Right out of the gate, President Joe Biden has identified two main priorities: fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and promoting inclusive economic recovery. These are difficult tasks by any measure, but fortunately, meeting another major challenge unites both goals: universal and affordable broadband.
Universal broadband lessens the economic burdens and health risks of the pandemic by enabling people to work, shop, and play from the safety of their homes. Telework, telehealth, online learning—all are only possible with broadband. The more universal broadband becomes, the more people will be able to reduce exposure to Covid-19—and potential future pandemics and other unforeseen circumstances—while contributing to the nation’s economic success.
But far too many people in both urban and rural areas remain disconnected. In February 2020, Broadband Now Research estimated that 42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband. Across rural America, counties where less than 50% of the population has broadband available are commonplace. In communities where broadband is available, millions of families find it unaffordable.
Closing the Gaps in Rural America
The debate over whether broadband is a necessity is over. Parallels frequently drawn between the need for broadband today and the need for electricity a century ago are not misplaced. The question now is how to close the gaps by connecting rural America and bringing broadband within the means of everyone.
The recently enacted coronavirus relief legislation offers a promising start with its “Emergency Broadband Benefit.” To provide better broadband access, this legislation allocates $65 million to improve broadband mapping, which is essential to ensuring that both government and broadband providers identify the true gaps in connectivity with specificity.
It is generally understood that the Federal Communications Commission’s existing broadband maps are imprecise and insufficient. For example, they count an entire census block as being served with broadband if only one household in the block has access. As soon as more accurate maps reveal the exact location of unserved households, government agencies can partner with the private sector, providing the funding needed to close the connectivity gap.
Closing the Affordability Gap
To close the affordability gap, the Emergency Broadband Benefit plan will provide $50 per month for broadband for low-income families, a critical provision championed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). This temporary measure is an important step, but a long-term solution is needed.
Modernization of the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides a monthly phone or broadband subsidy for low-income families who qualify, could help: The FCC should adopt changes that provide the benefit directly to eligible consumers through the issuance of a Lifeline benefit card, which they could use to purchase the service that best suits their needs.
This change would both empower consumers and encourage more carriers to participate in the Lifeline program by relieving them of the responsibility of performing back-office accounting operations for the program that involves billing the customer for the service and then seeking reimbursement from the Lifeline program.
Tying Broadband Funding to Landline Users No Longer Makes Sense
More broadly, Congress should realize it is unsustainable to fund Lifeline through a tax on the anachronistic “long distance and international” component of regular phone service.
The “contribution factor,” as the tax is known, for universal service programs, of which Lifeline is a part, will rise in 2021 to 31.8% of the interstate and international phone service charge.
Landline phone users are steadily declining—now, less than 40% of U.S. adults—so that the universal service charge will rise as a smaller number of traditional phone users carry the entire cost of universal service programs, if left unchanged.
Simply stated, it no longer makes sense to tie increasingly important broadband funding to an older technology with a dwindling number of users. Instead, Congress should revamp funding for universal service programs, eliminate the tax on long-distance and international phone service, and make universal service programs a line item in the federal budget supported by annual appropriations.
These are simple steps, but important ones. They are not Republican nor Democratic policies, but universal goals. Congress should seize the energy of a new session and the urgency of a global pandemic to act immediately to help millions of Americans without affordable broadband. And the FCC should proceed with Lifeline modernization in 2021 to get more families signed up for broadband and able to take advantage of its benefits, for work, school, healthcare, entertainment, access to life-saving information and so much more.
Too often in the past year, we have seen fighting the pandemic and economic recovery pitted against one another. By taking strong steps towards universal broadband now, America can address both urgent needs in tandem.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Rick Boucher was a member of the House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).
Bruce Mehlman served as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy and is founding co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).