Does FCC broadband lifeline program make the grade for homework?

30 April 2016 by Steve Blum
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3G gets an F for homework.

The Federal Communication Commission’s new broadband lifeline program is intended as a means of closing the digital divide between affluent and low income households in the U.S. There’s sufficient consensus around that goal that a bipartisan compromise was nearly worked out between commissioners. But in the end, the vote was 3 to 2 on strict party lines.

There are many points of disagreement between democrat and republican commissioners, but one that sticks out is whether the program standards – 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for wireline (and fixed wireless) service and a vague “3G” reference for mobile service – will do any good. Jessica Rosenworcel, a democrat, thinks small improvements will matter

Today’s decision includes steps designed to help close the Homework Gap. By incorporating broadband into the Lifeline program, we open the doors of digital opportunity. This simple change can help bring more broadband to low-income households with school-aged children. But significantly, we do not stop here. Our decision also modernizes Lifeline by making sure that the devices used for Lifeline broadband services are able to access Wi-Fi signals and that these devices can be turned into Wi-Fi hotspots. For a student with a computer but no way to connect at home, a hotspot can be the difference between keeping up in class and falling behind. It can be the difference between being a digital consumer and becoming a digital creator. It can help put more students on the pathway to science, technology, engineering, and math—a road that suffers today from an unacceptable lack of diversity. So it may seem small—but giving more students the tools to do digital age homework—can yield big results.

On the other hand, republican Ajit Pai believes the program will create a permanent digital underclass

When it comes to actually delivering for America’s low-income families and students, the Commission majority takes a far different tack. 10 Mbps fixed broadband is deemed sufficient for a poor family’s home. 3G mobile broadband—service so slow the Commission didn’t even bother to measure it in the 2016 Broadband Progress Report—is all the impoverished need get. The Order goes out of its way to give Lifeline subscribers the opportunity to buy hotspot-enabled smartphones (for all the good that will do them over a 3G network). But it doesn’t do a thing to make sure that Lifeline subscribers have the option to purchase the 25 Mbps fixed and 4G LTE mobile broadband that many other Americans take for granted—and that the majority happily lectured us last year was a digital floor…For all the kerfuffle about fast lanes, the FCC has decreed that Lifeline subscribers will be stuck in the slow lane.

Rosenworcel is correct to the extent that properly provisioned 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up wireline service with WiFi capabilities will meet the homework needs of most students. But Pai is right that the standard for mobile service all but guarantees no homework will get done.