Is the Federal Communications Commission feeling the heat? Will the government watchdog finally give in and include high-speed broadband internet in the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program? It will if it listens to the voices of hundreds of America’s community leaders.
Almost 200 school district superintendents joined leaders of more than 140 other religious, civil rights, and technology groups in a campaign to pressure FCC commissioners to make changes to the popular program that currently provides free cell phones, voice calls and texts to low-income Americans. The community leaders believe high-speed broadband internet service should also be part of the program.
They make a clear, compelling argument in their letters, which were written in response to an FCC invitation for public comments on its proposal to fund high-speed broadband service with the same subsidy that covers free government cell phones.
“Much of the advantage of education technology lies in student access to information and education tools outside of the classroom,” the superintendents stated in their letter. “Sadly, many students do not have broadband access at home and cannot complete assignments and supplement their learning outside school. If the nation wants to produce globally competitive graduates with twenty-first-century skills and competencies, this ‘homework gap’ must be addressed.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted in favor of adding broadband service to the Lifeline program. Rosenworcel spoke in favor of the proposed changes and described what she called the “homework gap” as “the cruelest part of our new digital divide”. The Digital Divide describes the gap between internet usage among America’s rich and it’s poor.
Two unrelated community organizations organized and lead the effort to apply pressure to the FCC commissioners — the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission. Both organizations describe themselves as “digital-learning advocacy groups”.
If you get the sense that this movement is gaining momentum, you are correct. Because the school chiefs were not alone in applying pressure to the FCC. Other groups — including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Common Sense Kids Action, and the National Association of Social Workers — also sent letters urging action by the FCC commissioners.
Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a press release that said, in part, “The Internet can play a crucial role in moving people out of poverty. And yet, cost remains a critical barrier to internet access for millions of Americans. By modernizing the Lifeline program, the FCC can bridge this digital divide, and help millions of low-income Americans afford the broadband service they need to succeed in our digital age.”
We have long advocated expansion of the Lifeline Assistance program. Cell phones are vital tools to help disadvantaged Americans climb out of poverty, but high-speed internet service is, perhaps, even more important. We sincerely hope the Federal Communications Commission does whatever is necessary to speed up the approval process to bring this new service to millions of needy Americans as quickly as possible.