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Why everyone deserves broadband no matter how little they make (Q&A)

CNET speaks with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn about why low-income Americans need access to high-speed Internet.

Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn wants to make sure no American is left behind when it comes to accessing high-speed Internet service.

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The FCC's Mignon Clyburn helped draft a proposal to expand the Lifeline phone subsidy program to include broadband.

The former newspaper publisher and public utility regulator from South Carolina is one of three Democrats on the five-member FCC, which oversees and develops policy that governs communications in the US. She has worked closely with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a fellow Democrat, to craft a proposal that would expand the government's $1.5 billion phone subsidy program, known as Lifeline, to help low-income families pay for broadband.

People who are eligible for other federal programs for poor or disabled Americans and meet certain income-based requirements qualify for the Lifeline subsidy. Examples of those other programs include Medicaid, veteran pensions, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and the federal food stamp program known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The FCC will vote to adopt the proposal at its monthly meeting Thursday. It's expected to pass.

The Internet has become central to the daily lives of millions of people for work and play, but not everyone has access to broadband. While virtually every affluent household in the US has broadband access, just 48 percent of those earning less than $25,000 can afford such service, according to the FCC. Affordability is still the largest single barrier to broadband adoption in low-income households, the agency says.

This reboot is designed to alleviate the issue.

Created in 1985, Lifeline was initially designed to provide discounts on traditional phone service for low-income families. It was revised in 2005 to add prepaid wireless mobile plans. However, Lifeline has been controversial as fraud and abuse of the program have been rampant over the years.

CNET spoke with Clyburn by phone, ahead of Thursday's vote. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

Q: Why is Lifeline reform needed now?

Clyburn: When Lifeline was established in 1985, it addressed gaps in voice service. We don't live in a voice-only world anymore. Broadband is how we communicate. Without it, millions of families are on the wrong side of the opportunity divide. We already have a program designed to bridge affordability, and we're modernizing it for the Information Age.

The White House says it hopes to help 20 million people sign up for high-speed Internet. How will this program help?

Clyburn: The president's program, Connect Home, is totally separate from what we are doing. It's complementary, but it's not the same as Lifeline. We are talking about modernizing a program that has been around since 1985.

Today, 39 million households qualify for Lifeline as it stands. Of that number, 13.5 million have no Internet access. Another 2.2 million have Internet access, but it's only through a mobile device. So what we are talking about here is targeting those eligible households.

These are real people in real need. These are people who are disconnected from schools and health care opportunities.

They're being left behind because of a lack of connectivity.

Roughly 30 percent of Lifeline recipients not connected to the Internet cite economics as a big reason for not having service. And about 10 percent say the cost of computers and other devices is an issue. This program is designed to help when people are in need.

Experts agree that just lowering the price won't get everyone who doesn't have broadband to sign up. What can the FCC do beyond Lifeline to help spur adoption?

Clyburn: One of the things we've made clear is that this is a partnership between the public and private sectors. We can't do it all alone. This is a program that is administered by companies, but it needs the support of individuals in the community who are invested in getting their constituents connected. The $9.25 (subsidized monthly price for consumers) is just a piece of this.

The Lifeline program has been criticized for being fraught with waste and abuse. Does this new proposal do anything to help root out those problems?

Clyburn: Today the carriers are the ones who certify individuals who qualify for Lifeline. That was the biggest vulnerability in the program. What we make clear with this order is that carriers are not in the certification business. That's why we will have a national verifier qualifying individuals. Now if you don't qualify, there's no way for a carrier to provision service.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which was developed by Comcast to offer discounts on broadband to low-income families, is being viewed as a model of success. Will this encourage other broadband providers to participate in Lifeline now that a subsidy will be available?

Clyburn: Comcast began its program by offering service to households qualifying for federal free school lunch programs. Then they moved to those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. And now they're moving on to providing the service to low-income seniors. Companies will see in Comcast's expansion of its own program that it's economically viable to offer lower-cost services to people in need. These programs not only uplift the community. Over time, they will help expand the customer base.

This program is meant to be temporary. It offers a gateway for opportunity to those in need. But once a family's feet are firmly on the ground, they graduate and will continue to be a customer for the provider.

The proposal you and Chairman Wheeler have circulated requires that the Lifeline service have a minimum download speed of 10Mbps. Is setting a limit at this level contradictory given that last year the FCC defined broadband as 25Mbps?

Clyburn: We are on a pathway to have robust standards for Internet access, and we'll continue to put our thumb on the scale to do that. For Lifeline, this is a floor and not a ceiling as we modernize and recalibrate the program. We have to realize where the market is today. Over time, standards will change just like they've done with other Universal Service Fund programs. We will do the same with Lifeline.

Why is this Digital Divide issue so important to you?

Clyburn: I see millions of people who are making incredible sacrifices every day to live and function. You don't have to go far, just a few blocks away for some of us.

I believe part of my mission in life, my calling, is to be a voice for the voiceless. So many people are on the other side of the access divide. And for me to do a small but noteworthy thing, to give voice to concerns for people who might have been ignored, people who are not well-heeled and can't afford to come into this office or maybe don't have the ability to call or email or ask for something, is important to me. I have a special sensitivity to those individuals. It's part of government's role to address their needs.

Government works best when it recognizes when markets aren't perfect and national priorities aren't being met. This program is about providing opportunity for too many who are without. We need to do a better job to meet the needs of the underserved. And that's what we'll do when we vote to approve this proposal.