FCC’s Lifeline To Expand Subsidized Internet To Decrease ‘Digital Divide,’ Help ‘Eligible’ Americans Get Online Through Broadband Or Data Plan

The FCC has voted in favor of expanding its Lifeline program to include broadband Internet access. The three decade old program used to offer subsidized telephone access for low-income Americans, but will now also offer a monthly subsidy for Internet access. House Republicans have announced they would create a bill to ensure the expenditure on the program is capped, considering the number of subscribers the lifeline Internet program is expected to attract, reports News Max.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3 to 2, to overhaul and expand Lifeline, a program originally created to offer phone and Internet subsidies to low-income Americans. The decision largely follows an earlier proposal tabled by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat. He had proposed expanding Lifeline’s current $9.25 monthly phone subsidy to include broadband Internet access or bundled voice and data service plans. The FCC confirmed that the Lifeline will now offer a $9.25 a month subsidy to participants.

The subsidy can be applied by eligible Americans towards broadband Internet access at home. However, the revision also makes a provision to add a data plan on the cell phones to access mobile Internet.

What will the Lifeline Internet service offer? Low-income Americans will be granted Internet access. FCC has also mandated that service providers ensure a set of minimum standards for Internet service that the Lifeline participants are eligible to receive. Interestingly, the “minimum” fixed speed of the service has been based on what a “substantial majority of consumers receive.” The standards will stay in place for the next five years and revised again in 2021.

The current industry average is 10 Mbps for downloads and uploads; Lifeline participants should expect the same for their subsidized broadband Internet. The changes are expected to go into effect starting December 1. Apart from home broadband, participants will be able to get 500 minutes a month for basic cell phone service and 500 MB of cell phone data, reports CNN. Incidentally, the mobile and data requirements are expected to gradually increase over a 5-year period, but the subsidies for voice-only mobile services will be slowly phased out during the timeframe. Still, in areas where there’s a single Lifeline partner offering service, participants won’t lose their mobile minutes.

Who is eligible for FCC’s Lifeline Internet? The decision to expand the program comes after a lot of criticism, which was mostly, aimed at the archaic policies in modern times, when people need Internet the most. Nowhere is the need for easy access to a high-speed Internet connection more acutely felt than in schools. Many schools expect students to have Internet access and give out assignments, projects and homework accordingly. Students without ready access to Internet are forced to either miss out on the materials or wherever possible, travel to places that offer the service.

According to Pew Research Center, of the 29 million families that have school-aged children, about 5 million don’t have access to high-speed Unternet access. The research further notes that only 31.4 percent of these families, that have incomes less than $50,000, seem to have a reliable Internet connection at home.

Once the program is expanded, about 40 million Americans are expected to be eligible for the Lifeline program. However, to be eligible to receive subsidies, they must meet income requirements or must be enrolled in government benefit programs like SNAP. Currently, just 12 million American citizens appear to participate, which indicates the program is about to receive a substantial boost in the number of active participants.

In the past, the Lifeline program has been plagued by waste, fraud and abuse. Owing to poor implementation and oversight, a large number of unqualified participants have been able to avail subsidies. However, new guidelines mandate the creation of a national eligibility database that would cross-verify the eligibility through multiple databases include those of government benefit programs like SNAP and Medicaid, before extending the Lifeline internet program.

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