Last week, 44 mayors and city officials nationwide, including Mayor Andy Berke, partnered to send a letter to the Federal Communications Commission calling for reform that would bring broadband and Internet capabilities to underserved segments of society.
Next Century Cities filed this letter supporting modernizing the federal Lifeline program to include broadband on behalf of 44 cities in its network, of which Chattanooga is a founding member.
Under the current program, qualified low-income households can receive a subsidy for wired or wireless telephone service, but the letter asked the FCC to include broadband as a third option, said Todd O’Boyle, Next Century Cities deputy director.
O’Boyle said that the letter did not advocate for households to be entitled to use all three options simultaneously. Their correspondence asked the FCC to add broadband as a third alternative to the existing subsidy, he said.
“The bottom line: We think that allowing qualifying households with the choice of voice or broadband [is the right thing],” O’Boyle said. “They know better than regulators in Washington what they need. If [individuals] say the best way for them to help [their] families is for voice services, fine; if it’s broadband service, great.”
O’Boyle said their ideas were presented in a “budget-neutral fashion” to advocate a “right-sized program” that is neither too expansive nor too exclusive.
Berke said Lifeline modernization would allocate current funds in a new direction, presenting recipients with a new service to choose.
“This is a federal governmental program, so the question is, what is the scope of things you can use the dollars for?” Berke said. “We have gotten together to say that we support changing the Lifeline program to open up more opportunities to use these dollars instead of buying a prepaid cellphone to pay for their broadband access instead.”
Steps to modernize the Lifeline program are necessary for 21st-century growth, he said.
“In today’s world, you need access to the Internet to fill out a job application, to communicate with your employer [and] to sign up for benefits,” Berke said. “We want everybody to have those opportunities throughout our community. We know that most people who have high incomes have Internet usage, but there is only 47 percent of low-income people who have that opportunity.”
Earlier this year, Berke’s administration, along with EPB, announced that families with a student who qualifies for free or reduced-fee lunch could also receive reduced-cost Internet. Lifeline modernization would bring much-needed broadband access to households without school-aged children, he said.
O’Boyle said the FCC will discuss various avenues of Lifeline modernization in early 2016.