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FCC program to help poor get online will start in December

NEW YORK — Low-income Americans are expected to be able to apply for help from the federal government in paying for Internet access in December.

The Federal Communications Commissioners voted, 3-2 along party lines, Thursday to expand the $1.5 billion Lifeline program, a $9.25-a-month subsidy, to Internet as well as phone service. It can be used with cellphone Internet or home Internet.

It's the latest federal government attempt to close a "digital divide" between those who have access to the Internet and those who don't.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency is addressing abuse and fraud problems with improvements like making an independent party check that people are eligible rather than having phone or Internet providers do it.

Providers get payments for signing up customers, and then pass along discounted or free service. There had been problems with some providers signing up ineligible customers. Having someone else verify that people are ineligible could help remove the incentive for them to do that.

The program will have a $2.25 billion budget, but that amount could be raised.

There was a fair amount of drama accompanying the FCC meeting, which was delayed for several hours.

The two Republican commissioners had wanted a lower, $2 billion cap on spending, among other changes. They said they had had an agreement on that with Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, but it went out the window at the last minute after pressure from Wheeler, said Commissioner Ajit Pai, who voted against the Lifeline expansion. He said Wheeler's office urged lawmakers and others to "blast the deal."

Clyburn said that she had been wary of the cap, saying that it might limit the impact of Lifeline, and she changed her mind after hearing from "a wide range of individuals." Wheeler called the idea that he bullied Clyburn "balderdash."

Lifeline was started in 1985 and expanded to include wireless phones in 2005. It's paid for with fees on Americans' phone bills.


Tali Arbel, The Associated Press

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