House Bill Seeks Cuts to Broadband and Phone Service Discounts for Low-Income Households

By Jessica Gehr

Established in 1985, the Lifeline program was created to provide low-income households with affordable phone service, recognizing that they needed it to access a variety of services, jobs, healthcare, and education.  With the evolution of technology, in the 1990s the Lifeline program was expanded to cover mobile phone service, which is often cheaper than a landline.  On March 31, 2016, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to modernize the Lifeline program by also providing subsidies for broadband access to low-income households, in addition to the existing mobile phone program.

Broadband and mobile phone access are essential in connecting low-income families with resources that aid in employment, healthcare, e-commerce, education and civic participation. Cutting wireless services could prevent families from being able to receive communication about a child’s illness at school, call for medical and other emergency attention and speak with current or prospective employers. Additionally, cutting broadband access would increase the “homework gap” which disproportionately affects low-income schoolchildren. It is almost impossible to succeed in the educational system without Internet access as nearly all schools assign Internet-based homework.

The Pew Research Center reports that approximately 13% of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year are smartphone-dependent, meaning that their only access to the Internet is through a phone. Not only are low-income household disproportionately affected but so are people of color: 12% of African Americans and 13% of Latinos are smartphone-dependent, compared to just 4% of whites.

Just after the FCC has taken this important step in the right direction, a proposed bill introduced by Representative Austin Scott (R-GA), HR 5525, would take two giant steps back. It would prohibit mobile and broadband service through the Lifeline program. This bill places an undue burden on low-income people and people of color by stripping them of access to affordable broadband service and limiting the program for mobile phones. Without Internet access, students cannot successfully complete their homework, single mothers cannot obtain higher education online after work, and seniors and people with disabilities cannot obtain necessary healthcare information.  Cell phones are not a luxury item; they are essential to thrive in a competitive workforce.

Another proposed bill, HR 4884, would cap the budget for Lifeline. Since many eligible households do not participate in Lifeline, this would deny eligible household access. This would deny children the opportunity to get a quality education, prevent families from escaping the cycle of poverty and harm the nation’s economy. Lifeline is a bridge to opportunity, and this bridge is under attack. Congress should reject these bills, as well as any attempt to cut the Lifeline program through riders on the appropriations bills.