There are many low-income Americans that cannot afford Internet even though Internet is a big part of our generation today. It allows for access to education, jobs, healthcare, government services and so much more. For those without access to Internet, they are excluded from equal participation and opportunities. Low income remains a significant barrier to broadband access, particularly for deaf and hard of hearing people for which unemployment and communication access is already a serious issue.
For example, Internet access would allow for calls through Video Relay Services (VRS) that would enable deaf and hard of hearing people to telecommute, build a business from the home, and conduct phone interviews. They can also apply online to various jobs if Internet is available. As another example, deaf and hard of hearing students should not be left behind in school simply because they are without Internet access at home.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Lifeline program in 1985 to ensure that qualifying low-income consumers could afford phone services and the opportunities it provides. Eligible beneficiaries get a discount on wireline or wireless service monthly. It has historically been limited to voice service only but the NAD and other consumer groups advocated for the FCC to expand Lifeline to include broadband access. The FCC voted for the expansion on March 31, 2016.
However, the new Order requires unlimited minutes for mobile voice service while it phases in different levels of broadband service, starting at 500 MB per month of 3G data. 500 MB per month of data represents about an hour’s worth of videophone and VRS usage. Since deaf and hard of hearing individuals rely on Internet for accessibility, the difference in requirements undermines functional equivalence for deaf and hard of hearing consumers. The NAD continues to advocate with the FCC to ensure equivalent requirements and require Lifeline providers to provide a plan to the deaf and hard of hearing people that will enable them to use videophone calls to the same extent as hearing Lifeline consumers use voice minutes.