Thursday, April 7, 2016

Why the recent Lifeline decision matters to housing providers


by Rebekah King, National Housing Conference

On March 31, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 in favor of modernizing the Lifeline program, expanding it for the first time to cover broadband Internet service. Bringing greater in-home access to low-income households, including those in affordable housing, can be a powerful tool to improve student success in school, health outcomes, economic growth and more. The FCC decision comes after advocacy by NHC and many allies supporting broadband access in affordable housing, work that will continue on policy and practical steps.

Having in-home access to the Internet is increasingly important for families to achieve and maintain self-sufficiency, as NHC reported in its research on broadband in affordable housing. Dr. Lisa Sturtevant, in NHC’s “Connectivity Gap” brief, describes how “the availability of Internet access is associated with greater student achievement, improved health outcomes and less social isolation, as well as with more robust economic growth.” However, NHC’s research found that low-income households, especially very low-income renters, are much less likely to have Internet access at home. Fifty-four percent of extremely low-income renters (with incomes below 30 percent of area median income) do not have home Internet access, compared to only 26 percent of US households that do not have home Internet access.

The vote by the Federal Communications Commission on March 31 was 3-2 in favor of modernizing the Lifeline program. Previously, Lifeline provided affordable telephone service for low-income Americans. The FCC has now expanded Lifeline to include support for broadband Internet. Eligible households will be able to use the $9.25 per month subsidy for broadband, voice or bundled voice and broadband. The FCC set minimum standards for fixed broadband at 10 Mbps downloads/one Mbps uploads, which is what the majority of consumers currently receive. The order also creates a third-party national verification process, removing the burden from providers. This modernization also refines the list of federal programs that can validate Lifeline eligibility to include HUD public housing, hopefully making it easier for public housing residents to participate in the Lifeline program.

This recent decision by the FCC is one step towards addressing the digital divide and ensuring that low-income renters are not left behind. NHC is glad to see the FCC make these changes to the Lifeline program. With this policy change at the FCC and HUD’s ConnectHome initiative, housing providers now have more resources to help with implementing broadband in affordable housing. One place to start when considering how you might pursue broadband in your development is to review NHC’s case studies on how Eden Housing and the Housing Authority of the City of Austin were able to do so. Additionally, NHC will be holding a webinar to discuss the Housing Authority of the City of Austin case study in depth on May 3 at 2 p.m. EDT. You can register here.

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