The debate in the United States over whether or not the internet should be regulated by the government as a public utility will likely rage on even after rules are implemented this year. The Federal Communication Commission’s recent submission of its regulations to the Federal Register regarding the governance of broadband and internet service providers’ abilities to control speed and quality of web access have been met with a host of legal battles from companies and industry groups in telecommunications. But F.C.C. Chairman Tom Wheeler has remained staunch in his position on how the internet should be regulated, insisting (with President Obama’s backing) that it should be categorized under Title II of the Communications Act the way phone service is. And a move on Thursday drives home his position.
Wheeler is pushing for broadband to be included in the Lifeline program — a project created in 1985 to subsidize phone service in the U.S. The New York Times reports that Wheeler will propose giving participants in the program a choice of phone service, internet service or a mix of both, in addition to new measures to curb fraud and abuse of the program. Since its implementation, the technologies covered under the Lifeline plan have evolved to include mobile phones. Wheeler is now moving to make the internet an equal entity with landline service in the sense that low income households should have broadband access just as they do phones. This push echoes Wheeler’s sentiments on net neutrality, i.e., that the internet is now an inherent element of public prosperity.
The F.C.C. says that the Lifeline program currently serves 12 million households, and that there is a pressing need to bridge the gap of lower income households with internet access. Less than half of households making less than $25,000 a year have web access whereas 95% of households with incomes of more than $150,000 have the internet. According to the F.C.C., African-American and Hispanic households are much less likely to have web access in then the rest of the country.
This proposal will undoubtedly be met with opposition from both political parties and the private telecom sector; those groups are already up in arms over the F.C.C.’s net neutrality rules. But, if anything, the proposed adjustments to the Lifeline program solidify Wheeler’s position on how the internet should function for the public good and reaffirm the F.C.C.’s stance on broadband regulation as a whole. With the doors set to open in June for public comment on the proposal, the F.C.C. will have its hands full for the rest of the year.