FCC-Proposal-Bridges-Digital-DivideThe head of the Federal Communications Commission has proposed an update to the FCC’s 30-year-old Lifeline program. The program was created in 1985 as a way of ensuring that low-income households would not lose phone service if company rates were raised. Under the old provisions of the program, the FCC provides these households with a subsidy of $9.25 to use to pay for mobile/landline phone service.

At the time of the program’s conception, it was phones that were considered crucial to participation in the economy and society. In the modern day, however, it is the internet that is most useful in the rapid exchange of information. FCC Head Tom Wheeler recognizes that the internet serves as a vital gateway to economic opportunity and recently proposed a new dimension of the program—giving the subsidy recipients the choice of putting the money toward internet, phone service, or some combination of the two. Wheeler argues that the existing Lifeline program doesn’t provide enough, as broadband rates are too high; the current subsidy barely covers cell phone bills.

What would an update to the program cost? The proposal outlines that the expanded program will be covered by the universal service fee that consumers pay on the bills from landline telephone companies and wireless phone service providers. In 2014, at least 12 million households were served by Lifeline at the cost of $1.7 billion, paid for by surcharges on customer phone bills.

Although internet access seems pervasive in American society today, only 48% of American adults making under $30,000 have access to internet, in contrast to the 95% in the $150,000 and up income bracket. This means no access to educational programs, employment opportunities, or online social programs that could help pull these households above the poverty line. The reason isn’t that low-income consumers don’t see the benefits of the internet. They simply cannot afford the often astronomical broadband rates.

Providers like CenturyLink, Cox, and Comcast already have programs helping to grant internet access to low-income families, but these efforts have come under attack. Comcast, for example, offers an Internet Essential program at a monthly cost of $10. A limited number of customers are eligible for the program, however, and it has been criticized for very slow speeds of 5MB per second. Broadband, as defined by the FCC, should have download speeds of up to 25MB per second and higher.

Non-profit organizations hope that the proposed change will help bridge the so-called “digital divide” that contributes to the vast income gap. If America paves the way on this issue, perhaps other countries will follow suit in assisting their underprivileged populations.

Wheeler believes that if the subsidy helps to make even a marginal difference, internet providers will see the benefits in giving discounts to low-income consumers. The private sector will gain access to a whole new market.

In addition to the suggestion of an expanded subsidy, some point out that the government could alternately pay subsidies directly to broadband providers. This way, they could get a better deal than low-income families can get on their own.

The new proposal is scheduled to undergo voting on June 18, and a final vote is expected to take place by the end of the year.

– Katie Pickle

Sources: Wired, Tech Times
Photo: Trinity P3

For many high school teachers, the explosion of the iPod represented another way for their students to become distracted in the classroom.  It turns out that instead of using those MP3 players to blast music, they are being used to promote literacy and education all across Africa.

Meet the Lifeplayer MP3.  A solar-powered radio, recorder and MP3 player, the Lifeplayer is manufactured by Lifeline Technologies to give rural African communities greater access to education.  The Lifeplayer comes with reading and writing lesson plans already pre-loaded.  Since it is solar-powered, rural communities without access to electricity can now enjoy this technological wonder without worrying about access to electrical outlets for recharging.

The company currently runs initiatives in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Zambia.  In Ethiopia, Lifeline has partnered with the British Council to promote English language education to over 50,000 school children.  Kristine Pearson, the CEO of Lifeline, traveled to South Sudan to deliver 15,000 Lifeplayers to educators.

Pearson instructed trainers and teachers on how to use the technologically-advanced device in the hopes of reversing the discouraging education trends in the country.

“Nearly three-quarters of the population can neither read nor write,” states Pearson.  “According to the Overseas Development Index (ODI), less than 2% of the population have completed a primary education and even less completed secondary school.”

In addition to the Lifeplayer MP3, the company also produces two other solar-powered marvels: the Prime Radio, an analogue radio with an LCD display, and the Solarstor, a portable charging station for cell phones.

The Prime Radio has been especially beneficial in Rwanda, where the company spearheads an initiative called Project Muraho.  Partnering with organizations such as UNICEF, the initiative has provided 13,000 radios and power sources to families ravaged by the effects of the Rwandan genocide and the continued devastation of HIV/AIDS.

Although access to education has improved worldwide in the past decade, there are still great disparities in rural areas and communities without power and electricity.  The Lifeplayer MP3 is a wonderful invention to help push education in these struggling communities.

Taylor Diamond 

Sources: World Economic Forum, Lifeline Energy: Technology, Lifeline Energy: Projects
Photo: Texarkana Gazette