Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tom Wheeler speaks during his keynote conference during the second day of the Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tom Wheeler speaks during his keynote conference during the second day of the Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. - 
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The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, is floating a plan that could help narrow the digital divide. Some Americans are falling behind in the economy due to lack of internet access.

The proposal, still in its embryonic stages, would retool a $1.6 billion program called Lifeline, which offers low-income people a monthly $9.25 discount on their phone bills. The program expansion would let them choose to direct the subsidy towards a monthly internet bill instead.

"Broadband is the indispensable infrastructure of the 21st century,” says Bernadine Joselyn, a director with the Blandin Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on rural Minnesota. “You can't even apply for a job these days without using the internet, even jobs where you don't have to use the internet on the job.”

Joselyn says she welcomes the FCC's plans to update Lifeline for the 21st century.

Funding for Lifeline comes from other users of telecommunications services, namely, the rest of us. Our phone bills include a "universal access" charge. It pays for a few other programs, too.

“Where we're getting the resources for this funding comes from ratepayers, rich and poor, throughout America today,” says Michael O'Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner.

O'Rielly says Lifeline has been plagued with fraud. He thinks the FCC has taken important steps to address key problems, such as households claiming more than one subsidy. But he says academic research suggests many Lifeline users would figure out how to pay their phone bills without the program. O’Rielly suspects that would hold true if Lifeline expanded to subsidize broadband.

And the expanded program won’t improve digital literacy, a key factor in the digital divide, according to Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff who's now at the Brookings Institution. Nevertheless, Levin believes the Lifeline reboot is essential.

“This is a very important step. It's the most important step,” he says. “But it's not the last step.”

Follow Annie Baxter at @anniebaxter123