White House throws weight behind FCC Internet subsidy plan

White House throws weight behind FCC Internet subsidy plan
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The White House is putting its full backing behind a plan to offer Internet subsidies to low-income Americans. 

The Federal Communications Commission later this month will vote to update the Lifeline program so it can begin offering $9.25 per month subsides to help the poor pay for home or mobile Internet service. The decades-old program currently offers those subsides for basic phone service.  

The Obama administration, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), on Tuesday submitted recommendations on the proposal to the FCC. The NTIA act as President Obama's principal telecom advisers.

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"As our society becomes more reliant on Internet use for telehealth, education, job applications, and training, this gap could perpetuate poverty by preventing low-income households from accessing the tools they need to participate fully in our modern society and economy," says the 22-page recommendation on the FCC proposal.

The recommendations are tied to a broader set of initiatives the White House is calling ConnectALL, which aims to connect 20 million more Americans to broadband by 2020. Other initiatives include efforts to build digital literacy and to recycle old government technology for use by low-income Americans. 

The White House received heavy criticism from Republicans who said it put undue pressure on the independent FCC last year to adopt tough net neutrality rules.

This time, the White House released its public recommendations after the FCC had already wrapped up most of the work. Officials would not describe any other outreach while the rules were being drafted. 

"As you know, the FCC is independent and we think the chairman's idea here to expand the Lifeline subsidy is a good one and we want to support it," Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters. 

"And specifically we are calling, as we talked about, for the program to apply to mobile and fixed broadband and offering the administration's help with eligibility. The FCC will make its own independent decision here."

The FCC's draft rules call for a budget cap on the new Internet subsidy program of $2.25 billion per year, to be paid by phone carriers, who usually tack the fees onto customer phone bills. 

There are about 40 million homes that are eligible for the Lifeline program, but the actual number of current participants is only a fraction of that — about 13 million. Under the new $2.25 billion budget, about 7 million more individuals would be able to join the program before the cap would be hit. 

While the White House's 20 million goal is centered around Lifeline, officials described it as a "all hands on deck" call to the private sector and local governments as well.  

The Obama administration recommendations Wednesday are largely in line with the independent FCC's draft rules. They both call to broaden the subsidies to cover Internet and to create a third-party administrator, to determine who is eligible by gauging eligibility in other programs like Social Security, Medicaid and food subsidies.  

One key policy difference is that the Obama administration recommended that the FCC hesitate before imposing minimum standards of service. The FCC has baseline speed and data requirements for service to count as high-speed Internet. 

For the Lifeline program, the commission determined that individuals could only use their subsidies for Internet service that had download speeds of at least 10 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps. There are also basic requirements for mobile data plans as well. 

But the administration said standards could deter providers from participating, echoing some Internet service providers.

"Rural and other areas with limited service options may fall further beyond the digital divide if providers are unwilling or unable to meet the Commission’s minimum service levels," the administration told the FCC. "Therefore, the Commission should approach minimum broadband service standards with caution."