Do you remember the YouTube clip of Americans cheering for President Obama because they got free cell phones? It looks like the list of freebies is growing to include subsidized internet access.
Lifeline, the federal subsidy program for low-income Americans that provides recipients with $9.25 a month to purchase phone service, is about expand to purchasing broadband internet services too.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on a proposal to allow more than 18 million Lifeline recipients (defined as those living at or below 135% of the poverty line – about $32,738 for a family of four or $15,890 for a single-person household in most states) to choose whether they spend their pre-loaded benefit cards on either cell phone service or broadband.
The program which started under President Reagan and was expanded to included cell phones under President George W. Bush, skyrocketed under President Obama to a $2.2 billion per year but has since fallen back to about $1.7 billion. The problem under this Administration is that it reportedly enrolled people in the program who were ineligible to receive the benefit.
Here’s another kicker. This program isn’t paid for from the bottomless federal coffers but a universal fee on our consumer cell phone bills.
So where are Lifelines are being thrown out? California, New York and Florida are among the states that depend on the subsidy the most with each giving more than 900,000 Lifelines. The Golden State wallops all other states though with nearly 1.5 million subscribers. The states of Wyoming and South Dakota had the fewest subscribers with under 6,000.
The plan, proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, would transform the $2-billion-a-year Lifeline program from a telephone-centric subsidy to one that also covers Internet service, if it is ultimately approved.
"I am befuddled at how this Republican-developed program has suddenly become so partisan, but I am proud to cast my vote with the majority," Wheeler said, speaking at the commission's monthly meeting.
Wheeler will release more details about the proposal in the coming days and public comments received later this year will factor into what the final rules look like.
Critics of the program, including some Republicans in Congress, say the FCC should focus on fixing the issues within the existing program before it considers expanding it.
"Everyone is aware that there have been abuses in the current program," May said.
"The FCC has worked to address those issues, and it's had some success thus far, but almost everyone agrees that more needs to be done to put into place protections against so much abuse," May said.
If officials recognize the room for abuse, why not deal with the fraud before expanding the program?
Like so many “rights,” internet access is now considered one by many on the Left, who seem to equate it with air and water, which is part of the philosophy behind net neutrality – a whole other government regulatory scheme to take over control of private utility and redistribute it with little care for how the market economy functions.
The issue at hand is whether every American needs access to the internet in their homes such that on top of the taxes we pay out of our checks each week, we need private service providers to also lump another tax onto our private consumer bills.
Advocates say the widening digital divide between the internet haves and have-nots warrants the government's intervention – apparently nearly 30 percent of Americans don't have broadband at home and low-income consumers disproportionately lack access. If I’m not wrong there are places anyone can go to get free and high-speed access such as libraries, schools, cafes, and free wifi spots. Is it fair to really claim that low-income Americans are totally in the internet dark?
It appears this is just another way to deal with the needs of those who are not as well off through subsidies. A better way might to have an economy that gave these people a job and the freedom that comes with it. If more Americans were working and wages were rising because jobs were in more plentiful supply, how many people would then even need this program?