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Is Internet access necessary for economic well-being? FCC chairman thinks so.

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

(Read caption) FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the FCC's 2016 budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 12, 2015.

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This year, the Federal Communications Commission decided that broadband Internet should be treated as a public utility, similar to the telephone network. Now, the FCC’s chairman says that, like the phone network, the Internet should be subsidized for the poor.

Since 1985, the Lifeline program has provided qualifying, low-income consumers with discounted telephone services. Supporters of the program argue that access to phone services is essential for calling for medical help, searching for employment, and, ultimately, for attaining overall economic well-being.

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On Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told his colleagues that Internet access is just as important as telephone access for people trying to climb out of poverty. His $1.7 billion proposal would give recipients the option to choose between phone service, Internet access, or a combination of both, The New York Times reported.

“People increasingly depend on the Internet for access to jobs, education, news, services, communications, and everything else under the sun,” says Kristine DeBry, vice president of the Policy Strategy Center at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.

"Employers assume prospective employees have it and school systems assume their students can access materials online.... We no longer need to debate if broadband is essential to the lives and well-being of all Americans,” says Ms. DeBry, who made her comments via e-mail.

In 2013, the last year for which data are available, 54 percent of people who make less than $30,000 annually had broadband service at home, versus 88 percent of those earning $75,000 or more, the Pew Research Center found. People of color are also less likely than white consumers to have Internet access, with 53 percent of Hispanics and 63 percent of blacks saying they have broadband at home, compared with 74 percent of whites.

Advocates of the new plan argue that the Internet has become necessary for everything from job-hunting to schoolwork.

“It becomes a civil rights issue,” Edward Lee Vargas, former superintendent of the Kent School District in Washington State, told the Atlantic. At the White House last year, Dr. Vargas argued that schools' federal technology dollars should be allowed to fund out-of-school Internet connections for poor children.

The Internet can even help low-income people save money, says Josh Bleiberg, research analyst at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

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“E-commerce is important," he says. "Access to Amazon and buying in bulk can be a big money saver if people can’t afford a membership for Costco. People don’t take that into consideration.”

Still, it's likely the plan will face strong opposition – just as the Lifeline program and the decision to regulate broadband Internet as a public utility have.

"The FCC has failed to manage Lifeline efficiently in its current form," Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, who has sought to end aspects of the program with legislation, told The Washington Post.

More than 12 million households currently participate in the Lifeline program. To be eligible, households must have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, or receive Medicaid or food stamp benefits.

A FCC vote on the new plan will be held next month. The commission’s Democratic majority is expected to support it, observers say.

During a speech last Friday, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, "Too many of our citizens are stuck in digital darkness, without the primary tool needed for seamless communications for health care, education, civic participation, and professional advancement."

President Obama has commented on the role of the digital economy in America’s economic growth. During a January visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where a municipally owned network offers residents high-speed Internet, he stated that broadband access is now a necessity, not a luxury.