'Obamaweb': FCC to offer subsidized internet to low-income Americans

© Arko Datta
Addressing the "digital divide" that leaves 43 percent of the lowest-income US households without modern broadband, the Federal Communications Commission has reformed its Lifeline program to include affordable high-speed internet service.

The $9.25 monthly household subsidy will soon be usable for stand-alone mobile or fixed broadband Internet access, or bundled voice and data service from an internet service provider, the FCC said in a statement.

"By dramatically improving Lifeline’s management and design, and putting the program on sound fiscal footing moving forward, we will help low-income Americans all across our nation connect to the  Internet and the opportunities of the broadband revolution," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"Internet access has become essential for full participation in our modern economy and our society, but 64.5 million Americans are missing out on the opportunities made possible by the most powerful and pervasive platform in history."

The five FCC commissioners voted along party lines on Thursday, with three Democrats opting for the plan and two Republicans standing in opposition. Wheeler, a Democrat, proposed and voted for reform of the program, which began in 1985 with the goal of offering affordable telephone service in the US.

The new Lifeline plan will have a soft cap of $2.25 billion per year, allowing for adjustment in the future. The program cost $1.5 billion last year, the Los Angeles Times reported. Its funding is sourced from a small monthly fee attached to consumer bills. The subsidy is paid directly to the telecom-service provider.

The reform plan will phase in minimum standards for mobile broadband service, starting at 500 megabytes per month of 3G data by December 1, 2016; 1 gigabytes by December 1, 2017; and increasing to 2 gigabytes per month by the end of 2018.

Supportive FCC commissioners said widespread broadband in the US is vital for competition in today's economy. Modern education is a particular area that demands more access to internet services, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.

"There was a time when broadband access was a luxury. No more," she said. "And nothing demonstrates this as clearly as with education."

Republican FCC commissioners voted against the plan citing the program's budget cap, which they said does not have a strict limit. They said Democrats on the commission delayed a vote on the deal after Wheeler blocked a bipartisan compromise that would have capped the reformed program at $2 billion. Wheeler and other Democrats denied the allegations.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Thursday that he supported the plan, tweeting, "Broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury. I urge the FCC to expand Lifeline and help millions of working families get online."

In recent years, the Lifeline program has become the subject of racially-charged ridicule, especially from conservative opponents of President Barack Obama, after the program's budget rose to $2.2 billion in 2012, more than twice its spending in 2005.

Dubbing the program "Obamaphone,"conservatives claimed that welfare recipients were given free cell phones, and that the Obama administration used the program to buy votes.