Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would expand the Universal Service Fund to include broadband by discounting the Internet access bills to the poor and underserved.
Most observers agree that the FCC will need to extend the fund to broadband. It is currently confined to underwriting phone service in hard-to-reach or uneconomical-to-reach areas, but dates from a time when phone service was the lifeline that broadband is fast becoming.
The FCC is currently considering whether to revamp the fund, which is paid into by phone companies and cable companies providing phone service. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last week told Congress the FCC would come up with options for changes in the USF by Feb. 17 as part of the national broadband plan he must deliver to Congress on that date.
The Broadband Affordability Act of 2009 would direct the FCC to "establish a broadband program that provides low-income Americans living in rural and urban areas with assistance in subscribing to affordable broadband internet service. "
That program would be made part of the USF's Lifeline Assistance program, which does the same for rural and low-income phone customers.
"Lifeline customers would simply receive a discount on their monthly broadband service bill," said Matsui's office in announcing the bill. Those qualifying would have to meet income guidelines or qulify for certain governement programs including Food Stamps and school lunch programs.
“It is clear that millions of Americans cannot afford broadband services,” Matsui expressed. "In today’s economic climate, more and more hardworking Americans simply cannot afford to pay up to $60 a month for broadband services. At a time when consumers need the internet more than ever to seek employment assistance, education, health care, and to manage their finances, the internet plays a vital role in our economy.”
She pointed out that while 96% of California residents have broadband access, the vast majority of those (97%) make over $80,000 a year, while only 58% of those making under $40,000 a year are connected.