Tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment over the last three months. That means they may no longer be able to afford broadband Internet service, even if it is available in their neighborhood.
This pandemic has demonstrated that broadband is an essential pathway to full participation in our society and our economy. We see that all around us as people work, learn, visit family and friends, and seek medical advice — all from home. Now is the time to solve the problem facing people who cannot shoulder the cost of connecting.
Think of that working single mother trying to make ends meet while furthering her education, loading everyone in the family car and camping out in a fast food restaurant’s parking lot so the kids can get online to complete their schoolwork. Or the newly unemployed workers without home broadband who miss out on job postings that are listed only online. Or seniors and veterans who need to visit doctors online via a telehealth appointment but have lower-tiered mobile plans with data caps.
Federal lawmakers must do more.
We urge Congress to establish a broadband credit — call it America’s Broadband Credit — to ensure many more people can afford high-speed Internet access.
The distinction between well-off and low-income Americans is obvious. More than 80 percent of adults in households earning between $30,000 and $100,000 per year have broadband subscriptions at home, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s true for 94 percent of adults in households making more than $100,000. But only 56 percent of adults earning less than $30,000 per year have home broadband. Not surprisingly, the Federal Communications Commission has found that broadband is used less in lower-income counties than in higher-income ones.
Congress could set a household subsidy of $50 per month, which is roughly the cost of medium-tier broadband plans in urban settings (and it could provide a higher subsidy for tribal lands). That subsidy would allow anyone and any device in the household to be connected to the Internet, simultaneously, which is how so many families today are operating. That would be an improvement over the current Lifeline program for low-income households. Under that program, which offers a subsidy of less than $10 per month, most recipients use the benefit on a single mobile device.
Anyone who currently qualifies for the FCC’s Lifeline program would be eligible for the ABC. But Congress should also include families who have children in Title I schools, which have a high percentage of lower-income students, senior citizens who are at particular risk from the coronavirus, and people in need of long-term telehealth services. Congress should ensure that household eligibility can be quickly verified by a broadband provider so that people are able to order service easily, and it should fund systems that enable eligible households free from red tape.
There are still big gaps in the nation’s broadband service map, and where there is coverage, often there is just one Internet service provider. But the ABC plan could go a long way toward getting more people online where service is technically available but financially out of reach. ABC households should be able to pick their broadband provider and choose the best deal for their needs, incentivizing broadband providers to compete for their business. To expedite enrollment, providers of service should make it available without any waiting period or deposit; allow enrollment regardless of past arrearages; and permit termination at any time without penalty.
Meanwhile, the government should prioritize affordability when it directly funds the construction of new broadband networks. We recommend that Congress require any broadband network it funds to provide an inexpensive option for low-income households.
We are in a moment when we must fight unemployment by improving economic opportunity for all. Expanding broadband usage can grow the US economy and build stronger democratic institutions. Expanding broadband usage opens windows on the world, connects people to people and people to services. It can improve lives.
Mignon Clyburn served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from 2009 to 2018, including a term as acting chairwoman in 2013. Jonathan Sallet, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, is a former general counsel at the FCC.