Cooper: Obamanet on the way

Cooper: Obamanet on the way

April 12th, 2016 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

EPB President Harold DePriest points to initial service areas for fiber optic service when the utility launched its cable televison, high-speed Internet and telephone service in 2009.

Photo by Allison Kwesell /Times Free Press.

One could easily argue about whether there is a need to subsidize high-speed Internet service for poorer Americans, but let us concentrate for the moment on two sidelights to the issue.

First, the facts. The Federal Communications Commission recently voted 3-2 along party lines to expand the 30-year-old program that subsidizes phone service for people who cannot afford it. With the vote, consumers in time will be able to apply their monthly subsidy to broadband Internet service or a bundled voice and data package from an Internet provider.

Now, the sidelights. The first is that in a bipartisan compromise the FCC agreed, among other changes, to cap the subsidy program, called Lifeline, at $2 billion a year.

Imagine Democrats and Republicans working together on a program that would both expand but also have a limit.

But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, didn't like the agreement and, according to various sources, browbeat fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn into changing her mind.

The expansion that eventually won out with Clyburn's vote increased the $2 billion by $250 million and indexed increases to inflation. Worse, Republican FCC commissioners said the budget amount is not a hard cap and easily could be pushed above the set amounts.

The Lifeline program already has swollen from $809 million in 2005 to $2.2 billion in 2012, most of the increase coming under President Barack Obama's administration.

The second sidelight is the government vs. private business argument. Private business knows a market when it sees one, so it makes sense for Internet providers to offer severely discounted high-speed service to poorer customers. The idea is somewhat altruistic, of course, but the hope also is that clients will like what they have so much that they'll want to pay for faster service or more bells and whistles.

Locally, both Comcast and EPB already advertise such service to clients. Comcast, for instance, offers high-speed Internet to clients for $9.95 per month if they have at least one child who qualifies for the National School Lunch Program, do not have outstanding debt to Comcast less than a year old, and live in an area where service is available but have not subscribed in the last 90 days. EPB offers its high-speed service for $26.95 per month for households with children who qualify for the free and reduced-price meals program within Hamilton County Schools.

The sidelights, thus, prove the original argument — that the government doesn't need to be in the business of supplying high-speed Internet because Democrats have no interest in watching the government wallet with what they offer and private business is more than happy to fill the void for those who want (not to be confused with need) but can't afford the service.

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