US to give poorer Americans $9 a month for broadband

The FCC is shedding light on its internet-oriented reform of the Lifeline subsidy program.

Shutterstock/Pavel Ilyukhin

The Federal Communications Commission has been talking a lot about reforming its Lifeline subsidy program to focus more on internet for poorer Americans than phone service, and now it's ready to show what those reforms should look like. The agency has published details of a proposal that, at its heart, would give low-income households $9.25 a month for broadband, whether it's fixed or mobile. The offer would cover both stand-alone internet access and bundles with voice service. Also, recipients wouldn't be stiffed on quality. You'd get service at least as good as what the "substantial majority" of Americans receive (currently 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps up), and any cellphone voice plans have to include unlimited talk time.

Support for landline voice service would keep going due to costs, but voice-only mobile service wouldn't be around for long. The FCC wants to gradually reduce subsidies for that basic cell service starting on December 1st, 2017, and drop them entirely two years later. It'll also cut back on fraud and other attempts to cheat the system.

This wouldn't be a perfect plan, assuming the Commission passes it when it comes up for a vote on March 31st. The 10Mbps requirement falls below the FCC's own 25Mbps definition of broadband, and most reasonably quick internet hookups (with notable exceptions) cost far more than $9. Even so, the shift in Lifeline's focus could make a big difference. In many cases, the subsidy could be crucial to finding a job, running a home business or completing homework -- struggling families may not have to stick around the local McDonald's or school library to enjoy service that many people take for granted.