Washington - The top US telecom regulator on Thursday unveiled plans to subsidise high-speed internet for low-income households, saying the service was essential for people trying to better themselves.
Federal Communications chairman Tom Wheeler proposed the plan to overhaul the “Lifeline” programme, which provides low-cost telephone service, to include online access as well.
“Broadband access is essential to find a job - more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 job openings are online,” Wheeler said in a blog post.
“Americans need broadband to keep a job, as companies increasingly require basic digital literacy skills. We rely on broadband to manage and receive health care, and to help our children do their homework.”
But Wheeler said nearly 30 percent of Americans, mostly low-income households, still lack broadband access.
“While more than 95 percent of households with incomes over $150 000 have broadband, only 48 percent of those making less than $25 000 have the service at home,” he said.
“A world of broadband 'haves' and 'have-nots' is a world where none of us will have the opportunity to enjoy the full fruits of what broadband has to offer.”
Wheeler said nearly half of low-income Americans have had to cancel or suspend smartphone services due to financial hardship.
The initiative is likely to face obstacles, especially from some lawmakers who have complained about the “Obamaphone” programme, even though it dates back to 1985 and the Reagan administration.
Earlier this year, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana called Lifeline “one of the most corrupt federal programmes in recent memory” and called for tougher efforts to curb fraud and abuse.
But Kristine DeBry of the advocacy group Public Knowledge welcomed the initiative, saying that “people increasingly depend on the internet for access to jobs, education, news, services, communications, and everything else under the sun”.
She said the plan follows “a long, bipartisan tradition of ensuring that all Americans have access to basic communications services”.