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A 21st Century Lifeline to Opportunity | Commentary

The Internet has become the nation’s — and indeed the world’s — most important communications and commercial hub. Getting more Americans online is a national priority that policymakers in Washington could soon achieve.

A critical component is already in place. The Lifeline program, which Congress created during the 1980s to help low-income households afford basic telephone service, was extended in 2005 to cover wireless phones. It’s a bipartisan success story that can easily and quickly be updated to provide broadband service to millions of people who can’t currently afford it.

Earlier this year, under the leadership of Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission began modernizing Lifeline to support broadband access. The agency is gathering comments on technical details, but the broad strokes are clear: Beneficiaries would be able to apply their modest $9.25 a month subsidy toward basic broadband service instead of landline or mobile phone service.

Connecting the disconnected would help students on the wrong side of what FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel terms the “homework gap,” children who lose connectivity when the last school bell rings and go home to a house without broadband. While recent reforms to E-Rate, an FCC program that connects our schools and libraries to broadband, have expanded connectivity and Wi-Fi networks in schools, nearly 20 percent of households with students between the ages of 6 and 17 lack broadband Internet. Bringing Internet to their homes will ensure learning continues beyond school walls.

Lifeline is a need-based program that provides what FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn calls “a pathway out of poverty.” Without the ability to communicate and be contacted, disabled veterans, job seekers and others will find it increasingly difficult to climb the ladder of success. Many modern jobs often require Internet access simply to apply. Lifeline modernization will make this process easier by enabling recipients to find gainful employment more quickly, ending their dependence on Lifeline and other federal benefit programs.

Rather than cheer the good news of the Lifeline program, politicians interested in scoring political points are working to hamstring it. Many want to see it shuttered altogether. They’re pushing changes that would limit access by forcing low-income families to jump through myriad hoops. For example, requiring a co-payment from beneficiaries who receive only $9.25 a month would exclude from the program the neediest households it’s supposed to help. Imposing artificial limits on Lifeline would mean fewer veterans, school children and the unemployed experiencing the power of the World Wide Web.

Our future will shine brighter if we work together to update the program so it can close the homework gap, get vets connected to the telemedicine services they have earned, and help the unemployed find jobs.

The FCC is laying out a framework that will achieve these goals. The time has come to close the digital divide.

Sen. Edward J. Markey is a Democrat from Massachusetts. Michael Copps, special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, is a former member of the Federal Communications Commission.

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