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.
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.
"People increasingly depend on the Internet for access to jobs, education, news, services, communications, and everything else under the sun," DeBry continued. "Employers assume prospective employees have it and school systems assume their students can access materials online. In times of emergency, we depend on broadband to provide life-saving information and to keep us in touch with our loved ones... The proposal to 'reboot' the Lifeline program to include broadband subsidies for our most poor and vulnerable follows in a long, bipartisan tradition of ensuring that all Americans have access to basic communications services."
As Wheeler stated when announcing the proposal, "While more than 95 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 have broadband, only 48 percent of those making less than $25,000 have service at home."
The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler's proposal on June 18, and it is likely win majority approval. If it passes, the FCC will get to work on anti-fraud measures.
Consumer advocacy group Free Press welcomed the proposal, but added that lawmakers should follow the FCC's example in modernizing programs that help those in need and allowing disadvantaged communities to connect with others more easily.
"[G]etting all Americans online isn't a challenge just one agency can address," Free Press policy counsel Lauren Wilson said on Thursday. "Policymakers at every level—from the White House and Congress to local school boards—need to explore the most effective and efficient ways to connect people, and especially those in disadvantaged communities."
"While the FCC's Lifeline program is one way to help make universal access a reality, we need to clear away other obstacles to closing the digital divide—without placing too much of the financial burden of paying for those efforts on the very same communities intended to benefit from them."