FCC Proposes Subsidized Broadband for the Poor

The proposal would expand a program that provides subsidized phone service for low-income individuals to include Internet.

Although it seems like everyone has easy access to the Internet these days, that’s not the case for many low-income Americans. A proposal from the Federal Communications Commission could help bridge the digital divide between the rich and poor in the United States.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed expanding Lifeline, a program that helps poor Americans with their phone bills, to also provide subsidized broadband Internet access.

While 95 percent of households with annual incomes of more than $150,000 have broadband at home, less than 48 percent of households earning less than $25,000 yearly have home Internet, the FCC said.

“Over a span of three decades, [Lifeline] has helped tens of millions of Americans afford basic phone service. But as communications technologies and markets evolve, the Lifeline program also has to evolve to remain relevant,” Wheeler said in a blog post.

According to the FCC, more than half of poor Americans have been forced to cancel or suspend their smartphone service because of money issues, which further limits broadband access.

“Because low-income consumers disproportionately use smartphones for Internet access, this puts them at a disadvantage at a time when broadband access is essential for access to education and information, for managing and receiving health care, for daily tasks like accessing government services, checking bank balances, finding bargains on goods and services, and more,” the FCC said.

The commission is expected to vote on the issue June 18.

Bloomberg said the proposal by Wheeler, a Democrat, to expand the Lifeline program to include broadband access has already drawn harsh criticism from Republicans like Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. In an emailed statement, Vitter said:

Why the FCC wants to expand this program before addressing the regular reports of ongoing fraud is beyond me. I cannot support any expansion of a program that has so few safeguards in place.

Vitter is the chairman of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, which has been investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of the Lifeline program.

Lifeline, which is supported by fees tacked on to telephone subscribers’ bills, offers a monthly $9.25 subsidy. The Lifeline program cost $1.6 billion in 2014.

The FCC didn’t say what effect the proposed change may have on those fees — currently set at 17.4 percent of a portion of monthly bills — or on the number of program participants,” Bloomberg said.

What do you think of the FCC’s proposal to provide subsidized Internet to low-income users? Share your comments below.

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