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FCC votes to subsidize broadband for low-income households and limit spammy phone calls

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The Federal Communications Commission approved two important proposals this morning. The first is an overhaul to its Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service for low-income Americans and should soon also be able to subsidize high-speed internet, furthering the commission's goal of seeing access spread across the country. The second is an update to the commission's robocall rules that will allow service providers to use robocall blocking software to stop spammy calls from reaching their customers. The robocall rules go into effect immediately; the Lifeline overhaul will now be opened up for a comment period before being revised and likely entered into law.

Subsidies go to households near or below the poverty line

The Lifeline update is the more important of the two proposals that the FCC approved today. The program currently offers $9.25 per month for phone service to households that are below or only slightly above the poverty line. The idea is that phone service is so critical to daily life — you need it to call for help, to get a job, to stay in touch with the world — that everyone should be able to afford it. Of course, that was more accurate in 1985 when the program was set up. Today, the internet is what fits that description, which is why Lifeline is now being changed to cover broadband.

It's an important update for spreading internet access, which is currently limited among low-income households. In 2013, Pew found that only 54 percent of households making under $30,000 a year had broadband. The hope is that Lifeline can go a long way toward changing that. Many Republicans are, unsurprisingly, opposed to the program. Lifeline has even received the nickname "Obamaphone," which is brilliant because the program started under Reagan. The claim is that Lifeline is fraught with fraud and misuse, which is likely why the FCC's proposed update takes steps to add further protections.

As far as the robocall update goes, it's largely a series of clarifications and tweaks to the FCC's existing rules. They're a meaningful series of changes, however, as they make it clear what steps phone providers can take to prevent spammy calls, and they remove loopholes that robocallers were using to avoid getting in trouble. One change will make it far easier for people to opt out of robocalls and texts — callers will be required to accept any reasonable request for removal — and another change will require that callers regularly clear old phone numbers from their lists. Spammy calls (and texts) are apparently the issue FCC gets the most complaints about, so these changes could do a lot to help remove that annoyance. That said, there remains some concern among the commissioners about the possibility of robocall blockers stopping the wrong calls.

The FCC actually approved a third item at the meeting as well, one meant to increase competition in VoIP. The update makes it easier for VoIP providers to acquire phone numbers, which could in turn reduce costs for subscribers.