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WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated a proposal to modernize the agency’s Lifeline program to help low-income households gain access to high-speed Internet services.

In a blog post Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn write that their proposal would enable Lifeline participants to use the program’s $9.25 monthly subsidy for standalone mobile or fixed broadband, or a bundle of broadband and voice services.

This marks a significant reform of the program. Lifeline was created during the Reagan administration to help low-income families afford landline phone services. In 2008, the agency added mobile phone services to the subsidy. Since then, advocacy organizations including Free Press have supported an expansion to include broadband access.

“We’re pleased to offer this plan to provide a pathway out [of] poverty for low-income consumers by modernizing Lifeline for the 21st Century,” Wheeler and Clyburn wrote today.

Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood made the following statement:

“The FCC should be commended for taking the next steps to ensure low-income Americans have more affordable access to all telecommunications services, including broadband. While we’re awaiting more details about the Lifeline proposal, this appears to be a welcome move that will help address the nation’s digital divide.

“Since its inception, Lifeline has been indispensable in helping to achieve the Communications Act’s goal of ensuring that low-income consumers, including those in communities of color and rural areas, have access to telecommunications services. This program is a proven success. It’s prevented millions of low-income families from needlessly losing telephone service due to inability to pay, and it’s protected these Americans from having to forgo other necessities in order to maintain access to this crucial service.

“Internet access is as essential to participating in today’s economy and society as a landline phone was 30 years ago. It makes sense to give low-income Americans the ability to apply the Lifeline discount to broadband — the defining communications service of the 21st century.

“However, we must stay vigilant if we truly wish to eradicate the digital divide. Lifeline is but one tool to address the issue of affordability. If the FCC’s primary goal is to get as many people using broadband as possible, then the best thing it can do is take all possible steps to make all broadband services affordable.

“The issue of affordability is deeply intertwined with the challenging problem of insufficient competition. Letting a small handful of companies control last-mile access to Internet users drives the cost of a connection far beyond the reach of many lower-income communities. If the Commission wants to increase affordability, it must address the lack of competition.”

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