CWA says 10 Mbps broadband requirement should apply to Lifeline program

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union has joined the rallying cry for the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the Lifeline affordable phone service program by adopting a 10/1 Mbps broadband speed standard, which is below the 25 Mbps threshold the regulator has already set as the minimum speed providers should deliver to consumers.

By setting the minimum speed and service requirements for carriers at 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, CWA said that the regulator will make its requirements consistent with other universal service programs.

"The Commission should set standards for Lifeline-supported broadband service consistent with other universal service programs," said the CWA in a FCC filing. "For example, the required minimum speed to receive Connect America funding -- 10 Mbps downstream/1 Mbps upstream -- should also be the required minimum speed carriers must provide to customers receiving Lifeline subsidies."

But speed is only one part of the overall broadband availability equation that can be addressed by the Lifeline program.

Echoing the concerns of other industry groups and FCC commissioners, CWA said that the FCC needs to find ways to extend broadband to more lower-income users by promoting service via programs such as Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Internet Essentials and CenturyLink's Internet Basics program. CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), which provides up to 1.5 Mbps for $9.95 a month, has joined Cox in supporting President Obama's new ConnectHome initiative, a pilot program that is designed to provide broadband to low-income families in 27 cities and one tribal nation.

The CWA said that while a number of service providers offer $10 a month Internet access service to a growing number of low-income users, these services are not universally available in every community or every low-income household.

Besides the availability issue, the CWA said FCC should also provide "Lifeline customers that purchase a fixed residential service a one-time reimbursement to cover any up-front broadband connection charges," while keeping a close eye on "the cost and availability of broadband products intended for low-income customers, and consider providing Lifeline customers with a partial reimbursement to offset the cost of purchasing equipment."

At the same time, the CWA said the FCC should create provision that allows lower-income families to purchase service from another provider if a better service becomes available. 

For lower income families, access to affordable broadband is not just about getting access to online entertainment. It has also become an essential element in seeking out employment and for students to complete homework assignments.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by Comcast, 49 percent of respondents said their employer expects them to have home Internet access. Meeting this requirement has been particularly difficult for lower income residents where the "adoption rate is only 47 percent for households with incomes below $25,000."

A similar issue exists with lower-income students where a lack of affordable Internet access makes it difficult for students to complete assignments, creating what Pew Research calls the "homework gap."

Other lawmakers have been attempting to assist in closing the homework divide through the introduction of measures like the Digital Learning Equity Act.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in April, when the Digital Learning Equity Act was introduced, that the measure will address the homework gap that exists in households that don't have a computer or a broadband connection, calling it "the cruelest part of the new digital divide."

"There was a time when doing basic schoolwork required no more than a little bit of quiet, a clear workspace, and a pencil. No more," said Rosenworcel. "Today, 7 in 10 teachers assign homework that requires Internet access."

Taking it one step further, the CWA said that in the process of providing more affordable Internet access, the FCC should also not cap the Lifeline program, which it said could sabotage low-income families from getting access to the program.

"Capping the program could depress participation, prevent eligible customers from benefiting from the program, and would counteract the Commission's goal of promoting modern services for low-income families," said the CWA. "Any budget should, rather, be flexible and responsive to the countercyclical nature of the program and support the goal of growing legitimate participation."

For more:
- see this release
- see the FCC filing (PDF)

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FCC's Connect America Fund II receives mixed response
FCC's wireline bureau launches Connect America Phase II challenge process