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FCC's Lifeline Broadband Expansion Could Help Close the Homework Gap

The newly expanded program could provide affordable broadband services to students who need online access to finish their homework.

by Tanya Roscorla / April 1, 2016
Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, with FCC Commissioners from left to right, Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O'Rielly during a hearing and vote on Net Neutrality in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. Flickr/Free Press

Students from low-income families could qualify for affordable broadband services through the newly expanded Lifeline program that the Federal Communications Commission approved this month.

The reformed Lifeline program will continue to provide low-income families with access to affordable voice services, but will add fixed and mobile broadband services over the next five years. Starting Dec. 21, providers would give each qualifying family 500 megabytes of data or at least 500 minutes of voice service and would continue to increase the amount of data until almost everyone in the program would be able to access the Internet.

College and K-12 students who qualify for the program wouldn't be stuck standing on sidewalks outside schools and coffee shops to access the Internet anymore.  

"I think we have made progress today by modernizing the Lifeline program, but we still have work to do to ensure that every student, no matter who they are or where they are, has access to the digital tools they need to have a fair shot in the 21st century," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said before the vote.

She called for more public-private partnerships, smarter unlicensed spectrum policies and creative community ideas to help address a problem that has a name: the homework gap. This gap is the difference between the amount of homework students need online access to do and the number of students who don't have reliable Internet connections outside of school.

As more teachers and professors assign homework online, students who can't afford Internet access have to cobble together ways to get connectivity, hopping between schools, libraries and fast-food restaurants to get online at night. That's not acceptable for Rosenworcel, who talked about the homework gap in a recent interview after the CUE Conference in California.

Across the country, "you have very different populations, but you have the same problem, and trying to come up with a common way to refer to that problem is the first step I think to developing a solution," Rosenworcel said.

Under the revised program, Lifeline providers would need to make Wi-Fi-enabled devices available to their customers that could act as hot spots and would no longer be in charge of determining whether a potential customer is eligible for Lifeline. Instead, potential customers' names would be checked against nationally verified government databases, which could help cut down on potential abuse and reduce administrative burdens on service providers.

The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines Thursday, March 31, after three commissioners worked late into the night and early into the morning to agree on fiscal accountability measures. The compromise was in place until Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn reversed her position during the meeting thanks to efforts that morning by Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler to undermine it, said Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner. 

"The commission' s failure to clean up the waste, fraud and abuse in this program puts the entire enterprise in jeopardy," Pai said.

For the first time, the FCC set a $2.25 billion budget for the program annually and a budgeting mechanism to control it, Wheeler said. But Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said that the FCC can choose to treat the number as a budget or do nothing to control it, which would allow spending to go through the roof. 

For her part, Clyburn said she negotiated in good faith and in the end could not accept a spending cap for Lifeline — the only FCC program that doesn't have a cap. Both Clyburn and Wheeler thanked Republican commissioners for their willingness to try to reach consensus. 

"These are important issues, and these are issues worthy of agonizing over," Wheeler said. "Sometimes, however, the deliberative process does not need consensus in the end." 

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