The FCC’s Proposal to Cap Broadband Funding Would Leave Millions of Americans Without Internet Access

Universal service is the principle that all Americans, regardless of location or income, deserve ubiquitous and affordable access to communications services, which have become integral to our lives. Communications services allow us to connect with friends, family, employers, schools, government institutions, and ultimately participate in our democracy.

Universal service is the principle that all Americans, regardless of location or income, deserve ubiquitous and affordable access to communications services, which have become integral to our lives. Communications services allow us to connect with friends, family, employers, schools, government institutions, and ultimately participate in our democracy.

In 1996, Congress charged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with reducing the disparity between those who are connected and those who are not. This Congressional mandate led to the FCC establishing the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF supports the deployment of broadband and telehealth services in rural areas, affordable voice and broadband services for low-income communities, and connectivity for schools and libraries. The FCC’s USF programs are formally called: Connect America Fund, Lifeline, E-Rate, and Rural Health Care. Each program serves a distinct and complimentary purpose to achieve universal service.

That’s why the FCC’s recent proposal to impose an overall budget cap on USF, requiring all four programs to operate within a single budget, runs counter to the goals of universal service set out by Congress. In comments filed with the FCC, we explained that imposing a budget cap would pit the four USF programs against each other in competition for funding. This could take funding away from low-income communities that rely on Lifeline for affordable broadband, students who connect to broadband in schools and libraries, or families living in rural areas that still lack broadband access today.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has reiterated since his appointment that the FCC’s top priority is bridging the digital divide. But imposing an overall cap on USF could cut funding to one or more of the USF programs, each of which addresses a unique challenge to closing the digital divide. For example, 15% of people who live in rural areas do not use the internet, compared to 9% in urban and 6% in suburban areas. Similarly, 18% of people with annual incomes below $30,000 still lack internet access compared to 2% of people with incomes above $75,000. A budget cap would only serve to undermine USF programs designed to address these challenges.

Democratic participation and broadband access are also more correlated than ever. As of 2018, 37 states and the District of Columbia implemented online voter registration, and one state’s online registration.  Voters also use the internet to make political contributions, sign petitions, and share their views with others. Broadband is essential to civic engagement, yet one in ten people across the United States still lack internet access.

Without broadband access, people lack essential tools that enable effective democratic participation. Government officials increasingly make contact information available online and shape public policy via social media, but 162.8 million Americans, almost half of the U.S. population, do not use the internet at broadband speeds. Further, 15% of U.S. households with school age children lack at-home internet access, which children need to complete homework assignments that will give them the tools to become civically engaged adults.

The E-Rate, Lifeline, Connect America Fund, and Rural Healthcare programs each have a crucial role to play in improving broadband connectivity. Adopting the proposed cap would suppress the federal government’s ability to fund broadband services, leaving millions of rural and low-income Americans unconnected from society and without a voice in our democracy.

Fortunately, the FCC has not yet approved the cap and Common Cause will continue the fight for a robust and comprehensive policy that improves broadband access for all.