Federal Phone Subsidy for Low Income Families Could Include Broadband Services
Black Enterprise Magazine January-March 2019 Issue

Now that net neutrality has become a reality, the next challenge the country faces is making sure broadband remains affordable for everyone.

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In an effort to achieve this next step, last week the FCC adopted a framework which could sunset the current Lifeline program installed by President Ronald Reagan more than 30 years ago and replace it with iBridge Now. While Lifeline helped low-income consumers afford the monthly cost of telephone service, the new program could give low-income consumers the choice to use the monthly $9.25 Lifeline subsidy for broadband services that are comparable to everyone else.

Unlike Lifeline, iBridge will “treat consumers with dignity,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, at an event called Making Mobile Broadband Affordable.  “Consumers will no longer be forced to turn over financially sensitive information to an unknown person, in front of a group of strangers, in a parking lot or tent. Seniors, veterans, the disabled, children and others, deserve better and what we endorsed last week proposes to do better. Second-class or inferior service will not be acceptable.”

Access to Broadband is important for many reasons. Nearly 60% of low-income consumers are wireless-only, according to Center for Disease Control data. In fact, many attribute the homework gap to a lack of high speed internet. Roughly one-third of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, reports a Pew Research analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data. Black and Hispanic households make up a disproportionate share of that number.

However, not everyone has embraced iBridge as enthusiastically as Clyburn. The two Republican FCC commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, argued that the iBridge proposal failed to set a budget; which could lead to fraud, waste and abuse. They proposed to keep the current $1.6 billion spending cap through 2018, with adjustments for inflation, but were voted down.

“It’s clear the majority wants to spend as much as they possibly can without a hint of restraint or possible change in administration,” said O’Rielly in his dissent.

However, Clyburn asserted that the FCC will adopt enhanced oversight, to further eliminate all incentives for waste, fraud and abuse. A neutral third-party — not the carrier — will determine consumer eligibility, explained Clyburn.

A name change is not formally listed in the proposal to overhaul Lifeline, and Clyburn would have to persuade the other four commissioners, plus FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler – to agree to it.

“I continue to believe that broadband is the greatest technological equalizer of our time, and is an essential lever in helping to break cycles of poverty, despair and hopelessness,” Clyburn maintains. “The program should be focused on being part of a pathway out poverty, poor education, lackluster healthcare options, and more.”

In 2013, the Lifeline program provided $1.8 billion worth of telephone subsidies for qualified low-income people.

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Marcia Wade Talbert

Marcia is a multimedia content producer focusing on technology at Black Enterprise Magazine. In this capacity she writes and assigns stories to educate readers about social media; digital integration; gadgets, apps, and software for business and professional development; minority tech startups; and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In 2012, she received two Salute to Excellence Awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and was recognized by Blacks in Technology (BiT) as one of the Top 10 Black achievers in the tech arena for 2011 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. She has spoken about technology on panels for New York Social Media Week, at The 2012 Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Summit, as well as at Black Enterprise’s Entrepreneurs Conference and Women of Power Summit. In 2011, SocialWayne.com chose her as one of 28 People of Color Impacting the Social Web, and through crowdsourcing she was listed as one of BlackWeb2.0's/HP's 50 Most Notable African American Tastemakers in Social Media and Technology for 2010. Since taking on the role of Tech editor in September 2010, she has conceived and produced five cover stories on Technology and/or STEM and countless articles, videos, and slideshows online. Before joining BlackEnterprise.com as an interactive general assignment reporter in 2008, she freelanced with Black Enterprise beginning in 2003 while working as the technical editor at Prepared Foods magazine. There she further honed her writing skills and became an authority on food ingredients, including ingredients used in food fortification and enrichment. Meanwhile, her freelancing with Black Enterprise and BlackEnterprise.com helped her stay current on issues pertaining to the financial and business welfare of African Americans. As a general reporter for Black Enterprise she attended and reported on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, where she interviewed Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Marcia has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture with an emphasis in food science from the University of Minnesota, and a Master of Science degree in journalism from Roosevelt University in Chicago. En route to her secondary degree, she served as the editor-in-chief of the Roosevelt University Torch, a weekly, student-run newspaper. An avid photographer and videographer, Marcia is one of several employees at BLACK ENTERPRISE who interned for the publishing company as a college student. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, a food scientist; her seventeen-month-old daughter; and “The Cat”, but still considers Chicago home.

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