A lifeline for broadband

14 March 2013 by Steve Blum
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Telephone and electrical service have long been considered a basic necessity for day to day living. “Lifeline” programs provide discounted service to those who need it and universal service programs subsidize infrastructure in areas where costs are high and population densities low. That same thinking is now being applied to broadband service.

“California was ahead of the curve and actually reformed the program before the FCC did,” said Kim Scardino, who helps to run a broadband lifeline pilot program for the Federal Communications Commission. She was speaking to a joint meeting of representatives from the CPUC’s regional consortia and broadband adoption projects funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF).

One of her pilot projects provides low cost wireless broadband service via smart phones and hotspots in the Fresno and Los Angeles areas. Along with thirteen other projects elsewhere around the U.S., it’s due to launch in May and will run for a year. The FCC is trying to figure out the relationship between the cost of service and the rate of broadband adoption in lower income homes and disadvantaged communities.

Lifeline and universal service programs are generally funded by surcharges on telephone bills. The question for California policy makers is, given that the money is being spent to expand broadband access, should those surcharges also be extended to broadband subscriptions? At some point, probably sooner rather than later, the California legislature and the CPUC will have to find an answer. But it’s only part of the problem.

“It’s not just about price, it’s also about the training and understanding the why, the value proposition,” said CPUC commissioner Catherine Sandoval, summing up the challenge ahead for everyone.