Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday voted unanimously to approve a plan to speed up internet access for low-income Americans by making it easier for them to buy low-cost broadband plans.
The plan, known as Lifeline, is a major policy win for Pai and his Republican allies who have sought to make it easier to buy broadband.
But it is also an example of the power that internet service providers have over consumers, which could lead to more consolidation and more power in the hands of large internet providers, particularly as broadband providers increase their efforts to deliver faster internet speeds to their customers.
Pai said in a statement after the vote that the FCC had not yet finalized its Lifeline proposal.
“This is a critical step toward ensuring that Americans have access to the internet at all times and at reasonable prices,” Pai said.
Pai’s decision was applauded by consumer advocacy groups who have long argued that internet access should be available at all hours and at no cost.
Pai, who is also a Republican, said in the statement that he supports the Lifeline plan because he wants to give Americans the ability to afford broadband and the ability for the FCC to act quickly to make sure consumers have access at all of their times and on reasonable terms.
The FCC is one of the most influential regulatory agencies in the country, overseeing internet services that include mobile internet access, home broadband, and wired internet access.
Pai announced last year that he was considering the elimination of Lifeline during a meeting of the Federal Communications Committee.
The Lifeline program is a form of “net neutrality,” which protects internet service users from discrimination by internet service companies.
It has long been the target of critics who say that internet providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T have used their power to control how internet content is available and priced.
In response to the plan, FCC Chairman Ajits Pai said earlier this year that his FCC would “end the practice of favoring some internet service over others, and we will protect the ability of internet service to serve as an equal access opportunity for all Americans.”
Pai said that while the plan is good news for low income Americans, he will also work to make internet access accessible to other groups.
“We will take every action necessary to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to receive quality internet access and to get it as fast as possible,” Pai wrote.
“I will work with Congress to ensure we ensure that Americans can enjoy the benefits of the Internet at all cost, regardless of their income or geographic location.”
The Lifelink program was originally created to help low- and middle-income families buy a fixed-line internet plan.
Under Pai’s plan, low- or middle-class Americans could purchase a fixed broadband plan with no monthly fee.
Pai says that Lifeline is designed to “help low- income and middle class families purchase an internet service plan that provides a level of access they cannot obtain elsewhere.”
The FCC’s plan is a continuation of the Lifelinking Program that has existed since the 1970s.
The program has been in effect since 1994, and the FCC says that its purpose was to provide access to affordable and reliable broadband to all Americans.
The new Lifeline bill does not include a provision to make any payments to internet service provider providers, such as Comcast, that are exempt from paying taxes.
Pai has also said that he plans to block internet providers from making payments to providers that are subject to federal and state tax laws, which Pai called a “very big loophole.”