Broadband access is, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commissions' (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski, now a more important communications platform than phone service. Because of this, Genachowski today announced a draft proposal that, if adopted, would extend the subsidies the U.S. government currently offers low-income families for phone service to broadband service as well. The so-called "Lifeline" program currently has about 10 million participants.
Genachowski noted that the current program is "outdated" and "focused on phone service when high-speed Internet has become our vital communications platform." The growing digital divide in the U.S. will likely remain a major stumbling block for low-income families and programs like this will at least alleviate some of the problems. It's not clear how large these subsidies would be. The Lifeline program currently provides families that qualify with a $10 discount on their monthly phone bill.
In October 2011, the FCC also announced a $4.5 billion broadband fund that aims to bring broadband access to rural areas in the U.S. How (and if) these two programs would work together is not clear at this point.
According to Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the main problem with this new program is that the FCC is currently only proposing a pilot program and that this "puts the program years away from having a notable impact on narrowing the digital divide." This, says Henderson, "won’t help the millions of Americans struggling right now to get a leg up in today’s economy."