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FCC Chairman Wants To Help Low-Income Americans Afford Broadband

A government program called Lifeline subsidizes basic phone service for low-income people. Now, the head of the Federal Communications Commission also wants to use the program to pay for broadband Internet connections, which many poor people lack.

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.

Wheeler on Thursday proposed allowing 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. Its the universal service fee you see on your phone bill.

Villy Wang is founder of a San Francisco nonprofit group called Baycat, which teaches low-income young people how to design websites and produce digital media. Getting subsidies for Internet access, she says, "is important as a part of a way to keep bridging the digital divide that is alive and well."

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. "Low-income consumers are no different from anyone else in terms of how they need to communicate with doctors or schools or teachers. This would just be a way to help low-income consumers to afford to be able to participate in society that way."

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. "Kids love to use the Internet for social media and 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."

To be eligible for Lifeline, which was started under Ronald Reagan, recipients' incomes must be no more 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 "beyond me."

FCC Chairman Wheeler says he wants to overhaul the way eligibility for Lifeline is determined, but he did not go into details.

A Senate panel has scheduled a hearing on the program next month.

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