NEW YORK (AP) — The head of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing that the government agency expand a phone subsidy program for the poor to include Internet access.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has emphasized that Internet access is a critical component of modern life — in education, communication, and finding and keeping a job.
With the net neutrality rules released earlier this year, the agency redefined broadband as a public utility, like the telephone, giving it stricter oversight on how online content gets to consumers. That triggered lawsuits from Internet service providers.
The proposal Thursday to expand the Lifeline phone program to Internet service aims to narrow the “digital divide” — those with access to the Internet and other modern technologies and those without.
According to a Pew Research Center report from 2013, 70 percent of U.S. adults have a high-speed Internet connection at home. Only 54 percent of households earning less than $30,000 a year do. The FCC says low-income Americans are more likely to rely on smartphones for Internet access. According to the Pew report, 67 percent of households that make less than $30,000 a year have home broadband or a smartphone.
Lifeline was started in 1985 and expanded to include wireless phones in 2005. The FCC’s proposal calls for extending Lifeline’s $9.25 monthly credit to give low-income households a choice of phone service or Internet access, via a wire to the home or a smartphone.
“Voice is no longer sufficient to be able to participate in society today,” said Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. “The broad assumption is that you’ve got broadband access somehow.”
But Lifeline has been criticized for being susceptible to fraud, and the proposal may get pushback from Republicans. The FCC’s proposal says it will build on anti-fraud measures that were put in place in 2012.
FCC commissioners will vote in June on whether to proceed with expanding Lifeline to broadband service.