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FCC moves ahead on plan to expand Internet to low-income households




Cristina Zaldivar, 9, uses an iPad to learn to draw at the Bell Technology Center during a computer class.
Cristina Zaldivar, 9, uses an iPad to learn to draw at the Bell Technology Center during a computer class.
Dorian Merina/KPCC

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The FCC took a step forward in bringing broadband Internet to millions of homes at a subsidized rate. Commissioners voted Thursday along party lines, 3-2, to review and modernize the federal program, known as Lifeline.

The proposal still needs to go through a lengthy process before taking effect, but supporters hailed it as a much-needed overhaul to a program that began in the 1980s to bring telephone access to the nation's poor.

Restricted access

"To not provide the Internet is like saying, here kids, you need to learn to read, but we’re not going to give you the book," said Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president and general counsel for the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "People are getting access to healthcare, access to social services, access to really basic necessities via the Internet. And so, those without it are really being left behind."

That access is strongly linked to factors like income and education. Less than half, or 43 percent, of people making under $25,000 a year have broadband access, according to data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That compares to over 93 percent for households making more than $100,000.

Also, one in two low-income Americans have cancelled or suspended their smartphone service due to financial hardship.

"Lifeline is critical because it’s the only federal initiative that addresses the digital divide," said Gonzalez. "Yes, there are a few other private initiatives to get more people connected to the Internet, but those could go away at any moment, whereas Lifeline would be a sustained effort to connect people who find it hard to connect because of cost."

Calls for reform

Lifeline began in 1985 to provide discount phone service for low-income Americans. To qualify, a family of four must earn at or below 135 percent of federal poverty levels, or about $36,000. At its peak in 2012, about 18 million households subscribed to phone and Internet services through Lifeline. California has the highest number of  households enrolled in Lifeline at 1.2 million.

But the program has come under scrutiny.

In 2012, the Government Accountability Office found evidence of waste and fraud, including examples where a household had signed up for more than one account.

Some lawmakers voiced concerns about Lifeline at a congressional hearing earlier this month.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, questioned whether the physical nuts and bolts are in place to support a bigger program, especially for those living outside cities.

"You can expand it all you want, but if you don’t have the infrastructure in rural America, you’re not going to have an ability to expand broadband or access to broadband whatsoever," said Sen. Ayotte at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 2.

In response, the FCC says it’s now on a more “stable footing” since putting reforms in place, to include cutting spending by nearly a quarter, or 24 percent. The number of enrolled households has also dropped, from 18 million in 2012 to 12 million in 2014, an indication, it says that the program has rooted out abuse. The GAO said in March 2015, that the agency had fully implemented seven of the 11 recommended reforms, with partial progress on the other four.

Closing the digital divide

On a recent afternoon at the Bell Technology Center, 7-year-old Madelyne Tenorio worked on a robotics project as two other girls tapped away on iPads. 

They were taking part in a technology class aimed at boosting computer skills and getting more kids and families from the area online. According to census data on income, race and citizenship,  Bell – and surrounding cities in Southeast L.A. – has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the county. 

"It's important because everything these days is done through computers," said Mireya Lopez, Madelyne's mother, in Spanish. "I think it's best to start [teaching them] when they're young."

Madelyne's favorite reason for going online is "discovering new things," she said, and wants to teach tech classes one day herself. 

"It would really benefit this area, in particular, because we have a lot of families on the Lifeline phone program and they would qualify for the broadband program," said Cesar Zaldivar-Motts, executive director of the Southeast Community Development Corporation. The non-profit runs the classes at the Bell Technology Center, with support from the city of Bell.

"It will bring a lot of opportunity," he said.