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FCC Approves Lifeline Changes, Seeks Comment on Possible Budget Cap

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to make significant changes to its Lifeline program, which helps low-income families pay for phone and broadband service, funds proponents say are necessary to close the so-called "homework gap."

Under newly approved rules, Lifeline funds will only be available to support broadband at 3G or better levels, and cannot be used to support "premium Wi-Fi" services that require use at a Wi-FI hot spot. Lifeline consumers will no longer be barred from changing providers for a year. The commission also took steps to limit the circumstances under which it makes additional "enhanced" Lifeline payments to residents on Tribal lands.

The commission also approved a new notice of proposed rule-making, seeking public comment on a number of potential future measures, including adding a "self-enforcing budget cap" to the program and giving states greater say in determining eligible Lifeline providers.

The changes were approved in a party-line vote, with the FCC's Republican majority for the moves, and the commission's two Democrats against.

In a statement, the commission described the changes as "major steps to transform its Lifeline program to more effectively and efficiently close the digital divide for low-income households."

Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, long the FCC's most vocal proponent of expanding Lifeline to help close the "homework gap" by giving more students the bandwidth they need to complete online schoolwork at home, had a starkly different take.

"This is not real reform. This is cruelty," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "It will do little more than consign too many communities to the wrong side of the digital divide."

James P. Steyer, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, also spoke out against the future reforms proposed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

"The people Chairman Pai has targeted for real loss are the low-income families who need internet service the most—for learning opportunities, job applications, health care needs, civic engagement and staying in touch—but who are often the least connected because they cannot afford the cost of getting and staying online," Steyer said in a statement.

"We urge the public to speak up over the next several months before the final vote so that commissioners will make common sense changes to this flawed proposal in order to lift our country up instead of taking us backwards."


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