As Black History Month comes to a close, we must continue working to ensure the African American community and all Americans have access to the resources they need to succeed in a modern world. According to a recent New York Times article, expanding access to home broadband and public Wi-Fi, especially in low-income communities, should be a top priority for our country.
This issue has special importance since next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will consider changes to the roughly $2 billion-a-year federal Lifeline subsidy program. Among possible changes, the Commission will consider expanding the current phone-only subsidies to include home broadband.
According to The New York Times, in certain areas of Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband. Students go to libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots. In some neighborhoods, school buses with free Wi-Fi are sometimes parked overnight in residential neighborhoods to allow students without home broadband to do their homework.
Given the overwhelming need for Internet access, Lifeline's lack of support for home broadband is a serious shortcoming - so is Lifeline's ongoing problem with waste and fraud, as one of the FCC's own Commissioners has documented.
The Commission's duties next month are clear-cut: First, Lifeline should be expanded to cover home broadband, both wireline and wireless. This will help young students in underserved communities gain Internet access in the convenience of their own home.
Second, the Commission should reduce the potential for fraud by having state agencies, not phone companies, determine eligibility. This step is every bit as important as the first. The Commission will miss the mark entirely if it only expands a flawed, inefficient program. Reforming the process for determining eligibility is an equally important step because it will channel program funding to where it is most needed.
The benefits of having a home broadband connection in regard to education has grown sharply in recent years and will only become more integral. Students need it for basic research, joint projects, and submitting homework. And an increasing number of teachers - approximately 7 in 10 - assign homework that requires access to the Internet.
In order to create a society with equal opportunity to quality education and employment, the FCC cannot wait any longer. It must modernize the Lifeline program now.