Members of Congress are asking FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to further modernize the Lifeline program to include broadband Internet services. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and 85 other members of the House sent a letter to Chairman Tom Wheeler on February 11, asking that the Lifeline subsidy be made available to “all telecommunication services.”  The lawmakers urged that Lifeline funding be available to support both wireline Internet service and wireless Internet coverage.  In extending Lifeline to support Internet services, the signatories also expressed hope that providers would “not sacrifice quality for affordability.”

Additionally, the letter asked that the FCC provide guidance on discouraging Lifeline providers from committing consumers to long-term billing relationships, asserting that providers should be discouraged from requiring credit checks, bank accounts, or disclosure of subscription history.  Finally, the letter pointed to the need to streamline the process of determining eligibility and suggested existing federal databases might be used for this purpose.

The letter comes on the heels of remarks by Chairman Wheeler earlier this month at the New America Foundation’s conference on Digital Equity.  There, Wheeler told his audience that Lifeline needed to include broadband.   “At a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online,” Wheeler said, “it doesn’t make sense for Lifeline to focus only on 20th century narrowband voice service.”  Wheeler explained that the program, which began in 1985, was founded at a time when communication meant a telephone call.  Today, in contrast, he noted that communication means Internet, explaining that adults need the Internet to develop their job skills, and kids need it for homework.

Wheeler explained his view that the shift was needed to narrow the so-called “digital divide.”  He said:

Low-income children and families need and deserve a modernized Lifeline that will help make broadband more affordable. A modernized Lifeline that allows participants the opportunity to move to the other side of the digital divide, eventually erasing the line between Internet haves and have-nots.”

In the same remarks, Chairman Wheeler pledged that the FCC would improve the management and design of Lifeline, and stressed the importance of getting more companies to offer the program.