The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to expand a government telephone subsidy program for low-income Americans to cover Internet access.
The regulators voted 4-1, although two approved only parts of the program, to begin revamping the $1.7 billion Lifeline subsidy to give recipients a choice of using it for phone service, high-speed Internet, or both.
Republicans voted against the Lifeline proposals because they want a budget cap for the program.
The latest changes proposed for Lifeline, which helps about 12 million households afford landline and mobile phones, are an attempt to bridge the digital divide faced by poorer Americans. Companies routinely require basic digital literacy skills, and Internet access becomes increasingly important for healthcare, financial planning or education.
The proposals aim to address concerns about fraud and abuse of the program, including by putting third parties instead of telephone companies in charge of determining the eligibility of recipients.
The FCC estimates that 95 percent of U.S. households with incomes of $150,000 have access to high-speed Internet, while fewer than half of households with incomes lower than $25,000 have access at home. This trend is true for rural areas and poorer school districts as well, where only 14 percent have broadband-speed Internet.
Apart from income disparity, access to broadband in the U.S. has also been affected by restrictive state laws that effectively ban municipal broadband. There is often close collaboration between lawmakers and the cable industry to protect private companies from public competition, to the detriment of Internet users.