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Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed expanding the Lifeline program, which provides a discount on phone service to qualified low-income consumers, to cover broadband Internet access. The proposal emphasizes the modern importance of broadband and the extent of the digital divide.

Today, the Lifeline program provides more than 12 million households with a $9.25 monthly subsidy towards the cost of landline or pre-paid wireless service plans. To be eligible for the subsidy, consumers must have incomes below 135% of the federal poverty line, or must participate in certain federal assistance programs like Medicaid or SNAP. Chairman Wheeler’s expansion of the program probably wouldn’t increase the amount of the subsidy, but would allow participants to spend it on either phone service or broadband, reports the Hill.

The proposed expansion emphasizes the importance of broadband access. “Broadband is every bit as important today as plain old phone service was 30 years ago,” said Gene Kimmelman, President and CEO of Public Knowledge. It allows Americans to apply for jobs, take online courses, and keep in contact with loved ones. Without it, Americans could be relegated to second-class citizenship, notes former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.

Nevertheless, many low-income Americans don’t have broadband access. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 54% of those living in households with incomes below $30,000 a year have broadband, compared with 88% of those in households with incomes above $75,000. Many minorities also lack access to broadband. According to another Pew study, only 56% of Hispanics and 62% of African Americans have broadband access at home, compared with 74% of whites.

The proposed expansion is likely to be politically controversial. Some Republicans are hesitant to expand a program that they feel is ineffective and wrought with fraud. “Why the FCC wants to expand this program before addressing the regular reports of ongoing fraud is beyond me,” said Congressman David Vitter. Last year, the Justice Department announced that it indicted three men for submitting false Lifeline claims, reports Bloomberg Politics. However, some claims of fraud may be exaggerated. According to, Lifeline is a $1.75 billion dollar program, but, after two FCC audits of Lifeline customers in 15 states revealed fraudulent phone lines, the FCC disconnected them, generating just $50 million in savings.

Still, more than 50 groups, including the ACLU, Public Knowledge, and the National Council of La Raza have released statements praising the expansion for bringing an essential service to disadvantaged Americans. The proposal also has support from some FCC Commissioners. “This program is literally what it says … a lifeline, an opportunity for those who have significant financial challenges to be able to keep in touch with their doctors, with their educators, with their communities, with their loved ones. And it is vital that we reform that to meet the current needs of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

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