Lawmaker's Bill Would Help Poor With Broadband Costs

New legislation in the U.S. Congress would expand a program that helps low-income people who get telephone service also get broadband service.

Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, introduced the Broadband Affordability Act on Thursday. The bill would require the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to establish a broadband assistance program for low-income people by expanding the Universal Service Fund's (USF) Lifeline Assistance program.

The Lifeline Assistance program, which now provides discounts of up to US$10 a month for telephone service, has a budget of about $800 million a year. Matsui's proposal would add an additional $100 million, a spokeswoman for the congresswoman said.

"To fully close the digital divide we must address the affordability of broadband services for lower-income households," Matsui said in a statement. "Although these households may have some options for broadband access, they are underserved if none of these options are affordable."

The FCC is working on a national broadband plan that presumably would address adoption rates and affordability. Two other agencies, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Rural Utilities Service (RUS), received $7.2 billion to help roll out broadband to unserved and underserved areas in a huge economic stimulus package passed early this year, and part of the money will go toward creating more broadband demand.

Backers of universal broadband say the service can bring huge benefits to individual subscribers, including educational, health and job training resources. A recent survey by Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 63 percent of all U.S. adults had broadband in their homes, but the numbers are significantly lower in low-income communities.

An estimated 96 percent of California residents have access to broadband, but just more than half of Californians subscribe to broadband at home, Matsui said. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 58 percent of Californians earning under $40,000 a year subscribed to dial-up or broadband at home, while 97 percent of those earning $80,000 or more a year subscribed to one of these services.

About 2.1 million households in California are enrolled in the Lifeline program. Under Matsui's bill, each of those households would be eligible to participate in a new broadband lifeline assistance program to receive discounted broadband services.

To be eligible for the program, a household must meet federal low-income guidelines or qualify for one of a handful of social service programs, including food stamps, school lunch programs and Medicaid.

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