THE BLOG
09/12/2014 01:16 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Providing a Lifeline to Broadband Internet Access

For years, right-wing extremists and some members of Congress have sought to eliminate one of the most effective and efficient domestic policy initiatives we have: the Lifeline Program. This week is Lifeline Awareness Week and I'd like to take the opportunity to suggest a better choice: Instead of finding ways to deny telephone access to the neediest Americans, lawmakers should be looking to expand Lifeline to include broadband internet.

Tens of millions of Americans live below the federal poverty line. Most of Lifeline's detractors -radio hosts, columnists, political operatives, and members of Congress - will never know what that's like. They'll never have to wonder what it's like to raise a family on a minimum wage salary, to have to scrounge for change to buy gas to get to work, or to rely on the social safety net for basic necessities.

Many of these detractors have a hard time imagining the value of a program like Lifeline, which provides a modest subsidy to low-income people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford a phone line of their own. The program is well-named; it provides a lifeline to those who need to call 911 or a hotline for suicide and addiction. It provides a reliable phone number to put on job applications, to communicate with a child's school or caregiver, and to keep in touch with family in need.

Lifeline was started under President Reagan for landline service and expanded to include wireless phones under President George W. Bush. But under President Obama, this program has come under vicious and sometimes racially insensitive attacks. The program is being used as a convenient straw man for a broader political agenda by raising unsubstantiated claims of fraud and attempting to increase fees charged to users.

This is especially troubling because Lifeline is among our nation's most successful public-private partnerships. The major reason that the 14 million Lifeline subscribers have a phone number at all is because private innovation has allowed phone companies to to provide low-income people a phone number at no cost to them. It's remarkable that, for a modest investment, our nation can make sure that struggling families have access to emergency services and job opportunities.

Lifeline has been so successful that we should expand and modernize it once again, just as we did under President Bush, to include broadband internet access. Thirty percent of the country has no access to broadband internet, delivering a blow to the abilities of families, and our entire nation, to compete economically.

Just last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler urged the country to make sure all Americans have access to higher speed Internet, because closing the digital divide helps every American, not just the neediest among us. Expanding Lifeline to include this service is a natural extension for this model public-private partnership.

Modernizing Lifeline is within the FCC's mandate as the administrator of the Lifeline program. Chairman Wheeler should focus on real modernization and ignore politically motivated attempts to deny telephone service to low-income people.