FCC chief: Internet subsidies for poor coming in ‘not too distant future’

FCC chief: Internet subsidies for poor coming in ‘not too distant future’
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The Federal Communications Commission will finish up rules in the “not to distant future” to help subsidize Internet service for low-income Americans, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. 

The FCC started work last year to update Lifeline, the program that now only offers subsidies for traditional voice-only phone service. The update has faced resistance from Republicans who point to lingering inefficiencies in the $1.7 billion program. 

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“The first principle of Lifeline reform is allowing the program to support both fixed and mobile broadband service,” Wheeler said during a speech Wednesday about digital equity. “We will propose having minimum standards of service that Lifeline providers must deliver to receive funds.”

The FCC has not yet defined a minimum standard of service for service providers, like Comcast or Verizon, to join.  

The agency classifies fixed broadband as Internet with a download speed of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. But Republicans and Internet service providers say that minimum is too high, pointing to other FCC programs that set a minimum standard of 10 Mbps. The FCC has never come up with a baseline for mobile broadband. 

Wheeler also said the FCC would have to make it easier for Internet service providers to join the program and would need to encourage low-income individuals to actually sign up. He also applauded companies like Comcast or Google, which have offered discounted private programs. Wheeler finally pointed to other government efforts — like New York’s plan to connect the city through hotspots or the Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) effort to build low-income housing with Internet connections. 

Just Wednesday, Google announced that it was partnering with HUD to bring super fast fiber Internet to nine low-income housing properties in Kansas City, reaching 1,300 families. Google said it would eventually expand the program out to other cities where it deploys fiber. 

A report released Wednesday found that 91 percent of people below the poverty line have some form of Internet access. But that includes 23 percent of low-income homes that only have access on their smartphones. 

Only 7 percent of those living in poverty have ever signed up for discounted home Internet service. Researchers found 40 percent of those who did not have service listed cost as a factor. Other responses included a lack of need, slow speeds, or the use of smartphones instead.