In April, we questioned if Internet access is a right, and if so, whether the government should provide it as an entitlement to low-income Americans. Your answer depends on your politics, but we noted that such an entitlement wouldn’t be a stretch. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) already provides qualifying low-income Americans with phone service via its Lifeline Program. Money for that program comes from the Universal Connectivity Fee in your phone bill every month, and some refer to it as the “Obamaphone” program, even though it originated during the Reagan administration.

Maybe we have a fan at the FCC, because it’s as if they read our article. On May 28, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed that the organization expand the Lifeline program to subsidize Internet access. And the way we read it, it shouldn’t increase the fee you already pay.

Lifeline Goes Online
Under Wheeler’s proposal, the FCC would pay qualified households up to $9.25 per month toward Internet access, the same amount as the current phone subsidy. No, that’s not enough to cover typical high-speed Internet plans. Fortunately, some network providers offer specially priced plans for low-income consumers. One example is the XFINITY® Internet Essentials plan offers 5 Mbps service for only $9.95 per month to eligible families. The two most important qualifications are living in an area where the service is available, which seems obvious, and having at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch Program. At a net cost of 70 cents per month, anyone can afford that level of broadband access.

If adopted, the rule could help address the Broadband Gap, which is the disparity in broadband adoption rates between low-income and higher-income Americans. Information from the Pew Research Institute shows that 88 percent of American adults with an annual household income over $75,000 have broadband access, while only 46 percent of those with a $30,000 annual household income have access. Given the increasing importance of Internet access to schoolwork, Pew has labeled the same gap on families with school-aged children the “homework gap.”

Which Is Most Important?
One catch is that eligible households will only be eligible for one subsidy. They may be eligible for subsidized home phone, cell phone, or broadband service, but they’ll have to choose one of the three. That’s really no different than current Lifeline rules that make participants choose between landline and cell service. Because the proposal wouldn’t make households eligible for another subsidy, only an alternative one, it seems relatively safe to assume Lifeline expansion shouldn’t significantly increase costs assuming eligibility rules remain as they currently are.

For now, though, this expansion remains a proposal only. The five commissioners who run the FCC will likely vote on it as soon as June 18, but even if approved, it will face a second vote prior to implementation. If it passes again, it will still probably take time to implement.

How to Get Service
Current Lifeline Program rules require phone service providers to determine consumers’ eligibility for the subsidy, and it’s entirely likely that the same will be true for broadband providers if the proposal eventually passes. If and when that occurs, those who think they might be eligible should contact participating providers to verify.

If the FCC opts not to subsidize broadband, or if you’re not eligible for the program, it’s still easy to find affordable high-speed Internet service. And finding the plans you’re eligible for couldn’t be easier: all you need to do is enter your zip code below.

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