“Throughout American history many of our social gains and much of our progress toward democracy were made possible by the active intervention of the federal government. “
- Harold Washington, Former Mayor of Chicago
For many African Americans, communication has provided a bridge to personal, political, and economic empowerment.
Numerous leaders who have fought for equal rights for African Americans and other minorities to have accessible and unbridled systems of communications in their communities have realized something critical: the power and freedom that directly stems from being able to freely reach out to a neighbor, relative, or colleague to send an expression of affection, discuss a work matter, or verbalize an urgent appeal for help – all through the use of the telephone.
Telephone service not only provides personal benefits, but aids in maintaining a sense of balance and containing costs in municipalities across the nation. Just imagine the considerable financial burdens that would be placed on a city’s resources if residents weren’t able to use a phone to dial 911 to quickly diffuse a dangerous situation like a fire, or if a mother did not have access to a phone to find her child, and instead solicited city services to accomplish that task.
While telephone service has empowered many African American communities across the nation, many low-income blacks have struggled to pay for phone service – and that is where the federal government has stepped in.
The Federal Communications Commission has endeavored to make access to phone service a possibility for low-income Americans citizens by providing subsidies for telephone service and telephone installation costs to low-income Americans through the Lifeline and LinkUp programs. These programs are part of the nation’s Universal Service Fund, which strives to make telecommunications services affordable to all Americans. Some states also have their own Lifeline/LinkUp programs.
According to data provided by the FCC in March 2009, ”Since 1985, when the Federal Communications Commission first established Lifeline to help low-income households afford the monthly cost of telephone service, penetration rates among low-income households have grown from 80.0% to 90.4%.”
The most recent data from the FCC projects that 96 percent of Americans have telephone service. However, the data indicates that telephone penetration among certain groups of minorities is lower than white Americans.
Although the Lifeline/Linkup program has increased the number of households who have telephone service, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council has cited statistics indicating that “in 2009 only 33 percent of low-income Americans participated in the Lifeline program.” Several organizations, like MMTC, have acknowledged that outreach is important in increasing awareness and participation in the program.
As technology is changing, many African Americans and other minorities are increasingly using mobile phones instead of traditional telephone service, and are using these devices to access the Internet. Subsequently, many activists and leaders feel that Lifeline/LinkUp should help make broadband service more affordable for those with low incomes, many of which tend to be minorities.
The FCC is considering reforming Lifeline/ Link Up to make it more efficient and deliver broadband service to more Americans. Specific reform efforts are supported by several civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League.
As study after study shows that areas that have access to critical telecommunications services tend to also have better employment and educational opportunities, the FCC’s reformation of the Lifeline/Linkup program to include broadband could continue to aid in transforming African American communities across the nation – much like the telephone has.
Equality in access to telecommunications services like the telephone and broadband Internet is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
In a time when a 20 to 1 wealth gap between black and white Americans has created a chasm in their daily lives and minority Americans continue to face double-digit unemployment, it is imperative that the federal government – along with assistance from state and municipal governments – continue to harness the power of telecom in helping to equalize the economic and political injustices many of our communities face by maintaining and enhancing programs like Lifeline/Linkup.
As a basic right, every person in every state and every city should have a telephone (whether wireline or wireless) to use.
Otherwise, a missed call could mean a missed opportunity at peace of mind, or sustenance, or hope, or at life.
- Kenneth Mallory is an award-winning journalist and attorney who has free-lanced for several publications, in addition to serving as a general assignment reporter for the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He earned his B.A. magna cum laude from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.