Business

FCC Plans to Expand Low-Income Assistance to Broadband Ahead of Privacy Rules

Tom Wheeler
Photo Credit Kristoffer Tripplaar/ Sipa USA/AP Images

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler participates in a panel discussion in this file photo in Washington, D.C. on February 6, 2014.

This morning, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler posted a lengthy letter to his office's website that laid out the Commission's plans for Lifeline, a federal program which provides a $10 per month subsidy to the lowest-income Americans for wired phone services. In 2013, the program provided $1.8 billion in subsidies to 14.2 million people.

"We can recite statistics all we want," Wheeler writes, "but we must never lose sight of the fact that what we’re really talking about is people -- unemployed workers who miss out on jobs that are only listed online, students who go to fast-food restaurants to use the Wi-Fi hotspots to do homework, veterans who are unable to apply for their hard-earned benefits, seniors who can’t look up health information when they get sick."

To that end, Wheeler is set to propose an overhaul to the Lifeline program that would extend its purview to broadband access.

The Lifeline program was subject to overhauls in 2012 that looked to stymie abuse of the system, measures Wheeler proposes be bolstered for the web access program. Lifeline hasn't been without criticism, in part for providing wireless services at rates seen as exploitative; "“I saw all the horror stories of people getting 10, 20, 30, 40 phones,” one person told the National Review in 2013.

The expansion of Lifeline is just one part of the FCC's ongoing regulatory strategy for web access. This month Wheeler's office is expected to unveil rules for broadband providers around protecting consumers' privacy. Yesterday the Commission issued a judgment against Verizon for "supercookies" the wireless carrier baked into its service that tracked where its customers were going on the web -- the program began in 2012 but wasn't made public until 2014. Verizon later integrated its supercookies with the ad products of AOL, which the copany acquired last year.

Both sides of the debate have put stakes in the ground ahead of the rule reveal.

On the side of enterprise, a letter from five trade bodies including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association issued a set of recommendations urging restraint. "The FCC should adopt an approach to privacy and data security... that is flexible, harmonized with the well-established and successful FTC framework, and backed up by strong but fair enforcement for unfair or deceptive acts or practices that materially harm consumers." Reading between the lines, the NCTA is hoping Wheeler and his team will give businesses a wide berth to utilize the comprehensive data they have and retain on their customers.

In response, 12 consumer protection groups issued their own letter, writing that "sixty-five percent of Internet traffic in North America was unencrypted, thereby allowing ISPs expansive access to the content of subscribers’ online communications." The letter continued by pointing out that even encrypted traffic "can reveal intimate details about the subscriber, such as when a user has recently become employed or given birth to a child."

If the FCC's net neutrality rules, issued last year, are any indication, consumers can expect the construction of robust walls around the way broadband providers are able to use the data people have no choice in sending them.