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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to modernize the agency’s Lifeline program to make program funds available for broadband Internet connections.

Established in 1985 to subsidize basic phone service for low-income households and promote universal communications service, the Lifeline program will now be made available to reduce the monthly cost of wired  and mobile broadband.

While it supports this evolution in the Lifeline program, Free Press filed comments in the proceeding urging the agency to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing the affordability and competition problems in the nation’s telecommunications marketplace. The lack of choices among providers has pushed prices for essential telecommunications services far beyond the reach of too many people, not all of whom qualify for the means-tested Lifeline program.

Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood made the following statement:

“We welcome the FCC’s efforts to bring Lifeline fully into the modern era. The agency is taking aim at the digital divide with today’s decision. Broadband adoption continues to lag for low-income Americans, for people in communities of color, for the elderly and for poorer families with children. Implementing the agency’s originally proposed changes will help the FCC’s ongoing efforts to close these gaps.

“Today’s decision was possible only because of the tireless advocacy of leaders like Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel — and even more importantly, the eloquence and determination of grassroots leaders and Lifeline recipients who came to Washington and spoke out for change.

“Far from improving the order, Commissioner Pai’s 11th-hour minimum-standards proposals would have undermined these reforms. Adopting unduly high standards such as a 25 Mbps minimum speed for wired broadband may sound like a good idea, but it would have placed home broadband connections out of reach for the majority of low-income Americans.

“The item as voted doesn’t foreclose Lifeline recipients from choosing a 25 Mbps plan, or consign them to slow lanes. The Pai proposal would have given Lifeline participants only a small discount on unaffordable broadband services, requiring them to spend money that they simply don’t have. Pai’s plan would have put Lifeline recipients on a high-speed, high-priced bridge to nowhere.

“Much work remains: The FCC needs to devote additional resources to promoting affordable broadband options across the board. Consolidation and the lack of effective competition have left people of all income levels in the United States paying way too much for Internet access. It’s a shortcoming that has direct and negative impacts on everyone seeking these essential services. Lifeline is but one tool the FCC can use to address costs. If the agency’s primary goal is to get as many people as possible using broadband, it must do more to make all broadband services affordable.

“While we await the final text to review other crucial details in today’s decision, we hope the FCC struck the right balance on several scores. Preserving access to the most affordable mobile and landline voice options, for Lifeline users who want or need to retain their voice plans, is the right choice for the program and its participants. We fear the FCC may have gone the wrong way in phasing out support for standalone voice, but we need to see the final order to understand this perplexing decision. The FCC also must preserve long-standing and vital consumer-protection obligations even as it attempts to streamline  participation rules for broadband providers.

“The FCC today took one step toward closing the broadband-adoption gap. It needs to take further steps to implement these reforms correctly and to deal head-on with the broader competition crisis.”

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