FCC boss sketches out bargain broadband for hard-up Americans

Because being penniless is no excuse to have crappy dialup

Tom Wheeler, chairman of US internet watchdog the FCC, has asked the regulator's commissioners to offer broadband to poor Americans via the Lifeline program.

The net-neutrality crusader has put forward a list of proposed updates to Lifeline, including the addition of broadband to what is right now just a phone-only program. Taxpayer-funded Lifeline offers discounts on cellphone and landline connections to hard-up citizens in the US.

Lifeline plans cost $9.25 a month. Wheeler did not say how much more, if at all, broadband service would be priced at. The program is open to households that have a total income no higher than 135 per cent of the federal poverty line – for a four-person family, the line is $24,250 (£15,846), for example. Carriers bill poor subscribers the discounted rate, and then apply to Uncle Sam for the difference on a full-price plan.

"Since 1985, Lifeline has helped make phone service affordable for low-income Americans," Wheeler said.

"But to continue to serve its statutory purpose, Lifeline must evolve to meet today’s most pressing communications needs, including access to broadband."

The proposed updates include minimum standards for the speed and quality of service considered Lifeline plans.

Wheeler also wants to update other areas of Lifeline, including how eligibility is determined. Currently, the telcos providing the service are tasked with checking whether users qualify for the low-cost service. Under the chairman's plan, a neutral third-party would be created to discourage carriers from lying about eligibility and collecting refunds from the government.

The plan would also seek to add more carriers to Lifeline and create stricter standards for qualifying and maintaining Lifeline service. ®

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