Even before an electrical fire burned her house down in 2014, Jennifer Sneperger had trouble affording home internet. A little more than a year after the fire, she and her young son joined a program that fast-tracked them into a spot in a Sarasota, Florida, public housing complex. But the spot came with a condition: Sneperger had to get a job or go back to school. She did both, landing a waitressing gig at a local pizzeria and enrolling in an online GED program in hopes of eventually getting her nursing degree.
Still, getting an online degree is hard without an internet connection at home. Sneperger had to do most of her work at the library, which was an hour away by bus and cost her $5 roundtrip. Meanwhile, her son Andre, now 7, struggled to complete his online homework assignments without access to the web.
“It’s 10 hours a week just for traveling,” Sneperger says of her library commutes, “and thats not including the time I was at the library.”
‘You have delayed kids who want to do their homework. You have delayed people who want to apply for a job.’
Internet access is at least as crucial to taking part in the 21st-century US economy as a phone or a car. But one-third of adults have no broadband connection at home. For low-income families with a household income of less than $20,000, it’s closer to 60 percent. The new Federal Communication Commission chairman Ajit Pai has promised to close this so-called digital divide. But he recently put a stop to the expansion of a key government program to offer subsidized broadband access to low-income Americans. Advocates and educators say it’s a move that will leave behind people like Sneperger.
“You have delayed kids who want to do their homework. You have delayed people who want to apply for a job, and delayed high school students who want to apply to college,” says Chike Aguh, CEO of EveryoneOn, a group that advocates for universal internet access.
Lifeline has provided subsidized phone service to low-income individuals since the Reagan administration. The program targets vulnerable communities, including veterans, people living on tribal lands, food assistance and Medicaid recipients, and people at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line. Pai, who opposed the program’s expansion as an FCC commissioner under the Obama administration, has ordered a review of nine broadband providers set to offer subsidized service in the coming months. Pai argues the Lifeline program is rife with abuse and needs more safeguards in place before the expansion can continue.
In the meantime, low-income students could suffer the consequences. “I was just feeling like we were getting traction and momentum,” says Robert Dillon, who has spent the last four years working as director of innovative learning for two school districts in St. Louis. Roughly 10 percent of the districts’ students have no internet access at home, and another 10 percent have limited connectivity. After hearing that the project was postponed, Dillon says, “It was a moment of despair.”
That despair stems from the firsthand examples Dillon has amassed of students going to great lengths to access the internet for homework. Many spend hours after school at McDonald’s just to get online. This “homework gap” affects some 30 percent of American schoolchildren. “I know I wouldn’t have my kid go to McDonald’s to do their homework,” Dillon says. “I don’t think that’s a fair option.”
Pai’s decision also stopped cold the nine internet providers that were preparing to launch this year. Now they’re stuck in a holding pattern, waiting to see if and when the program will continue. “The ambiguity on the timing is an issue for everybody,” says Stephen Sokols, the CEO of FreedomPop, which was approved to be part of the expansion last year. His company, which hired and assigned a dozen employees to work on this project, has spent more than $1 million on systems to vet potential Lifeline subscribers. “Do we hire or fire or let these guys go?”
Pai has argued that even though this decision impacts nine providers, only one had customers at the time. He says 900 others still participate in the Lifeline program. “In other words, 99 percent of the companies participating in the program are not affected at all,” Pai wrote in a Medium post defending his decision. But there’s a problem with that math: though those hundreds of other providers are technically authorized to provide subsidized broadband, the vast majority of them aren’t doing that. In fact, the FCC itself couldn’t point to any providers who are currently providing broadband service.1
Pai also takes issue with what he calls the loopholes in the Lifeline system that allow companies to sign up fake subscribers that let them reap the government subsidy without providing services. The FCC is instituting a national verification system that is supposed to be in place to vet applicants, but it won’t cover all states until 2019. “Every dollar that is spent on subsidizing somebody who doesnt need the help by definition does not go to someone who does,” Pai said, defending his decision to suspend the Lifeline expansion.
Even advocates like Aguh agree that reform is necessary. But he and others fear the delay of the planned expansion could lead to killing the Lifeline broadband program altogether. Either way, Lifeline suffers under a truly antiquated funding model: a surcharge on landline voice service. “Nobody really thinks thats going to work in the long run,” says Larry Downes, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “Eventually there won’t be anyone with a traditional landline phone line.”
‘Every dollar that is spent on subsidizing somebody who doesnt need the help by definition does not go to someone who does.’Ajit Pai, FCC chairman
But the alternative—taxing broadband itself—is politically untenable. “Not even the most ardent Democrat would suggest a tax on broadband,” he says, noting how powerful the tech industry and its lobbyists have become. And so Downes expects Pai will look for ways to cut costs by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, even if it means leaving millions without internet access for the near future.
Other ways exist to secure low-cost internet. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently launched ConnectHome and ConnectEd, public-private partnerships aimed at bringing broadband access to schools and public housing. Broadband providers put up of the bulk of the funds for those programs themselves, because they realize they’re cultivating a new generation of potential customers.
“To put on my Republican lawmaker hat, this is about economic growth,” he says.
Ultimately the private sector got Sneperger online. After moving into the public housing facility in November, she received an email from the vice president of the housing authority asking if residents whether they were interested in subsidized internet service. It wasn’t coming from Lifeline but a low-cost service offered by Comcast called Internet Essentials, which the company launched back 2011. Sneperger signed up right away. Last week, she and Andre were able to connect from home for the first time in years. It was, she says, a dream come true. But for millions of other Americans who would have benefited from Lifeline’s expansion, it is now a dream deferred.
1.Correction: 4:55 pm ET 2/14/16 This story has been updated to clarify that current Lifeline providers are authorized to provide broadband, though the FCC couldn’t immediately name any that are.