New Orleans It would be nice to read the report of a proposal by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and embrace it with open arms and a wide smile. After all even a small step forward in bridging the digital divide is important, but this will be a half-step at that, and it’s easy to see the headwinds forming already in the murkiness that accompanies any understanding of the program or the problem.
Briefly, Wheeler is talking about expanding the Universal Service Fund to allow lower income families to access high-speed internet by choosing either phone service or internet or in some undefined way picking both services. Since President Reagan’s Administration, the Universal Service Fund provides “lifeline” telephone service, which increasingly means mobile phones virtually for free. The Fund is financed not by public dollars and taxpayers but by assessing telecommunications companies an adjustable fee every quarter on the telecom’s interstate end-user revenues. The first quarter of 2015 the rate was around 17% and the fund collects and distributes billions annually, about $9 billion in 2013 for example. If you read your telephone bill line-by-line, you can see the charge, and if you think about it for a minute, you can also start to see the problem.
The FCC is merely the facilitator and distributor. The funds come from companies and therefore consumers, rather than being equally shared by all citizens as a public good. It may have been good enough for Reagan, but despite all of the genuflecting in his direction, the new gang is not the old gang, and this crowd has been attacking the Fund because there was some occasional double-dipping in households having more than one cellphone. Oh, horrors!
The Fund provides a subsidy of close to $10 per month. The Times’ report is already, erroneously, setting the table for the fight when it reports that “debate over just how far a $9.25 credit can go in covering the cost of broadband is sure to arise.” Well, it shouldn’t, except that this is the world of neoliberalism now and not entitlement, so corporations whine, and citizens’ wail. The FCC and all experts were clear in the Comcast/NBC Universal order creating a $10 access program for internet, which the company flaunted, that even at that rate, the company would make money. Not great, heaping wheelbarrow loads of cash like they are all used to making, but, yes, still make money, so let’s put a stake in the heart of that argument from the start.
Then there is the question of speed. After ACORN worked with Rogers, the huge Canadian telecom, to put in a $10 program in Toronto, we had a fight to get them to provide enough speed so that users could stream or use the internet for job applications and the like. Since broadband companies are trying to market different price points for higher speed, you can already envision the fight to make sure lower income access isn’t degraded. Finally, the poverty standard of 135% also just isn’t enough to bridge the digital divide either. This proposal already feels like the poor trying to squeeze into internet heaven through the eye of a needle, not the other way around. And, this is all when the proposal is still pristine, long before the rest of the political fight begins in earnest and Congress starts mucking about.
So why can’t we spend a small slice of $10 or $20 billion and directly subsidize as an entitlement the access to internet for all families at 300% of poverty guideline, and, heck, throw in some of the Universal Service Fund as part of the funding stream with a hit on ISP providers as well, since this is internet.
There is a limit to what companies and consumers can carry. That’s why we have a government and taxes, so we can all equally share on programs that advance the common good for everyone. Until we get to that point, the digital divide will just keep getting wider and wider, leaving more and more, lower income and working families behind.