The Federal Communications Commission has voted to look at ways to offer Internet access to eligible Americans through government funds, recognizing that the Internet is a key to pulling the poor from poverty.
The vote was reportedly split by party, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans against. In the end, the vote was 3-2 in favor of the motion on Thursday, June 18, which will expand the Lifeline program from one that only subsidizes telephone use to one that also covers broadband.
"I am befuddled at how this Republican-developed program has suddenly become so partisan, but I am proud to cast my vote with the majority," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Republicans first started Lifeline in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan, but Republicans are now generally opposing extending the program because of past instances of fraud and saying that expanding the program would also expand fraud in the program.
"Adequate controls and deterrents against waste, fraud and abuse should be in place before considering expanding the program to broadband," said Republican commissioner Michael O'Rielly.
Of course, the FCC has a plan to combat concerns of fraud, with Wheeler highlighting a number of ways in which the commission will enact stronger restrictions to ensure that only one subsidy is offered per family. The plans include stronger record-keeping requirements for service providers, charged with verifying a person's income.
In fact, the FCC has discovered and eliminated records of over a million duplicate entries into the program, also shifting the burden of proving eligibility for Lifeline away from service providers and to a neutral third party. Not only that, but over $1 billion of so-called wasteful spending has been eliminated from the program by the FCC over the past few years.
However, the decision also brings up concerns about the logistics of including broadband in Lifeline, especially when, under the current plan, families are only entitled to $9.25 per month as a subsidy toward telephone service. There is obviously some question concerning just how far a family could get applying $9.25 to broadband Internet.
The reasons for including broadband Internet in the program, however, are numerous. The FCC says that it wants to enable poor consumers to do things like access email accounts and find online job postings, things that often might require higher Internet speeds. The real question is how much Internet the government should subsidize.
The decision also highlights the FCC's quickly growing role in Internet regulation, with the commission voting to reclassify the Internet as a public utility in February of this year.