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FCC Moves to Add Broadband to 'Lifeline' Program for Needy Households, Students

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to invite public comments on a proposal that would for the first time fund broadband Internet through the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service to low-income households. 

The public comment period will lead up to a vote on changes to restructure and modernize the program, which was established in 1985 to help poor Americans access basic communications.

Under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal, the Lifeline program would be updated to incorporate broadband services, covering Internet access for low-income families. If eventually approved by the commission, that change could give more students access to the connectivity they often need in their homes to do homework or connect to classrooms.

In Wheeler's proposal, the chairman indicated that almost half of low-income Americans "have had to cancel or suspend smartphone service due to financial hardship."

The item adopted by the FCC Thursday proposes maintaining the $9.25-per-month subsidy that has been used for phone services—funds that should be used "as efficiently and effectively as possible" to deliver modern communication services. The commission is also seeking comments on the following parts of the proposal as well:

  • Adopting minimum service standards for both voice and broadband service;
  • Whether broadband should be a required offering of Lifeline providers;
  • How to encourage more competition to drive down prices and improve service; and
  • How to encourage more participation by the states.

The Lifeline program came under scrutiny several years ago when it was discovered that more than in some low-income households, more than one person had been receiving the subsidy, which was intended as a "one-per-household" benefit.

In 2012, several reforms were introduced in an attempt to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, including the establishment of a national database to avoid duplication of services. This week's proposal would build on those reforms by taking the process of verifying consumer eligibility out of providers' hands. 

Reactions to the Proposal

The "digital divide and homework gap are both unfair and unhealthy," said Jim Steyer, president of Common Sense, a kids' advocacy organization, in a statement after the decision. 

The organization pointed to the Republican roots of the original plan, indicating that it was established by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and expanded by President George W. Bush to cover cell service.

Recent votes by the FCC have split along partisan lines, with the two Republican commissioners—Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly—voting against the Democratic majority of Chairman Wheeler, Mignon Clyburn, and Jessica Rosenworcel on both a recent overhaul and expansion of the E-rate program, the federal program that supports technology in schools and libraries; and new rules to support net neutrality, described by supporters as the idea of preserving open access to the Internet.

High-speed Internet access is "good for our economy, our education, and our health," said Steyer, pointing to studies that show household incomes rise with greater Internet penetration, and referring to what he said were reduced healthcare costs through telemedicine.

The American Library Association also supports the proposal, releasing a statement that highlighted the disparities between the 92 percent or more of households with incomes of $100,000 or more that have home broadband, compared to 47 percent of households with less than $25,000 in income.

"[B]roadband access is essential to connecting people with educational and economic opportunity, as well as enabling full civic participation," the organization's president, Courtney Young, said in a statement.

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