Local officials question FCC's broadband subsidy proposal

The agency's proposal may force low-income people to choose between broadband and voice service, critics say

Elected officials in several cities and states aren't completely on board with a U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposal to allow low-income people to purchase broadband service through a program subsidizing voice service.

State and local officials from New York, Maryland, Texas and Oregon are among those objecting to parts of the FCC's proposal to allow recipients of the agency's controversial Lifeline program to use a monthly subsidy for broadband instead of mobile or fixed telephone services.

While many of the politicians voiced support for the FCC's goal of subsidizing broadband for poor people, some questioned whether the agency's current plan would force some families to choose between voice and broadband service. The FCC proposal, from May, would continue the Lifeline program's US$9.25 monthly subsidy, allowing recipients to choose whether to use it for broadband or voice service.

Broadband subsidies "should not come at the expense of traditional phone services," Maria del Carmen Arroyo[cq], a Democratic member of the New York City Council, wrote in comments to the agency. The proposed subsidy "would not be sufficient to support broadband services" or a bundle of voice and broadband services, she wrote.

Many fixed broadband service plans in the U.S. costs $30 or more a month, although Comcast offers its Internet Essentials service for low-income people for $9.95 a month.

Other elected officials from New York City, Baltimore, and several other states and cities used similar or identical language in their comments to the FCC. The proposed subsidy for broadband "will not be effective to actually solve any communications issues," several elected officials wrote.

Comments on the FCC's proposal were due Monday.

Several other groups voiced support for the FCC proposal. The Internet Innovation Alliance, a broadband advocacy group, called on the agency to overhaul the Lifeline program. The group supports the FCC's proposal to remove responsibility for determining eligibility for the subsidies from "self-interested" voice and broadband providers, IIA wrote in its comments.

The group also called for the FCC to give the subsidy benefits directly to consumers, instead of routing the benefits through providers, by using a voucher card or by pairing Lifeline with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a food subsidy for poor people.

"IIA believes that all people should be treated with dignity in the marketplace," the group wrote. A direct benefit "will not only empower consumers, but will also ensure that the dignity of participants is protected."

Civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice also voiced support for the proposal to expand Lifeline to broadband.

"We can’t truly achieve equality without ensuring that all Americans have access to the same basic necessities, and this includes access to the Internet," Mee Moua[cq], president and executive director of the group, said by email.

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