Why The Arts Community Should Care About The Lifeline Program (And What We Can Do To Improve It)
Why The Arts Community Should Care About The Lifeline Program (And What We Can Do To Improve It)
Why The Arts Community Should Care About The Lifeline Program (And What We Can Do To Improve It)

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    Courtney Duffy is the Fractured Atlas Robert W. Deutsch Arts & Technology Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge. This post was originally published on the Fractured Atlas blog

    Artists, take note: There are some possible changes coming to federal communications policy that would have a positive impact on the lives of individuals and families across the country. Better yet, the arts community has a chance to insert its voice in the policy discourse.

    Great! Fill me in.

    The Lifeline Program is a Universal Service Fund subsidy that helps low-income Americans access telephone service for $9.25 per month. For three decades, Lifeline has helped people pay for basic telephone services that connect them to physicians, schools, emergency services, job opportunities, and more.

    When the Lifeline Program began in 1985 under President Reagan, the technology that offered a “lifeline” to these consumers was the traditional landline phone. During the Clinton Administration, the program was expanded to include wireless phones, a move made by a Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC). However, in 2015, telephone access alone is no longer sufficient for low-income Americans to apply for jobs and access basic social services.

    As a result, the FCC is considering modernizing Lifeline once again, this time to include the option of broadband Internet.

    Who qualifies for Lifeline?

    Eligible consumers have an income at or below 135% of federal poverty guidelines (which translates to $21,506 for a family of two). Americans are also eligible through participation in Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or other safety net programs.

    Are there numbers that support a need for this change to Lifeline?

    ·       Forty-seven percent of households earning less than $25,000 per year have broadband access, as opposed to a whopping 95% of households that earn more than $150,000.

    ·       An increasing number of businesses are requiring that resumes be submitted online, including more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies.

    ·       Seven in 10 teachers today assign homework that requires broadband access. One study even showed that 50% of high school students reported being unable to complete an assignment due to a lack of Internet access.

    So what do the possible program changes look like?

    The FCC has published a proposed set of rules detailing how it might go about modernizing the Lifeline Program to include broadband. Specifically, the FCC proposes developing minimum standards for voice and broadband services, streamlining the administration of the program, and maximizing consumer choices by increasing competition.

    Connect the dots for me: How is this relevant to artists?

    Some artists qualify for Lifeline; however, many aren’t aware the program exists. It’s important that they are informed about opportunities to take advantage of the program and the ways to advocate for its expansion. There are hundreds of Fractured Atlas members who incorporate the Internet into their work – like Sydney Skybetter, who livestreams his dance rehearsals, and Asymptote, a free online literacy journal. With access to broadband, these artists are empowered to not only share their art with a wider audience, but also to support (and find inspiration in) the work of artists from different communities.

    But access to broadband transcends the arts community, too. It meets a critical need for all of us in today’s digital world. This is a notion reminiscent of the recent net neutrality debate: Broadband is a modern public utility. An open Internet – and in this case, affordable access for low-income Americans – is important for artists because it is important for everyone.

    What are the next steps?

    Fractured Atlas supports the FCC’s efforts to add broadband as an option for Lifeline users, and as an organization we’re doing something about it. We plan to submit a letter to the FCC this month to illustrate the ways an expanded Lifeline Program would positively impact the arts community.

    What can I do to help?

    Our advocacy will be made richer by the inclusion of stories from the creative world of those whose lives would be made better by this change: “Faces of Lifeline from the Arts Community,” if you will. Consider these questions:

    • Are you an artist who qualifies, or perhaps already participates, in the Lifeline program?
    • Are you able to pinpoint ways that the Internet has inspired or enriched your artwork?
    • Are you sharing your visual art, performance art, music, or work in other disciplines through the Internet?
    • Are you an arts educator in a community where improved broadband access would be a game changer for families?
    • Can you attest to the role Internet access plays in incorporating art into your daily life?

    This is ringing a bell for me and/or someone I know. How do I share my story with you?

    The two best ways to reach me are through Twitter and email: @cduffy90 and Courtney.Duffy@fracturedatlas.org. (This fact alone illustrates the need for increased broadband access, wouldn’t you say?) You can also reach me by phone in the DC office of our Public Knowledge friends, who join Fractured Atlas in supporting this FCC initiative. The best number to use is 202-861-0020 Ext. 105.

    Thank you and stay tuned for updates on the progress of our advocacy on this important issue!

    Image credit: Flickr user Jeremy Brooks