Legislature can help low-income Floridians get digital access. It could save their lives. | Opinion

In Florida, about 2.3 million households have limited access to mobile phone and broadband wireless internet service.
In Florida, about 2.3 million households have limited access to mobile phone and broadband wireless internet service. Miami Herald

In today’s connected world, anyone without phone and broadband service is at a disadvantage that’s difficult, or impossible, to overcome. Job seekers are disconnected from the ability to find jobs, and workers whose employers can’t reach them are challenged to keep the jobs they have. Children without internet access can’t tap into the resources they need to complete assignments and succeed in school. Families without cell service might be unable to reach life-saving emergency services in critical moments.

We all can agree that this is unacceptable. Yet only half of Americans who earn less than $30,000 a year have internet access. In Florida, almost 2.3 million households have limited access to mobile phone and broadband wireless internet service. These Floridians live all over our state; many are in rural communities, and many are elderly or poor.

This is the digital divide, and it’s holding Florida back.

Since its inception during the Reagan administration, the federal Lifeline program has provided discounted phone service for qualifying low-income residents throughout the nation. While it was originally created to offer landline phone access, over time the program has evolved to predominantly provide the cell and broadband services that have become a staple of our society.

Lifeline is currently available to Floridians in a limited capacity, because only two providers control 90 percent of the Lifeline market. They lack the capacity to fully meet Floridians’ needs. As a consequence, less than half of all eligible households now participate in the program.

Why are we stuck here? Several years ago, the Florida Legislature gave the Federal Communications Commission authority to designate eligible telecommunication carriers for the Lifeline program, taking this function away from the Florida Public Service Commission.

The FCC has not designated any new eligible telecommunication carriers in Florida since 2014, creating a backlog. The Legislature has the power to take back Florida’s authority, enabling our state to authorize additional providers. Our state would be able to quickly extend services to Floridians who lack them.

Best of all, this wouldn’t cost our state a single additional dollar. Florida has long been a net contributor into the Universal Service Program, which funds Lifeline, sending significantly more than we receive. The only way we can reap the benefit of contributions Florida has already made is to take matters into our own hands and approve additional carriers.

This session, the Florida Legislature is considering SB 742 and HB 1381, which would expand access to mobile phone and internet services by allowing new eligible telecommunications carriers to operate in Florida. My support for these bills comes from my perspective as a former Florida legislator representing communities that benefited from this program, a former PSC chairman, and a former member of the Universal Service Joint Board.

Florida enjoys a robust economic climate, and solving our connectivity challenge would make it even stronger, eliminating a difficult barrier that prevents low-income residents from actively participating in our economy. Gone are the days when we can tolerate a separation between the “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to cell and internet access. It’s time to level the playing field for all Floridians and close this digital divide.

Ronald A. Brisé is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives from Miami-Dade County. He also served as chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission and was a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He is a lobbyist representing Q-Link, a telecommunication carrier.