On Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission will circulate among its members a final proposal for a subsidy of $9.25 per month to help low-income households pay for broadband Internet, according to a report in The New York Times.
The move is part of a larger overhaul of the $2 billion phone subsidy program Lifeline, a government program dating to 1985 originally conceived to help low-income families pay for landline phone service. In 2008, the FCC added a mobile phone subsidy to the program, and the resulting free devices came to be known as “Obamaphones” even though the service long predated the Obama administration. The FCC’s broadband subsidy expands the program further, to help pay for in-home Internet service.
According a Pew Research Center report, roughly one-third of low-income families with children (meaning household incomes less than $50,000) lack high-speed Internet access at home. Only 8% of families within household incomes above that mark, meanwhile, are without high-speed service in the house.
The digital divide is particularly stark in poor rural areas, like Mississippi, the state with the lowest rates of at-home broadband access in the country. Proponents of expanding broadband argue that in our increasingly digitized world, home Internet access today is necessary to help students succeed and provide the tools of the information economy, while also giving parents access to employment opportunities.
Critics of the FCC’s plan point to a history of fraud and abuse in the Lifeline program. The new proposal seeks to address such issues by making data, like usage rates in the program, publicly available, and appointing a third party to make sure both customers and companies are abiding by the program’s rules. Previously, participants in the subsidized cell phone program were vetted by phone service providers themselves.