A Big Day For Lifeline

Friday, November 19, 2021

Weekly Digest

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of November 15-19, 2021

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

November 5, 2021 may be remembered as the day the U.S. House of Representatives passed the infrastructure bill. But it was also a big day for the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program—because of actions both the FCC and Congress took that day. The impact on the program will be evident for the next year—and perhaps many years to come.

FCC Hits Pause on Lifeline Changes

In an order adopted on November 5, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau paused a scheduled phaseout in Lifeline support for voice-only services and an increase in minimum service standards for mobile broadband data capacity. The phaseout and increase were planned in rules the FCC adopted in 2016.

This month’s move means nearly 800,000 Lifeline subscribers on voice-only plans (or plans that don’t meet the FCC’s minimum service standards for mobile broadband) will continue to get service until at least December 2022. 

Affordable Connectivity Programs

In its order, the Wireline Competition Bureau said the pause gives the full FCC “time to evaluate whether [changed circumstances] warrant longer-term modifications of the Lifeline program.” The “changed circumstances” include the COVID-19 pandemic, as one would imagine, as well as the FCC’s own findings that “the removal of Lifeline support for voice-only services may push some Lifeline consumers into bundled plans that they are unable to afford.”

The Wireline Competition Bureau also notes another major milestone for the Lifeline program: Congress’ establishment of connectivity discount programs for low-income consumers. Late last year, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund through the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The fund’s $3.2 billion fueled the rollout of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program which, for the past few months, has discounted broadband services and connected devices for eligible low-income households. As of October 24, 6,829,442 households have enrolled in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. In contrast to Lifeline’s $9.25 monthly discount, the Emergency Broadband Benefit provides a $50/month subsidy for broadband service. The program is aimed at helping low-income households connect to distance education, telehealth, work, and family members during the pandemic. Last year, the program was envisioned as a temporary measure, lasting until the initial funding ran out or six months after the pandemic ended (whichever came first).

On November 15, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. The legislation makes the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program more permanent by adding over $14 billion in funding. Reflecting the change, the program is being renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program. Starting in 2022, broadband providers will receive up to $30/month for providing service to low-income households.

The Wireline Competition Bureau notes that as Lifeline subscribers automatically qualify for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (that will continue to be true under the Affordable Connectivity Program), the program’s current discount of up to $50 is likely to have large implications on the affordability of broadband service for Lifeline-eligible households. The relatively new nature of the program—as well as the forthcoming longer-term Affordable Connectivity Program—underscores the need for more data to adequately assess the effects on the Lifeline program and its role in shaping the broadband market for low-income Americans.

Table Set for Reform

With the Wireline Competition Bureau’s one-year pause in place and the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the table is set for the FCC to launch a proceeding to consider what role Lifeline will play in ensuring affordable communications services for low-income consumers. 

The FCC’s last major comprehensive reform and modernization of Lifeline took place in 2016. Seeing that 43% of the nation’s poorest households could not afford broadband, the FCC decided to refocus Lifeline support on internet access. For the first time, Lifeline was allowed to support stand-alone broadband service as well as bundled voice and data service packages.

In the FCC’s own words, a core tenet of the 2016 decision was to enable “Lifeline customers to obtain the type of robust service which is essential to participate in today’s society.” The FCC recognized “it is vital that the offered service provides sufficient speed and capacity to allow the user to utilize all that the Internet has to offer.” And the FCC meant to ensure that Lifeline supports an evolving level of service.

Fast forward to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic and we see recognition from Congress that Lifeline’s $9.25/month subsidy isn’t enough to provide robust broadband to low-income households. With a permanent Affordable Connectivity Program providing $30/month for broadband, how can Lifeline also help low-income consumers?

There’s another justification to reexamine the Lifeline program: net neutrality. (Yes, net neutrality.)  The FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom order, among other things, concluded that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate residential broadband internet access service. Although the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit generally upheld that decision, the court held that the FCC had not sufficiently considered the impact the decision would have on the agency’s ability to include support for broadband services in the Lifeline program. The court ordered the FCC to reexamine that issue.

In 2020, the FCC concluded, after gathering and reviewing public comment, that the Restoring Internet Freedom order “allows us to continue to provide Lifeline support for broadband Internet access service.” Moreover, the FCC ruled:

We conclude that any potential negative effects that the reclassification may have on … the Lifeline program are limited and would not change our classification decision in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order even if such negative effects were substantiated. Rather, we find that [the] overwhelming benefits of Title I classification and restoration of light-touch regulation outweigh any adverse effects.

Then-Commissioner, now-Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called that ruling a dodge. She continued:

It ignores the fact that … universal service is defined as an evolving level of telecommunications service and it offers a hodgepodge of citations to claim that its decision did not destabilize the Lifeline program. But it did. Because there is no question the program is on less firm legal ground than it was before—and that’s a shame. The future of communications is broadband, and this program should reflect that.

Finally, an independent evaluation of Lifeline found that the program lacks foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—essential documents to guide and track the longitudinal success of the program. The FCC is overdue to create these documents.

The Wireline Competition Bureau has opened a one-year window for the FCC to do some much-needed Lifeline reform; let’s hope the commission uses this opportunity to better serve low-income consumers. 

Benton’s Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit/Affordable Connectivity Program coverage this year:

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Dec 1—Legislative Hearing on Section 230 Reform (House Commerce Committee)

Dec 6—Virtual Roundtable on FCC Telehealth Initiatives (FCC)

Dec 8—Tribal Broadband Data Collection Workshop (FCC)

Dec 8—Legislative Hearing on Big Tech Accountability (House Commerce Committee)

Dec 13—Digital Divide Summit (Fierce Telecom)

Dec 14—Open Commission Meeting (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy – rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity – has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.


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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
847-328-3040
headlines AT benton DOT org

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