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New York — The head of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing that the government agency expand a phone subsidy program for the poor to include Internet access.

The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has emphasized that Internet access is a critical component of modern life, key to education, communication and finding a keeping a job.

With the net neutrality rules released earlier this year, the agency redefined broadband as a public utility, like the telephone, giving it stricter oversight on how online content gets to consumers. That triggered lawsuits from Internet service providers.

The proposal Thursday to expand the Lifeline phone program to Internet service aims to narrow the “digital divide” — those with access to the Internet and other modern technologies and those without.

According to a Pew Research Center report from 2013, 70 percent of U.S. adults have a high-speed Internet connection at home. Only 54 percent of households earnings less than $30,000 a year do. The FCC says low-income Americans are more likely to rely on smartphones for Internet access.

Lifeline was started in 1985 and expanded to include wireless phones in 2005. The FCC’s proposal calls for extending Lifeline’s $9.25 monthly credit to give low-income households a choice of phone service or Internet access, via a wire to the home or a smartphone.

But Lifeline has been criticized for being susceptible to fraud, and the proposal may get pushback from Republicans.

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