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FCC: Poor People Deserve Broadband Too

A computer keyboardGreg Wood—AFP/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission is hoping to boost internet speeds for low-income households.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to propose changes on Thursday to an existing subsidy program by aiming to bring broadband to households that have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, reports The New York Times.

Wheeler’s plan would offer houses $9.25 per month to be used toward the cost of broadband. It’s sure to set off a firestorm of debates on a number of topics—not the least of which will be how far that amount can go towards actually paying a monthly broadband bill.

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Limited competition in the United States among broadband providers has resulted in American citizens paying more than most of the rest of the world for broadband service. To add insult to injury, speeds are generally slower here. New Yorkers pay roughly $55 for connections of 25 megabits per second—twice the cost of the same speed in London.

The proposal would alter an existing subsidy called the Lifeline program. Created in 1985, Lifeline was designed to subsidize the cost of land-based telephone services. In 2008, it was adjusted to cover cell phones. Over 12 million households participate in it today. Wheeler’s proposal may give those households a choice of phone or Internet service (or a mix of both).

Proponents of the plan argue that high-speed Internet service is as essential today as electricity and phone service. Yet, they say, adoption of the technology in low-income and minority households has not kept pace with higher income homes in the past 10 years.

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A 2013 survey by Pew data found 84% of households making more than $54,000 have broadband. That number drops to 54% when annual household incomes are lower than $30,000 per year.

The Times reports the vote on the proposal is expected on June 18. That’s a short window for officials to convince skeptics that Lifeline will better be able to control fraud among users, which soared when the plan added cell phones. (Some households gamed the system to receive more than one subsidy.)

Wheeler’s plan calls for new safeguards, including having a third party, rather than Internet providers and wireless carriers, ensure compliance and for data for the program to be made public.