Lifeline is a good step, but let's keep going
By Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva
There's been a lot of action and chatter in the months leading up to the NDIA's Twitter Town Hall on digital inclusion, especially as the FCC works out the details of its new affordable internet subsidy. I’ve learned over the last few months trying to understand the new Lifeline affordable internet program, and the conversation around it, that subsidized internet options are complicated and often opaque.
Actually, it’s a total mess to explain tour CTEP AmeriCorps members what low-cost internet options are available to the public—and harder still to explain why low-cost options are available to some and not others.
Twin Cities residents have a few limited low-cost internet options, but when people are trying to sign up for low cost internet options it takes them way too long to wade through the complicated interfaces and formulas, and some of these programs are restricted to specific segments of the poor.
In the Twin Cities, there are a few good low-cost internet options which provide low-cost options. PCs for People, in particular has erased one internet access barrier for transient communities by providing mobile hotspots that can travel with people if they move out of their home. The Saint Paul Public Libraries have also introduced a helpful mobile hotspot option for residents who want to “check-out” the internet for a week. These programs help people who come through CTEP computer labs, and ultimately support the digital literacy training that our 35 CTEP AmeriCorps members do in community technology centers throughout the Twin Cities. Mobile access through phones have also helped some people gain internet access, but a phone does not provide enough access and tools as a computer.
However, these subsidized programs exclude the working poor, and working and middle class who still need affordable internet; and we really need to make Internet affordable for all.
Until we promote more successful publicly owned and managed internet infrastructure—or at the very least foster more competition among internet service providers—we’re just going to keep trying to subsidize our way out of unaffordable internet, and that doesn’t seem sustainable.
I am struck by how many people who come to computer labs in the CTEP program don't qualify for low-cost subsidized internet programs because they make just over the amount worked out by complicated formulas, or they don’t, for instance, have a child in the public schools (a prerequisite for Comcast Internet Essentials program).
As one of the CTEP members said to me in exasperation once, "You have to be real, real poor to qualify for one of these subsidized programs, and if you aren't, there's not a lot out there for you."
I know this because I am one of those people who could barely afford the internet. I was a grad student and was paying $96 for internet at a time that every trip to the grocery store hurt. I didn't qualify for any subsidized internet options, and for many years I really struggled to get by.
During that time I found out there was a new cheaper fiber option in my neighborhood through US Internet, and so I switched over and ended up saving about $500 a year. I put away that money and put $300 into a retirement account, spent $100 on groceries, and spent $100 towards travel.
Thanks to this new internet option I was unexpectedly able to save more for retirement and take a much needed vacation. Well, I told everyone about US Internet, but became shocked to hear that cheaper internet wasn’t an option for some because of the neighborhoods they lived in. (Fiber networks like Google Fiber and US Internet are often relegated to upper class neighborhoods because of a guaranteed profit). In Twin Cities the current internet service system makes working people in poorer neighborhoods have fewer, but more expensive, internet service provider options.
As we are an unfortunately highly racially segregated city, this often means that people of color, who often make up our poorer neighborhoods, have fewer, but more expensive options than white people who live in more expensive neighborhoods.
Every year the bright eyed AmeriCorps members with whom I work learn about this system and realize how bonkers it is. Then, in their computer labs they try to help working Nurse Assistants and Office Administrators, for instance, who are barely making ends meet access a lower-cost internet option. Our AmeriCorps members say they can't help them, though, because they aren't poor enough and they don't live in a rich neighborhood. They may be able to afford the internet, but just barely.
In the short time since I’ve really understood low-cost internet options, this inequity has somehow come to seem normal to me and I tend to argue for smaller, achievable fixes like the Lifeline program and focus on digital literacy training—which is what I think CTEP does best.
But with every year that passes the AmeriCorps members who serve in Community Technology Centers realize what's going on are more and more shocked by the system. And because they are young and changemakers, and they have fresh eyes that I now lack, they remind me of the big picture.
Yes, the Lifeline programs helps, and hopefully it will have ripple effects on broadband policy. I commend the FCC and policy makers and members of the digital inclusion community like the NDIA for recognizing that the internet is as essential to life in America as the telephone. Yes, other low-cost internet options though big companies and mandated by the FCC also help. I look forward to seeing what other solutions government, nonprofit and business leaders come up with to help subsidize costs for some of our poorest residents.
We'll be following along during the Twitter Town Hall on digital inclusion today to see how the conversation unfolds. But as we do so, let’s keep our eye on the prize and keep pushing beyond Lifeline-type mandates. Until there is more competition among service providers, or a shift toward publicly owned and managed ISPs, as a digital inclusion community we’ll be focusing on the trees, not the forest.