JSI News & Commentary: Lifeline Reforms Are on the Way

Since 2011, each of the FCC’s Universal Service programs has been reformed and modernized to subsidize broadband service, except for Lifeline. Lifeline has undergone significant changes in the last three years, but those efforts were designed only to curtail waste, fraud and abuse. And now in 2015, the federal Lifeline program remains stuck in the voice-centric 1990s, not providing support for broadband of any type.

We all recognize the importance broadband connectivity is for our day-to-day lives. But according to a Pew Research study in late 2013, 54% of Americans with an annual household income of less than $30,000 were broadband adopters. These people would greatly benefit from a less expensive way to access the Internet, an opportunity an expansion of Lifeline services could provide. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a speech last fall, “If we fail to take the next step and provide a mechanism to ensure that broadband rates are affordable for low income consumers as required by the statute, we risk investing billions of dollars building technology bridges to nowhere.”

The FCC’s 2012 Lifeline Modernization Order did attempt to lay the framework for a broadband subsidy through the Lifeline Broadband Pilot to “promote the adoption and retention of broadband services by low-income households.” But pilot participants found broadband still to be too expensive for many of its low-income customers.

Despite the pilot’s tepid response, the Commission seems poised to move forward with Lifeline broadband as early as this summer with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). In addition to adding broadband to the supported services, it seems as though the NPRM will include further reforms designed to keep program costs from skyrocketing and to mitigate potential abuse. In the last few months, Commissioners Clyburn and O’Rielly have both introduced separate “principles” for Lifeline reform. Commissioner Clyburn’s principles involve ways to improve program accessibility and Commissioner O’Rielly’s principles detail ways to further streamline the process. Although their goals differ, there are some overlaps in their ideas.

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