For 30 years, the federal government has helped millions of low-income Americans pay their phone bills, saying that telephone service is critical to summoning medical help, seeking work and, ultimately, climbing out of poverty. Now, the nation’s top communications regulator will propose offering those same people subsidized access to broadband Internet.
On Thursday, that regulator, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, will circulate a plan to his fellow commissioners suggesting sweeping changes to a $1.7 billion subsidy program charged with ensuring that all Americans have affordable access to advanced telecommunications services, according to senior agency officials.
The effort is the F.C.C.’s strongest recognition yet that high-speed Internet access is as essential to economic well-being as good transportation and telephone service. Mr. Wheeler will propose potentially giving recipients a choice of phone service, Internet service or a mix of both, the officials said.
Here’s the official account of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal at the FCC website. Technically, Wheeler is asking the Commission to seek public comments on the “Lifeline reform” proposal through a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). The other two Democratic Commissioners are known to favor the idea, so there’s little doubt the NPRM will go forward. The comment period could last several months, with an actual decision as long as a year away.