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Van Jones: Access to fast and reliable broadband is just as essential now as electricity was during the last century

The FCC should expand its Lifeline program to include broadband access for everyone

Editor’s Note: Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild the Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

Can you imagine a life without electricity? For most people, the answer is probably no.

What about a life without broadband Internet?

It would mean: no emails; no ability to quickly look up health information for managing your diabetes or helping your sick child; no way to pay bills, search for jobs, or take classes online.

When you stop to think about it, one thing becomes clear: access to fast and reliable broadband is just as essential now as electricity was during the last century.

But millions of Americans still don’t have access to affordable broadband services. Specifically, rural, low-income and people of color are getting left behind.

A mere 47% of households with annual income below $25,000 have been able to access broadband services. And only 64% of African Americans and 53% of Hispanics have access to broadband.

Van Jones

The divide between Americans who have access and those left behind is too great.

But this divide can be bridged with the Federal Communications Commission’s recent proposal to expand the Lifeline program to include broadband. The Lifeline program was established in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan to help low-income Americans have access to affordable communications. Under President George W. Bush, the program was updated to include both wireline and wireless technology.

It’s time to bring it up to date again. The FCC is on the right track as it explores new ways to modernize the program.

Conservatives also understand the benefits of extending the Lifeline program to include broadband Internet. Earlier this year, the president of Free State Foundation, Randolph May, testified before the Senate and said, “Lifeline is the most targeted means of providing subsidies to those truly in need of assistance.”

Modernizing this vital program will strengthen our economy. Research shows that broadband adoption in the home improves household income, leads to more employment opportunities and increases independence. And strong, thriving households lead to strong, thriving communities.

Access to broadband also has implications for democracy. It lets people join conversations that directly impact their own communities. Increasingly, communities of color rely on broadband services to mobilize powerful movements and public voices on important issues such as immigration and the rights of low-wage workers. Groups such as Color of Change and Voto Latino come immediately to mind.

“Black Lives Matter” is a recent example of a movement that was born online. It has helped bring together tens of thousands across the country to rally against police brutality. It has connected voices not just in major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago, but in countless smaller communities. It has helped individuals unite and collectively speak out against injustices.

Expanding the Lifeline program to include broadband would further elevate underrepresented voices and spur civic engagement. This is exactly what our country needs to help close the digital divide and ensure that everyone – no matter who they are or where they live – has a chance to improve their life and provide for their loved ones.

The FCC gets this. We understood this under President Reagan’s administration and President George W. Bush’s administration. Now it’s up to our current policymakers to back this up, too.

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