The Federal Communications Commission is proposing to expand its Lifeline program to help subsidize Internet service for low-income Americans.
The plan floated Thursday by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler could face resistance from some Republicans who point to lingering waste and inefficiencies in the $1.7 billion program, which helps low-income individuals pay for phone service.
Wheeler and the two other Democrats on the commission have made the update a priority, saying the program, first started in the 1980s, needs to adapt to current technology. While nearly all high-income individuals have access to broadband, studies have shown less than half of households making $25,000 or less have access.
The commission is set to vote on the proposal next month. A final order would have to be crafted and approved before any changes take hold.
The plan seeks to establish minimum service requirements on companies to make sure speeds and Internet data keep up with modern demand. The commission did not outline those baselines and will instead seek comment on them.
The Lifeline program was created in the 1980s to help low-income households receive landline telephone service. It was later updated to help foot the bill for mobile service as well. The program currently offers a $9.25 reimbursement for those services, paid for by fees on carriers that are usually later tacked on to customers’ phone bills.
The proposal Thursday does not seek to increase that $9.25 reimbursement and would keep in place the limit of one subsidy per household, meaning eligible customers could either spend it on broadband or phone service.
FCC officials could not say how many of the 12 million current participants would choose to use their subsidy differently. They also said it is too early to predict how many new participants the inclusion of broadband would attract.
So updating a Reagan-era phone subsidy to instead allow people to use the same program (and the same money) to instead get broadband internet access will end up being "Obama's buying votes with free internet".