What’s this Lifeline All About? – 04/30/2016 (updated 5/5)

One of our Facebook readers asked for an explanation of what the recent FCC Lifeline ruling means. While I’m not an expert, I’ll do my best to provide a high-level summary. When the Lifeline program was launched, the FCC identified the telephone as a lifeline to the outside world. Today,  such connectivity also requires data access to the Internet.

Since 1985, the Lifeline program has provided a monthly subsidy of $9.25 for phone service for those with income below 135% of the poverty line. It currently provides support for thirteen million Americans.

In anticipation of opening the Lifeline service to include broadband, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance began, forming a coalition of parties interested in making  broadband connectivity available to a broader audience. Broadband can be defined in many ways, but in this context, broadband provides always-on Internet that is much faster compared to dial-up access. Internet access has become critical for access to public services and commercial enterprise.

In June, 2015, the FCC announced steps to modernize and reform Lifeline for broadband. Public comments were sought, with a deadline of August 31, 2015. The collection of public comments are available here. The NDIA played a critical role in providing comments and encouraging others to participate in the process.

On April 1, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission voted to expand the Lifeline telephone subsidy for low-income Americans to include Internet access.

On April 27, 2016, the full text of the ruling was released, all 224 pages of it.

The key points of the decision include:

  • Establishes a National Eligibility Verifier to verify eligible Lifeline subscribers. Eligibility will be based on participation in SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, Federal Public Housing Assistance, the Veterans Pension benefit program, current Tribal qualifying programs, or those who can demonstrate income of less than 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
  • Defines minimum service standards for broadband and mobile voice services.
  • Defines a five and half year transition plan to migrate from voice-focus to broadband-service-focus.
  • Creates a Lifeline Broadband Subscriber designation process to encourage new service providers.
  • Requires that Lifeline providers make available hotspot-enabled devices and Wi-Fi enabled devices when providing such devices for use with the Lifeline-supported service.
  • Directs the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) to develop recommendations to address the non-price barriers to digital inclusion. In addition, CGB’s plan should address best practices for increasing the digital skills of those already online and how those best practices can be spread throughout the digital inclusion community.

More and more, digital access is an important component to modern life, and this is a key step to ensure that everyone has access to the services and resources needed to participate.

I’m very glad to be involved in this, and delighted with the progress that has been made in the past year. I look forward to the successful roll-out of this program, which will help provide connectivity to millions who currently don’t have ready access.

For more details (including roll-out timeline and service standard details), take a look at Connected Nation’s Policy Brief  and Connected Nations’s FCC Lifeline Broadband Program: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).

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