Is Rural Broadband Really So Urgent?

The FCC says expanding Internet infrastructure aids the "have-nots." Civil rights groups disagree.

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Last week, when the Federal Communications Commission voted to approve a $4.5 billion fund for extending high-speed Internet service to millions of Americans who lack broadband access, it seemed like a victory for disadvantaged communities.

"We are taking a momentous step today ... to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable and advanced communications services," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn wrote in a statement on the ruling, which allocates money from the commission's Universal Service Fund to private companies so they can expand broadband infrastructure to cutoff rural households.

Until now the fund only subsidized rural telephone service, but it's finally been modernized to match today's more relevant technology. "The painful truth of the matter is that there are 18 million Americans who have not fully benefited from our current universal service policies, and that is unacceptable," Clyburn continued. "They remain the 'have-nots' of the broadband world, who I am determined will benefit the most from our action today."

The ruling was also in line with President Obama's broadband plan to get 98 percent of the nation connected to the Internet within five years. "We've always believed that we have a responsibility to guarantee all our people every tool necessary for them to meet their full potential," the president said in a February speech at Northern Michigan University. "In a 21st-century economy, that has never been more important. Every American deserves access to the world's information."

The Funding Disparity

Put that way, the FCC decision to fund the rural expansion of broadband sounds like a no-brainer. Who could object? Well, some members of the civil rights community. Their disappointment lies in the argument that, in reality, the ruling overlooked the more pressing needs of low-income Americans.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights -- a coalition of more than 200 organizations, including the National Urban League, NAACP and People for the American Way -- has made repeated appeals for the FCC to allocate a fraction of the Universal Service Fund to Lifeline, a $1.2 billion program that gives credits (an average of $10 a month) to help eligible low-income Americans pay their phone bills. If the FCC's goal is to expand Internet access, the Leadership Conference says that more financial assistance for the poor -- not a singular focus on broadband infrastructure -- would benefit far more people.

"It's not that we don't care about rural communities, but from our perspective a really important component is helping folks who don't have enough money to pay for broadband to get that money to pay for broadband," Cheryl Leanza, co-chair of the Leadership Conference Media and Telecommunications Task Force, told The Root.

"There are a lot of reasons why people don't have broadband in their homes," Leanza continued. "But if you look at the statistics, it turns out that 30 percent of Americans have access to broadband infrastructure but don't subscribe, while only 5 percent of Americans don't have a wire at their house. And yet, we have $4.5 billion going annually to this tiny 5 percent deployment problem, and only $1.2 billion goes to a problem which is suffered by a lot more people."

Conflicting Reports?

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