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FCC Proposes Expansion Of Lifeline Program To Include Internet


There's a government program that gives low-income people a subsidy to help pay for basic phone service, either a landline or a cell plan. It's called Lifeline. It's been around since 1985. Last year, about 12 million households were in the program, and now the chairman of the FCC wants to expand it so it can also help pay for broadband Internet. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When it comes to the Internet, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says there are the haves and the have-nots. Ninety-five percent of households with incomes over $150,000 a year have broadband access, he says, but just 48 percent of households making under $25,000 do. Villy Wang is founder of a San Francisco-based nonprofit called Baycat, which teaches low-income young people how to design websites and produce digital media.

VILLY WANG: Getting subsidies for use of the Internet for greater access is important as a part of a way to keep bridging the digital divide that is alive and well.

NAYLOR: FCC Chairman Wheeler today proposed to allow Lifeline recipients to use the subsidy - $9.25 a month - to help pay for broadband access, not just phone service. Lifeline is funded by phone companies and consumers. It's the universal service fee you see on your phone bill. Kristine DeBry, a vice president at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group, says Internet access is a necessity in the digital age no matter your income group.

KRISTINE DEBRY: Low-income consumers are no different than anyone else in terms of how they need to communicate with doctors or schools or, you know, teachers, job applications. And this would just be a way to help low-income consumers to afford to be able to participate in society that way.

NAYLOR: In a statement, Wheeler notes that 80 percent of the job openings of the Fortune 500 largest companies are posted online. Students use the Internet for tracking assignments and homework. Wang says for young people especially, an Internet connection is a way of being part of a community.

WANG: Kids love to use the Internet for social media. And, you know, it doesn't matter what neighborhood you're from or how much you make, people want to belong to that bigger social media society on the Internet.

NAYLOR: To be eligible for Lifeline, which was started under Ronald Reagan, recipient's incomes must be at or less than 135 percent of the government's poverty line or be enrolled in programs including Medicaid or food stamps. But critics say the program is susceptible to abuse. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana says in a statement that the program is full of fraud and why the FCC wants to expand it is, quote, "beyond me." FCC Chairman Wheeler says he wants to overhaul the way eligibility for Lifeline is determined but did not go into details. A Senate panel has scheduled a hearing on the program next month. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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