The head of the Federal Communications Commission says he wants to make it a little easier for all Americans to get online. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, shared a proposal last week  urging the commission to update its Lifeline program, which currently provides a subsidy to qualified low-income households to help them pay their landline or mobile phone bills. The suggested updates would allow those households to use the same subsidy to help cover the cost of broadband—meaning more families could afford Internet at home.

The catch? The subsidy is just $9.25 per month.

The proposal shows that federal regulators are finally beginning to acknowledge what many of us already know—the Internet is a crucial gateway to economic opportunity. But broadband tends to be costly, even with discounted plans. Will such a seeming pittance be enough to make broadband affordable for families strapped for cash? Advocates for bridging the so-called digital divide, it turns out, say it might be. Not only that, they say that expanding the Lifeline program to broadband could open up a whole new competitive marketplace for low-cost Internet access.

A Life Line

The Lifeline program was originally established in 1985 during the Reagan era with the explicit goal of ensuring that low-income consumers would not lose phone service if rates changed. At the time, Congress determined that landlines had “become crucial to full participation in our society and economy, which are increasingly dependent upon the rapid exchange of information.”

But today that rapid exchange of information predominantly happens on the Internet—and many Americans are missing out. In a 2013 study, Pew Research found that while most Americans have Internet in their homes, only half of all adults who make less than $30,000 per year do. And 15 percent of Americans don’t have access to the Internet at all, most notably senior citizens, adults without a high school education, and low-income families.

For those children, adults, and seniors, access to the Internet is about far more than getting Facebook or Netflix—it can mean not having access to educational resources, employment opportunities, and social programs that have started to move online. Nonprofit organizations looking to help close the digital divide have found that a family’s lack of Internet access at home often doesn’t mean they don’t want it, or don’t see the potential benefits. It comes down to cost. “We struggle with families who do realize that they should have Internet, but their money is so tight that adding on another cost like broadband is so ridiculous,” says Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

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Push to name donors in political ads hits FCC roadblock – By Mario Trujillo – 05/26/15 06:00 AM EDT

Getty Images

Getty Images

Congressional Democrats’ push to strengthen political ad disclosures in time for the 2016 elections appears dead for now after hitting a roadblock at the Federal Communications Commission.

Amid a divisive legal battle over new net neutrality rules and other pressing telecommunications issues at the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested the commission has little appetite to take up a fix on its own.

“Maybe you noticed — we have a long list of difficult telecommunications related decisions that we are dealing with right now. And that will be our focus,” Wheeler said last week when asked if the commission would initiate new rules on its own.

Billions of dollars are expected pour into the 2016 election, and Democrats have pressed the FCC to update its rules to require large donors to be identified at the end of television ads purchased by super-PACs and other outside groups.

Lawmakers in both chambers have introduced bills to force the agency’s hand and Wheeler, a Democrat, noted he would “clearly follow” any mandate from Congress.

But the title of the House proposal — which overtly references GOP mega-donors Charles and David Koch — indicates that the party sees it as more of a messaging bill than anything else. And a failed vote on the legislation in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last week confirmed that the proposal would not be able to get passed Republican opposition.

“This isn’t the place for it. If you want to do campaign finance reform, there are other committees of jurisdiction,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who leads the House subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

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Tom Wheeler tweaks net neutrality plan after Google push – By BROOKS BOLIEK 2/25/15 5:38 PM EST

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is pictured.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has made some last-minute revisions to his net neutrality plan after Google and public interest groups pressed for the changes, according to sources at the commission.

Google, Free Press and New America’s Open Technology Institute last week asked the commission to revise language they said could unintentionally allow Internet service providers to charge websites for sending content to consumers. Such a scenario could open the door to an avalanche of new fees for Web companies and threaten their business models.

Google executives on Feb. 19 called aides to Wheeler and staffers for the FCC’s two other Democratic commissioners — Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel — to make their case, according to a company disclosure. Clyburn has been the most vocal proponent of the revisions inside the commission, the sources said.

The exact scope of the language changes — which came to light a day before the FCC is scheduled to vote on the rules — wasn’t immediately clear. They do not appear to alter the main thrust of Wheeler’s proposed order, which would regulate broadband like a public utility to ensure Internet providers treat all Web traffic equally. The commission’s Democratic majority is expected to approve the order over objections of Republicans who say the rules are heavy handed and will harm investment.

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: This Is How We Will Ensure Net Neutrality – BY TOM WHEELER 02.04.15 | 11:00 AM

Federal Communication Commission(FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler waits for a hearing at the FCC December 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Federal Communication Commission(FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler waits for a hearing at the FCC December 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.  Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

After more than a decade of debate and a record-setting proceeding that attracted nearly 4 million public comments, the time to settle the Net Neutrality question has arrived. This week, I will circulate to the members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules to preserve the internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression. This proposal is rooted in long-standing regulatory principles, marketplace experience, and public input received over the last several months.

Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their actions may not always be optimal for network users. The Congress gave the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers. Over the years, the Commission has used this authority to the public’s great benefit.

The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did, for instance, if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s. Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the internet were usable only because the FCC required the network to be open.

Companies such as AOL were able to grow in the early days of home computing because these modems gave them access to the open telephone network.

I personally learned the importance of open networks the hard way. In the mid-1980s I was president of a startup, NABU: The Home Computer Network. My company was using new technology to deliver high-speed data to home computers over cable television lines. Across town Steve Case was starting what became AOL. NABU was delivering service at the then-blazing speed of 1.5 megabits per second—hundreds of times faster than Case’s company. “We used to worry about you a lot,” Case told me years later.

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Will the FCC’s New Chairman Usher in a New Era for the Commission? – Leticia Miranda January 10, 2014


Tom Wheeler (Credit: Leticia Miranda)

Over 200 people gathered last night at Preservation Park in downtown Oakland, California, for a spirited town hall with the Federal Communications Commission’s new chairman, Tom Wheeler. The event, titled “Oakland Voices: A Town Hall on Our Right to Communicate,” offered attendees a rare chance to shape the direction of the country’s new FCC administration. Wheeler, who assumed leadership of the FCC in November, seemed receptive, taking vigorous notes and pausing occasionally to listen intently to the speakers.

The event, which was hosted by Voices for Internet Freedom, a network that advocates for Internet access and freedom in communities of color, allotted speaking time for about thirty audience members. Community members, advocates and leaders spoke directly to the Chairman, raising concerns about everything from Lifeline eligibility for people without social security numbers to the low broadband Internet capacity of local libraries.

One speaker, Karen Gonzalez, described the exorbitant rates she pays to stay in touch with her son who was sentenced to twenty years in prison as a 17-year-old in 2010. She choked back tears as she explained that her son is now serving his sentence in a state prison fourteen hours away from their home. Though he is still in California, the family must pay costly phone bills to stay in touch with him.

“Our phone conversations mean everything to us,” she said. “To date, we’ve paid over $3,900 toward Global Tel*Link surcharges and long distance calls to stay in touch with our son. He has 16 more years to go which will average out at $20,800 in phone bill charges we are expected to pay in order to remain in contact with him.”

Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, stressed the importance of programs designed to make the Internet more accessible to the disabled community. Favuzzi decried the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, which stands at 12.3 percent—nearly twice as high as the rate for able-bodied people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s November 2013 report. She highlighted that people with disabilities need affordable access to high-speed Internet and wireless applications that increase accessibility in order to live independently.

“We can no longer expect to find a job, apply for college, choose a health plan, find an apartment or map a public transit route without access to the Internet,” Favuzzi said. “The FCC has the power to impact whether Americans with disabilities will gain equal access to opportunities to live, learn, earn and thrive in this new digital revolution.”

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In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler said that he understands “the consternation caused by the thought of your onboard seatmate disturbing the flight making phone calls. I do not want the person in the seat next to me yapping at 35,000 feet any more than anyone else. But we are not the Federal Courtesy Commission.” – By Cecilia Kang, Published: December 11

Controversy over proposal to allow cellphone calls in flight tests new FCC chairman Wheeler

Matt Slocum/AP – The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Thursday on whether it should allow the public to comment on chairman Tom Wheeler’s idea to enable cell phone calls on flights.

That may sound like a minor procedural motion. But the proposal has generated so much backlash that some commissioners are wavering on whether to even take that step.
Wheeler, who was sworn in last month, and another Democrat on the commission are expected to sign off on creating a public commenting period. But the other Democrat and the two Republican commissioners are hearing an outcry of protest from consumers and some lawmakers, and there is no guarantee that they would support opening the matter for review, FCC officials said.

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F.C.C. Smartphone App Gauges Speed of User’s Network By EDWARD WYATT Published: November 14, 2013

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday released its first smartphone app, a free program that allows consumers to measure the broadband speed they are getting on their mobile devices and to determine whether it is as fast as wireless companies say.


So far, the app works only on smartphones that run the Android operating system, but the commission is working on an iPhone version, which it expects to be ready by the end of January. The app provides information on upload and download speeds and on how efficiently data is transmitted, a measure known as packet loss.

The app, F.C.C. Speed Test, also will allow the commission to aggregate data about broadband speeds from consumers across the country. It will use the data to create an interactive map, giving consumers a tool to use in comparison shopping rather than relying on wireless companies’ promises.

Tom Wheeler, who was presiding over his first F.C.C. meeting as chairman, said the app was a “public beta” version, meaning that the commission wanted to hear suggestions for improvement from consumers and app developers.

“We know from experience that this type of transparency about broadband speeds is not only helpful to consumers on a day-to-day basis, but also that it can drive improvements in network performance,” Mr. Wheeler said.

The app, available in the Google Play store, will run periodically in the background on a consumer’s phone, automatically performing tests when a user is not otherwise using the phone.

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/technology/fcc-smartphone-app-gauges-speed-of-users-network.html?ref=technology