Broadband “Stamps” for the Web’s Poor

Because why bother with universal access?

By Jamilah King Aug 12, 2010

Former Federal Communications Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate recently introduced a plan to hand out vouchers for broadband service in poor communities, presumably in place of ensuring affordable high speed Internet in every household. And she’s got a stellar name for her proposed program: broadband stamps. 

Yes, like food stamps.

"Rather than new indiscriminate broadband spending initiatives, perhaps certain eligible Americans could have ‘broadband stamps,’" she writes in her proposal. The stamps would "allow certain low-income eligible citizens to purchase broadband services on a technology-neutral basis from a cable, telephone, wireless, or satellite provider." 

In Tate’s view, the vouchers represent a logical alternative to keeping what she termed "Big Government" away from "dictating what Americans ‘should’ get or what is ‘best for them’" when it comes to broadband. The news came just days before Google announced a deal with Verizon that aims to preempt federal regulation of wireless Internet services, a move that could spell trouble for many users of color. And an almost immobilized FCC is scrambling to make good on its National Broadband Plan promises to significantly increase services in rural and urban communities, though first it has to outline its position on how — and if — to regulate service providers in order to make sure that increase happens. So far, it’s not looking too good.

Tate’s less than glorious history with the FCC includes leading the commission during its most recent Bush era, in which a Republican-led majority stripped itself of its regulatory authority over broadband — a mess its current commissioners, along with public interest groups and telecom companies, are still trying to sort out.

According to Nate Anderson at Law & Disorder, the plan would work like this:

The idea is to give low-income Americans a broadband voucher that they could use to order a "minimum broadband package," with "minimum" in this case meaning "enough ‘bytes’ to surf the Web and send e-mails to family members." Tate wants to make sure that this "circumscribed" broadband offers only rudimentary Internet access so that those who want better service will put some skin in the game and add their own money.

And it gets worse. If users wanted to contact people other than "family members", they’d have to "contribute their own hard earned cash to get a gourmet selection that might cost them a little more, or even an even [sic] more expensive ‘all you can eat’ bundle of services."

Yet Tate’s suggestion undermines the breadth of the issue facing millions of people who remain offline. For many users, particularly those in rural areas who’ve already got the means to pay for the monthly service, Internet providers simply don’t offer high speed connections. At least that’s been the case in parts of Wisconsin, New Mexico, and even housing projects in urban centers like Philadelphia.

In any case, even if Tate’s ideas did really have legs to stand on, lawmakers haven’t exactly been kind to federal assistance programs lately. Congress voted this week to cut $12 billion in future food stamp funding.