The FCC Is Trying to Close the Digital Divide–Sort Of

The FCC is launching a new pilot program this year to make broadband more affordable. Quiet as it's kept, this isn't the commission's first effort, but civil rights groups say it can't be anywhere near the last.

By Jamilah King Jan 13, 2012

The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t always communicate very well. This much became obvious earlier this week when Chair Julius Genachowski announced important changes to the country’s Lifeline program, a service that’s historically offered low-cost phone service to poor and working class households. 

The underlying principle of the Lifeline program is that phone service is a necessity, and that the government should ensure that everyone has access to it. Genachowski said on Monday that the same principle should apply to broadband Internet, since about 40 percent of the country remains without it, mostly because it’s too expensive. That doesn’t change the fact that important parts of broadband Internet are still not classified as essential communication services–which makes it hard for the FCC to fully regulate it. Still, the FCC is launching a new pilot programs to offer low-cost service, help teach people about the Internet and connect them to it. That’s big. 

Funny thing is, though, this new pilot program isn’t the first time the FCC has tried to offer low-cost alternatives to help bridge the digital divide. A handful of programs already exist and have had varying amounts of success. And it’s very likely that you’ve never heard of them.

The reality is that the digital divide still exists. Only about 60 percent of users in America have access to home-based broadband connections, and many low-income, black and Latino households lack access. While many black and Latino users have used smartphones to help bridge the digital divide, the wireless market is rife with dangerous deregulation. And in any case, home-based broadband connections allow users to more fully participate in democracy, particularly as more jobs, classes and government services move online.

"Part of the problem is that anything that’s related to technology is cushioned in this narrative of business," says Amalia Deloney, policy director at the Center for Media Justice. "Ninety percent of the stories–if there are any stories–show up in the business or commerce section of the paper. It creates this other challenge: that people don’t see this as a humanitarian issue, they don’t see it as a social justice issue. It reinforces the belief that tech isn’t for the average person."

We’ve tried to change that at So, in that spirit, here are a few of the FCC’s efforts to deal with the digital divide–the good and the bad of each:

Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP)
This was a part of President Obama’s 2009 Stimulus bill and, thus, the administration’s first big statement on how seriously it planned to take the problem of the digital divide. The program set aside $4.7 billion to offer grants to people with good ideas to expand home broadband. Those efforts have been needed in many rural and low-income communities dense with people of color, which are still struggling to find affordable ways to connect. 

The program was expected to create jobs in technology and help boost the economy. Yet three years later, the economy remains sluggish and the digital divide remains strong.

Connect to Compete
Launched in May of 2011, this was FCC Chair Genachowski’s public-private partnership to offer discounted broadband rates and computers to low-income users. Through the program, cable providers offer service for as low as $9.95 a month for two years. Corporate partners included companies like Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Comcast and Time Warner. 

In order to qualify for the program, applicants are required to have a child enrolled in the national school lunch program and have an overdue bill from a participating cable provider. Some advocates have argued that the program’s entry guidelines are too restrictive, and that not enough people even know that it exists.

New Lifeline pilot programs
Genachowski’s announcement on Monday signaled that change is coming to the country’s Lifeline program, but it’ll be slow. The agency will modernize Lifeline to include broadband Internet, but Genachowski also recommended putting a cap on the number of people who can qualify for the program in order to prevent  "fraud." That assertion rubbed many civil rights groups the wrong way, particularly given the FCC’s own estimates of how many eligible participants are currently left out of the Lifeline program. 

The Commission notes that the program has about 10 million participants, and only reaches about 32 percent of eligible households. That’s not a good sign for the nearly 100 million people in the U.S. who currently don’t have broadband Internet at home. In a press release from earlier this week, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the following:

The Lifeline program is the only program that can address this problem by systematically addressing the cost of modern telecommunications for low-income people. Limiting a program that only reaches one-third of its eligible participants before the FCC can fully assess the changes it announced today to eliminate fraud would seem counterproductive.

The FCC’s new pilot programs are expected to be launched later this year.