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FCC Looks to Subsidize Broadband Access for the Poor

The FCC is looking to make changes to two telephone subsidy programs, with an eye toward providing greater broadband access to poor households.

In 1985, the FCC launched its Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America programs, which subsidize telephone service and installation expenses for low-income families. Yesterday, the Commission officially launched a notice of proposed rulemaking (or, a NPRM), which invites the public to comment on whether or not the programs should be expanded to include broadband and bundled telecom services.

The NPRM calls for the creation of a national database to determine eligibility for the program, and suggests that subsidies be limited to one phone line per household. The FCC has also suggested launching pilot broadband programs within Lifeline and Link-Up, in order to test the feasibility of broadband subsidies.

Much of the FCC's focus, however, seems to be on cost-cutting. In 1997, Lifeline and Link-Up commanded a $162 million budget. By 2010, that figure had ballooned to $1.3 billion. The funds have grown so drastically, in fact, that the Commission is even considering adding a hard cap to the programs' budgets.

But some Democrats are concerned that capping the budget will only make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the FCC to expand broadband subsidies to the poor. "We would be on a fool's errand if we think we can address both the voice and the broadband requirements [of low-income residents] while simultaneously capping the fund," Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

Meanwhile, others think the FCC should take more drastic steps to expand broadband access to the country's poorest residents. Craig Settles, a community broadband consultant and founder of Successful.com, told PC World that the FCC would be better off tearing down the two programs and starting over.

"If you listen to what was said, almost the whole focus was on ways to eliminate fraud and waste, which is great for budget management," Settles said. "But it does nothing to actually address broadband issues until the program saves enough money to fund pilot programs that gives us an idea how Lifeline can be modified to address broadband issues such as adoption."

Tags: access, broadband, budget, Democrats, FCC, lifeline, link-up, politics, poor, proposal, republicans, subsidies, top, Web