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Pending FCC Decision on Lifeline Program Could Impact 'Homework Gap'

Led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, FCC commissioners voted last June to open a public comment period on a proposal to overhaul the agency's Lifeline Program, which provides subsidies for phone service to America's low-income households.

The proposal, which the commissioners are considering, would expand the program to offer subsidies for high-speed Internet access, in addition to revamping the rules that govern the existing landline and mobile phone program.

Attention to the "digital divide" and the "homework gap" have heated up in recent months with the revelation that 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires Internet access while nearly five million low-income households with school aged children lack high-speed Internet.

As a result, millions of already disadvantaged students, many of them minorities, must overcome the additional barrier of finding a high-speed connection in a library or local business that their wealthier classmates often have at home.

One of the most vocal advocates of expanding the Lifeline program, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, has called the homework gap "the cruelest part of the digital divide."  Rosenworcel has scores of school leaders, and advocacy groups behind her.

The proposed changes are controversial.  The decision to take up the proposed changes for consideration was passed on a 3 to 2 party line vote among the FCC commissioners.

Conservative FCC commissioners backed by right-leaning advocacy groups and fiscal hawks in Congress have complained about the mushrooming size of the existing Lifeline program.

Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners, issued a statement last year saying that he was "open to having a conversation about including broadband in the Lifeline program" but not before targeting cost overruns that have ballooned the 1985 program to a size "over twenty-three times as large today as it was at the end of the Reagan Administration," after adjusting for inflation.

In his own statement supporting the rule changes, Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler acknowledged that a flaw in how the program was designed, a rule that lets providers certify the eligibility of program applicants, creates a scenario with the "fox guarding the hen house."

In addition to reforming how eligibility is determined, the proposed changes include other provisions to improve service while cutting fraud and abuse. 

However, conservative groups say the proposed reforms intended to make the program more efficient don't go far enough. Pai and the other Republican commissioner, Michael O'Reilly, have called for putting a budget cap on the program to keep costs from spiraling out of control, in addition to other measures.


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