During heated meeting, FCC votes to expand Lifeline to cover mobile Internet services

The FCC voted to expand the Lifeline program to cover broadband Internet service for low-income Americans during a heated meeting that followed the collapse of an 11th-hour effort to reach a consensus among the five commissioners.

The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to allow roughly 40 million Americans to apply the existing $9.25 monthly Lifeline subsidy toward the purchase of mobile or fixed-line broadband service as a standalone offering or bundled with a voice plan. Lifeline, which launched during the Reagan administration and was expanded to include mobile phones in 2005, has previously been limited to providing discounted service on voice calling options.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said during the meeting that the five commissioners had agreed to a different deal that would cap Lifeline's budget at $2.25 billion a year. But Pai said that agreement collapsed when Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, withdrew her support Thursday morning. And Pai pointed the finger at FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler for the situation.

Pai's framework would have capped the Lifeline budget at $2 billion a year and expanded the program to provide fixed-line Internet services of 25 Mbps or higher as well as LTE service where available. But that proposal fell through after Wheeler intervened, Pai said.

"It turns out that early this morning, perhaps late last night, the chairman and his staff have been actively working to undermine and unwind that bipartisan compromise," he alleged. "It is one thing to refuse to work toward bipartisan compromise…. It is quite another to launch a political campaign to force a democratic FCC commissioner to renege on her signature issue."

The Republican plan also came under fire from consumer watchdog groups who said the minimum-data speed would have raised costs for users.

In addition to enabling low-income Americans to do basic online tasks like searching and applying for jobs, backers say it will close the "homework gap" that exists when students who don't have home Internet access are given assignments that require them to go online.

"This change is overdue because connectivity today is so much more than it was when this program got its start and most communication involved a phone cord," Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. "There was a time when broadband access was a luxury. No more. And nothing demonstrates this as clearly as education."

The expansion of Lifeline also includes the creation of a new third-party verification system to prevent fraud, which has long been a problem for Lifeline. CTIA praised the expansion, saying its member companies "stand ready to work with the Commission to ensure that a fiscally responsible Lifeline program continues to meet the mobile wireless needs of low-income Americans."

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