’s ability to subsidize broadband services, making it harder for many to get ahead and violating the House Republican poverty plan’s principle objective.