Fast internet access through broadband is rapidly evolving into an essential utility service, just as universal landline telephone service became a public goal in the twentieth century. Broadband is increasingly seen as a necessary input for education, communication, commerce, and global competitiveness. As stated by United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown,
The digital revolution is changing all our lives beyond recognition and today we shall set out how Britain must change with it. Whether it is to work online, study, learn new skills, pay bills or simply stay in touch with friends and family, a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water. ****
But I am clear that this transformation must benefit us all, business and consumers alike, in every part of the country. Digital Britain cannot be a two-tier Britain – with those who can take full advantage of being online and those who can’t.
So the first step must be to make the existing broadband network truly available to all. Just as we remain committed to a universal postal service, we pledge today to give every home, community and company access to broadband internet.
Gordon Brown, The Internet Is as Vital as Water and Gas – Every Home Will Have Broadband Access as We Aim for a Digital Britain Fit to Take on the World, The Times (London), June 19, 2009.
Today, with some exceptions in rural areas, nearly all New Yorkers have physical access to a broadband service, such as DSL or cable, but low income and elderly households lag in subscription to it. We estimate that less than half of low-income New York households receive broadband service, while higher income households have far greater subscribership rates.
Many people are well aware of the benefits of broadband for themselves and their children, but because of their constrained family budgets, they believe they simply can’t afford the added monthly charges of about $35. See Wages of 30% of New Yorkers Do Not Cover Minimum Needs, PULP Network, June 13, 2008. Also, broadband providers, unlike utility service providers, do not presently have the obligation to provide affordable repayment plans for customers who lack savings and fall behind in paying bills during a stretch of unemployment or disability, and need time to catch up on their bills. With unemployment still rising in the state, New York households that now have broadband may lose it as they tighten their budgets or due to disconnection when they fall behind in payments.
The lack of affordable broadband, and overreliance by the FCC and New York PSC on deregulation and market solutions rather than affirmative affordability policies, are probably factors in the United States sinking in to be only 15th in the world in broadband subscribership rates.
This week, PULP submitted an application to NTIA for federal Recovery Act economic stimulus funding to increase opportunities of low and fixed income New York consumers to afford and maintain broadband service. PULP proposes a stopgap solution – in the absence of any effective national or state broadband affordability rogram – to stimulate better utilization of existing utility low-income rate discounts, so that those now on budgets seemingly too tight to afford broadband could create enough headroom to subscribe. Large numbers of New York households are eligible for utility rate discounts for telephone and energy services, but only a small proportion of those eligible are reached by the utilities. For example, there about a million readily identifiable Food Stamps households who qualify for substantial telephone service discounts through Lifeline, but participation hovers around only 300,000. In addition to working to expand participation in the existing utility discount programs, PULP also proposes to develop a model for achieving affordable broadband service and model consumer protections to help prevent households from losing the service.
PULP submitted letters of support for its proposal to NTIA from statewide and local organizations, including New York AARP, the New York State Community Action Association (NYSCAA), the New York State Library Association (NYLA), and Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN).