Congress Takes Crack at Lifeline Reform

Add a group of senators to the growing lits of those interested in reforming advanced telecommunications subsidies to the poor and lower-income.

Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) have reintroduced the Broadband Adoption Act, a bill to modernize the FCC's Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone--and soon broadband--service to low-income Americans.

The bill comes only days after the FCC sought comment on a proposal to update the program by subsidizing broadband as well as phone.

It also comes a day before the Senate Commerce Committee (Booker is a member) is scheduled to hold a hearing on modernizing Lifeline.

The bill:

Directs the FCC to provide broadband subsidies for urban and tribal areas; take speed and price specifically into account; allows subsidy recipients to choose whether they want support for broadband, mobile or basic phone or a bundle, but only one subsidy (currently about $9 per month); creates a national database for determining eligibility; would subsidize digital literacy; requires annual performance reports and a GAO analysis after one year; eligible households have to meet federal low-income guidelines--SNAP, Head Start, school lunch program.

Co-sponsors of the bill include Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)

Cable operators already have various low-cost broadband programs for low-income homes with school aged kids.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association praised the return of the bill, using that as an opportunity to point out how much cable operators have invested in the technology, that most people already have broadband and for those that don't, that relevance is also an issue.

“We welcome the reintroduction of the Broadband Adoption Act...and the renewed focus it shines on the important issue of broadband adoption," NCTA said in a statement. "While broadband is the fastest growing consumer technology in  history, a small but significant percentage of U.S. consumers do not yet subscribe or see the relevance of the Internet in their daily lives. The cable industry has invested hundreds of billions of dollars to build networks that reach 93% of homes and we have worked closely with local, state and federal government agencies and non-profits to educate consumers about the benefits of broadband. We look forward to working with all interested stakeholders in developing new, cost-effective strategies that will encourage all Americans to realize the benefits of fast broadband networks.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.