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Is high-speed Internet a human right?
The Federal Communications Commission is building a case that broadband access is a lot more than a luxury commodity for Americans. - photo by Chandra Johnson
For many Americans, high-speed Internet access is every bit as important as electricity, running water or telephone service. The Federal Communications Commission now agrees with that sentiment.

The commission announced last week that it plans to devote more than $1 billion to help America's poor subsidize the cost of high-speed Internet, just as it has helped impoverished families pay phone bills, arguing that phone access is crucial in medical emergencies.

The new program will be an extension of the existing Reagan-era subsidy Lifeline a program that orginally subsidized landline telephone service, but in 2008 was extended to cover mobile phone service.

"More education now involves watching videos, and much work is shifting to things like Internet-connected freelance gigs and call center work from home," The New York Times' Quentin Hardy pointed out. "And prospective employees need to be ready to conduct interviews over Skype."

An expansion to Lifeline sounds good on its face, and many European countries like Finland have already required its governments to provide citizens with fast Internet access. But Hardy and others already see cracks forming in the FCC's initiative when it comes before Congress.

First, how fast is "fast" and how long will that speed be considered "fast enough"?

"Last January, the F.C.C. increased its definition of broadband by over 500 percent, to 25 megabits per second," Hardy wrote. "Thats fast enough to stream todays ultrahigh-definition video, according to Netflix. But it is also tomorrows slowpoke speed."

Also, the initial proposal for Lifeline's high-speed subsidy may not make enough of a difference, argues Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz.

"Debate over just how far a $9.25 credit can go in covering the cost of broadband is sure to arise," Ruiz wrote.

While the details of the plan continue to be debated, the U.S. Senate is holding a subcommittee hearing this week debating the efficiency of Lifeline's subsidy as a whole some commissioners have called the program costly enough in its current state, despite reforms in 2012 meant to eliminate waste.

But National Hispanic Media Coalition executive vice president and general counsel Jessica J. Gonzalez testified to the Senate that as a former recipient of Lifeline, the program was worth fighting for.

"I will be forever grateful for the investments that this country made in my future, and I will fight to give opportunity to my fellow Americans," Gonzales said in her testimony to the Senate. "Modernizing Lifeline for the digital age, is, I believe, one such fight.
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