New Federal Rules Support Digital Literacy

February 8, 2012 Updated: February 8, 2012

The American Library Association (ALA) announced last week that it welcomes new federal rules that will change funding for the Lifeline Program. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reform the program, first established to subsidize rural telephone service in places where it was not profitable for phone companies to build infrastructure. The reforms will direct funding “to libraries and schools to bolster their capacity to provide digital literacy training to their communities,” according to ALA.

“The Chairman today echoed the sentiment of librarians serving communities across the country when he said digital literacy training will help more Americans participate fully in our 21st-century economy and society,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the ALA’s Washington office, in a statement.

“Librarians are skilled at developing digital literacy programs that meet the specific needs of their communities—whether rural and remote, or urban—and are trained to assess the skill level of the person coming into the library so that she or he gets the most out of the class,” she wrote.

According to the FCC, “a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on using savings from other Universal Service Fund reforms to increase digital literacy training at libraries and schools, a key step in increasing broadband adoption.”

The Lifeline Program had created what the FCC in a statement called “perverse incentives” to keep rural phone and broadband infrastructure inadequate. Carriers could receive subsidies for providing service in areas where service was marginal. Once Internet and phone service was adequate, the carriers lost the subsidies. The reforms will remove that disincentive.

“As a universal service program that fulfills Congress’s mandate to ensure the availability of communications to all Americans, Lifeline for the past 25 years has helped tens of millions of low-income Americans afford basic phone service,” according to a statement from the FCC.

Lifeline had not been updated to reflect technological changes, including the migration away from land lines and the need for Internet access. The new rules will subsidize bundled broadband Internet and voice service.