Friday, October 28, 2016
  • Thursday, Mar. 31, 2016
FCC program to help poor get online will start in December
In this Tuesday, March 17, 2015, file photo, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before a House committee hearing on net neutrality, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)
  • --

Low-income Americans are expected to be able to apply for help from the federal government in paying for Internet access in December.

The Federal Communications Commissioners voted, 3-2 along party lines, Thursday to expand the $1.5 billion Lifeline program, a $9.25-a-month subsidy, to Internet as well as phone service. It can be used with cellphone Internet or home Internet.

It's the latest federal government attempt to close a "digital divide" between those who have access to the Internet and those who don't, as the ability to go online becomes seen as an increasingly important part of modern life, key for looking for jobs and going to school.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency is addressing abuse and fraud problems with improvements like making an independent party check that people are eligible rather than having phone or Internet providers do it.

Providers get payments for signing up customers, and then pass along discounted or free service. There had been problems with some providers signing up ineligible customers. Having someone else verify that people are ineligible could help remove the incentive for them to do that.

The program will have a $2.25 billion budget, but that amount could be raised.

There was a fair amount of drama accompanying the FCC meeting, which was delayed for several hours.

The two Republican commissioners had wanted a lower, $2 billion cap on spending, among other changes, and said that an agreement with Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn went out the window at the last minute after pressure from Wheeler.

Clyburn said that she changed her mind because she didn't want to limit the impact of Lifeline, which she said could help millions of households that don't have Internet access. She said she heard from "a wide range of individuals."

Wheeler called the idea that he bullied Clyburn "balderdash."

Lifeline was started in 1985 and expanded to include wireless phones in 2005. It's paid for with fees on Americans' phone bills.