- - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Major portions of rural America have no access to broadband. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans (17 percent) can’t access what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as broadband, but that level is three times higher — a whopping 53 percent — when it comes to rural America. And what about those parts of rural America with broadband access? According to the 2015 State of the Internet Report, the average connection speed in rural places like Arkansas is slower than those in Estonia, Uruguay and Thailand.

That’s why the millions of us who live in rural America can muster no more than two cheers for the Lifeline Reform plan recently drafted by the FCC that shifts the focus of the federal Lifeline program to broadband. It’s a good move that makes sense in the long term, but it doesn’t have to be done with such haste that it severs the wireless Lifeline phone service now helping millions of low-income residents in rural America.

The problem is that the FCC timetable for shifting Lifeline from a wireless cellphone focus to “broadband only” is out of sync with the reality of the availability of adequate broadband in rural America. The FCC wants to start a phase-out of wireless Lifeline phone service almost immediately and then hang up on it altogether in 2019. After that, Lifeline would only subsidize broadband and landline phone service.

That’s the wrong timetable for rural America. The FCC’s own data show that as many as 22 million rural Americans lack access to connections to broadband at download speeds of 25 megabits per second (mbps). The commission also has reported that 1 in 5 rural Americans lacks access at the even slower speeds of 4 mbps. The access gap is even worse for people living on Native American tribal lands, where the lack of access surges to 63 percent.

While there is much to admire in the FCC’s plan for a $9.25 monthly subsidy focused over time on broadband, the truth is that it probably won’t result in one new mile of broadband cabling in rural America. All signs are that our communities of non-urban areas will lag for decades when it comes to access to essential broadband.

In less than 45 months the current wireless Lifeline phone service will vanish. For rural Americans who have no way to use a broadband subsidy, the demise of Lifeline by 2019 will mean that they are effectively cut out of the program. Their only sin: living in rural America.

To make matters even worse for those living in rural America, the FCC wants to impose minimum standards on wireless Lifeline that almost certainly would force a co-pay arrangement for subscribers. This would make participation in the program burdensome, if not completely unaffordable, for many low-income rural dwellers. Many of the poorest people with the least access to help live in rural America. These are not consumers who will be able to continue using Lifeline if they have to pony up cash that they just don’t have.

By phasing out wireless Lifeline cellphone service and offering only a broadband program they can’t access, rural Americans will not be helped by Lifeline reform. Instead, will we rural Americans become the first and perhaps largest group of disconnected victims of the reforms? I ask the FCC: What good is Lifeline reform in rural America if broadband is not available now and you are killing cellphone service?

Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange.

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