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Will Changes to Federal 'Lifeline' Program Boost Students' Home Internet Access?

The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to recast a program that subsidizes low-income families' phone service so that it promotes broadband access, too—and potentially helps students struggling to connect to the Web from home.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday asked for the public's input on how to "restructure and modernize" the federal Lifeline program, created in 1985 to help poor Americans access basic communications.

Few details are publicly available so far. But Wheeler's request for public comments  says the FCC wants to set minimum standards for providers of Internet and voice services participating in the Lifeline program, and increase competition among them, among other goals.

In a blog post on the FCC's website, Wheeler also made it clear he sees broadband as "the key to Lifeline's future," given the Internet's critical role helping individuals with vital tasks such as searching for jobs, acquiring employment skills, and looking for bargains while shopping.

And in an era when many schools blend online and print lessons, students are also heavily reliant on the Web to do their homework, he noted.

Some federal officials, including FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, have cast poor students' lack of access to the Internet as a major national concern.

The "homework gap," as Rosenworcel has described it, not only prevents students from completing digital assignments after school hours, but also prevents them from interacting with teachers and conducting online research and projects that their peers take for granted.

Rosenworcel has specifically said that changing the Lifeline program would be a way to boost FCC support for students' home Internet access. She reiterated that belief in a statement on Thursday.

"In days past, doing homework required no more than a little bit of quiet, a clear workspace, and a number-two pencil," Rosenworcel said. "No more. Today, Internet access is essential for kids to complete basic school assignments.  Without it, they fall behind in the classroom. ...[T]he good news is that we have tools to help bridge this divide, including improving access to Wi-Fi and modernizing the Lifeline program. It's time to update these policies, do better by our kids, and close the homework gap."

Recent data show that while many teachers assign homework requiring Web access, students' home access to the Web varies greatly by race, and by their families' income level. See this breakdown from the Pew Research Center:

PewCenterHomework.png

Over the past year, the FCC has taken major steps aimed at improving schools' and libraries' Internet access through its overhaul of the federal E-rate program, which the agency oversees. Those changes will over time pour billions of dollars into promoting the use of high-speed broadband in impoverished school communities, while reducing funding for telecommunications services that some have called outdated.

Critics have said that those changes, paid for with increases in consumers' phone bills, pour new money into a program that has lacked financial accountability.

This year, the FCC took a stance that could also shape schools' online activity by adopting a policy that Wheeler and others predict will protect "net neutrality"—basically, the idea of a free and open Internet. Some school and library officials had feared the Web content they use was at risk of being relegated to a "slow-lane" if noneducational content providers were allowed to pay telecoms for faster delivery to customers.

Stay tuned for news on how the changes to the Lifeline program could affect students' home access to Web.


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