The new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, has vowed to close the digital divide, a welcome recognition that broadband Internet access is as essential as a paved road, electricity, or a telephone. Nationally, that divide is stark: Some 60 percent of families with a household income of less than $20,000 have no broadband connection at home. Boston has made significant progress in expanding access — Mayor Marty Walsh took a giant step last year when he announced a six-year partnership with Verizon to replace aging copper wire with the FIOS fiber optic network; 25,000 addresses in Roslindale, Dorchester, and West Roxbury were scheduled to come on line as of December. Yet even in Boston, approximately one in five households still does not have a subscription to a broadband service provider.
That’s why Pai’s move to cut the federal Lifeline program is particularly troubling. Dating back to the Reagan administration, Lifeline initially gave registered households a monthly credit to help buy telephone service. That mission was in keeping with the founding principles of the FCC, which was created in 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression, making a nationwide broadcast and telephone network more accessible and fending off monopoly control were part and parcel of lifting rural communities and core urban neighborhoods out of dire poverty.
Fast forward to Bill Clinton’s first term, when the federal Telecommunications Act was expanded to require all carriers to contribute to a general fund that would pay for Lifeline assistance. And the previous FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, ushered in a modern era by opening up the program to provide Internet access to the most vulnerable, including households at 135 percent or less of the poverty line. Beneficiaries can apply their monthly $9.25 Lifeline credit to purchase broadband.
But Pai and other Republican officials have argued that more must be done to crack down on potential fraud and abuse. As one of his first acts as chairman, Pai ordered a review of nine broadband providers who were set to begin offering Lifeline service in the coming months.
Luckily, none of the service providers are in this area. But his move to reverse longstanding FCC policy could still pose enormous risks to Bostonians if it sticks. In Boston, more than 71,000 households — slightly more than 27 percent — might qualify for a Lifeline subsidy on income-based eligibility alone.
Access to high-speed Internet service is not a luxury but a necessity — the sturdy spine for a student doing homework, for a senior watching a livestream town meeting, or for a waitress studying online for a high school diploma. Even the federal courts agree: Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the government’s position that broadband is a public utility, and that users deserve greater protection from tech firms that are sometimes more bent on profit than on equitable access.
Although tech firms are likely to appeal that decision all the way to the US Supreme Court, the federal government should not play any part in building a digital border wall between haves and have-nots. Quite the opposite, in fact. Last year, before he became FCC chair, Pai recognized as much when he proposed a “digital empowerment agenda.” He proposed gigabit opportunity zones, mobile broadband for rural communities, and vowed to streamline broadband deployment. It’s also fitting that his proposal was part of a speech to The Brandery, a startup accelerator in Cincinnati. Opening up competition and choice in the digital sphere will attract new Internet service providers and propel inventive tech solutions to network connectivity that no one has even dreamed up yet.
But talk is cheap, and Pai’s zeal for a more networked, more equitable society seems to have dissipated with his rise to the position of chair in a Trump Administration. While a review of the Lifeline program may be in order, Pai’s FCC should not only restore it, but also consider expanding it as part of an honest effort to bridge a growing digital chasm.