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Crafting a Lifeline Program Fit for the Digital Age

America is facing a series of affordability crises. Even before the unique hardship and insecurity brought on by the pandemic, millions struggled to put food on the table, meet basic healthcare expenses—let alone serious medical emergencies—and to fully cover their rent month-over-month. Consider that for these Americans, saving for higher education or retirement is simply a luxury.

As the cost of living continues to climb, and inequality along with it, policymakers must commit to passing reforms that can offer rapid relief with maximum impact to the communities struggling most. As is often the case, these communities are disproportionately black, brown, and LGBTQ+. With these goals in mind, efforts to make internet access more accessible and affordable present a unique opportunity to build a kind of “digital safety net” that can help people across the country regain their economic footing and better prepare them for life long-after the pandemic.

Despite continuing improvements in access to and cost of broadband services, affordability presents an insurmountable hurdle for many. In recent months, a consensus has emerged in Washington around the urgent need for bold action to close the digital divide and get more Americans online. The American Rescue Plan Act recognizes this, allotting $7 billion to increased broadband access in schools and libraries.

As we wait for progress around future infrastructure packages and promising bicameral legislation, policymakers can act on the range of targeted tools at their disposal to make affordable internet access a reality for all households nationwide. This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing to hopefully take the next steps in ensuing that future broadband benefit programs will not leave vulnerable communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.

For decades, there have been programs, such as the Lifeline program, that have existed to provide eligible low-income consumers discounted phone service. While that particular program has been tweaked over the years, it is still being held back by dated processes, unnecessary overhead costs and middlemen, and other regulatory hurdles to dispending aid directly to consumers. Recognizing the shift among users toward internet-based services, there is growing momentum today to modernize and digitize the Lifeline program to make it work more efficiently for the twenty-first century consumer.

Lifeline modernization is the rare case where a quick policy fix is possible. Government already has a model – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – which delivers benefits to consumers digitally via direct deposit using an electronic card system. Digitizing Lifeline benefits in a similar way would streamline the subsidy process, while empowering consumers by allowing them to choose which service provider best suits their needs.

To be sure, electronic benefits distribution is the floor of what’s possible with Lifeline modernization. To maximize the impact of the program over the long run, it must be expanded to cover the full range of broadband service options and paired with a mechanism for continual funding. The groundwork for this has already been laid by Congress with the passage of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

It makes sense to alleviate the financial burdens of obtaining internet access because connectivity is a force multiplier for educational social, economic opportunities and more. The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly transformed the world around us and made digital services increasingly central to daily life. In rural, urban, and suburban communities alike there are students and teachers navigating a remote learning environment. There are doctors and other healthcare professionals connecting with their patients over video. And of course, we cannot forget working parents juggling remote work responsibilities with a host of new pandemic-era anxieties.

For each story of incredible resilience and technological savvy, there is a competing story about the struggles associated with the lack of connectivity. Sadly, that includes nearly 17 million children cut-off from their education. Greater educational opportunity and entrepreneurship depends on enhancing overall access to the digital economy and we need Congress to ensure broadband funding with staying power. We urge leaders in Congress this week and in the future to act swiftly and to help get all Americans online and on solid financial ground. They cannot afford to wait any longer.

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