New bill aims to close broadband gap by updating FCC program

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A trio of legislators have introduced a bill to help bridge the digital divide affecting nearly 100 million residents across the country.

Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., along with Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., introduced the Broadband Adoption Act of 2015 on Monday that would update a Federal Communications Commission program with the aim of expanding broadband Internet offerings to eligible low-income households.

“In a world that is more and more interconnected, Internet access has become a necessity for social and economic well-being,” said Booker, according to the Bergen Dispatch. “We must work to ensure everyone has a chance to access the opportunities this technology provides.”

Under the FCC’s Universal Service Fund Lifeline Assistance Program, consumers are currently eligible for discounts on their phone service, if they have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or if they participate in federal assistance programs. Most participants have a household income of less than $15,000 per year, according to reports.

The legislation would update that lifeline by giving qualifying households assistance to access broadband services. The bill comes on the heels of a concerted effort by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to close the broadband gap and “homework gap.”

According to Rosenworcel, roughly 5 million families with children across the country do not have access to broadband Internet at home, EdScoop reported last month. She said that updating the Lifeline program, which was started 30 years ago, would be a “simple change.”

“Think about what it’s like to be a student in a household with no broadband,” she said in May at the 1776 Challenge Festival. “Just getting your basic schoolwork done is hard. Applying for a scholarship is challenging.”

If enacted, the bill would allow consumers to choose their form of Lifeline assistance: whether for broadband, mobile, basic telephone services or a bundle of the services. It would also be “technology neutral” to promote competition from service providers.

Civil and human rights activists applauded the measure, saying the bill would help some of the nation’s “most vulnerable communities” to thrive in the digital age.

“High-speed Internet today is vital to accessing job opportunities, health care, social services and education,” Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “By helping reduce the high cost of broadband services, this bill will help narrow the digital divide and move our nation toward an inclusive economic recovery.”

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