With Plan to Subsidize Internet Access for the Poor, FCC Seeks to 'Reboot'

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday introduced a proposal to subsidize internet access for low-income Americans, marking the agency’s strongest and most recent recognition that broadband services are an essential public utility.

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The plan seeks to expand the FCC’s $1.7 billion Lifeline program, which has helped more than 12 million low-income households pay their phone bills since its inception in 1985. To qualify, a household must have income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, or be enrolled in programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

Over the years, Lifeline has expanded to include mobile phones as well as landlines. Now, as people increasingly rely on the internet for access to critical information and services, overhauling the Lifeline program to include broadband is the “first step of upgrading our national communications lifeline for the digital age,” said Kristine DeBry, a vice president at consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

Wheeler’s proposal will establish minimum standards of service for voice and broadband, which he said would provide safeguards for both beneficiaries and taxpayers. It also seeks to overhaul current measures of ensuring eligibility and ways to encourage providers to participate.

“A world of broadband ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is a world where none of us will have the opportunity to enjoy the full fruits of what broadband has to offer,” Wheeler said.

“We no longer need to debate if broadband is essential to the lives and well-being of all Americans, for it has become obvious from the experience of our daily lives,” DeBry added.