Digital Literacy and the Thin Copper Line

Last week, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski announced an overhaul of the Lifeline low-income telecommunications connectivity program that helps low-income Americans afford basic telephone service. The FCC is revisiting the assistance program in light of developments in broadband Internet and a variety of new telecommunications options that have made many of the Lifeline program provisions obsolete.

The communication focus has shifted to high-speed internet and so must programs like Lifeline, Genachowski said during a meeting of Third Way, a centrist political think tank .

The FCC order, which expands on efforts to improve broadband access and adoption rates as outlined in the National Broadband Plan, establishes a pilot program to determine how Lifeline can best be expanded to include broadband access. It also calls for an increase in digital literacy training at libraries and schools to help needy individuals take advantage of the new communications capabilities.

The Lifeline program currently suffers from billions of dollars of waste and abuse, Genachowski noted. Some of the savings from reduced waste will be used to fund the Lifeline modernization efforts. Currently, Lifeline is funded primarily through a charge applied to telecommunications customers’ monthly bills.


Ed. Note: In a boating accident a lifeline literally connects someone in distress with those who can help. If the line is too thin it breaks and the person is lost. So it is with basic telephone service for many low-income individuals living in remote areas or as shut-ins. The thin copper line that connects them to the rest of the world is not a communication convenience, it is literally a lifesaver. 

In the Digital Age, the thin copper line has grown into a broadband conduit that supplies far more than simple voice communication. The services it makes possible have quickly become ingrained and essential to living a full and participatory life. 

The FCC initiative to assist those who need help in order to afford broadband is a logical and necessary extension of the role of government agencies in seeing to it that some members of society are not left at the communication fringes. 

In the announcement, the FCC wisely noted that along with helping people access and afford broadband there needs to be a concerted effort to help people who have broadband learn to use it effectively. They need broadband plus Literacy 2.0 skills and attitudes. It doesn’t take much training to teach someone to use a telephone, but becoming an adept user of broadband Internet is a different story.  

Broadband combined with digital literacy can help those whose lives have grown narrow and confined due to weak or missing links to the larger society. It can help them stay connected to family and friends, find health information, find government support services, receive news and search for jobs.

Ultimately, societies that throw a broadband lifeline to those in need are saving themselves. A well-connected society that allows everyone to link in and participate will be healthier, more productive, longer lived and able to weather the storms of progress. 

Photo by  Hoosier National Forest 


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