It is Time to Reimagine Lifeline

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Digital Beat

It is Time to Reimagine Lifeline

John Horrigan

Low-income households are spending too much on connectivity. Prior to the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program supported mainly wireless communication services for low-income households; its $9.25/month subsidy resulting in service plans that restricted voice and data usage. To address Americans’ online connectivity needs during the pandemic, Congress directed the FCC to launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program—a historic expansion of financial support for universal service. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, EBB has transitioned to a longer-term Affordable Connectivity Program, a $30-per-month service subsidy for qualifying households.

The Affordable Connectivity Program offers the opportunity to take a fresh look at policies to promote online access for low-income people in the United States.

The Affordable Connectivity Program represents an inflection point for Lifeline and universal service.

The Affordable Connectivity Program is a marked change in mindset about universal service, the principle that all Americans should have affordable access to essential communications services. Lifeline has experienced budget austerity and operational challenges for over a decade, which may hinder the success of the Affordable Connectivity Program. Burdensome enrollment processes and minimum service standards have, in recent years, served to discourage Lifeline enrollment—an impulse driven in part by a flawed program-funding mechanism. The Affordable Connectivity Program represents a departure from Lifeline’s funding mechanism with the goal to maximize enrollment of eligible households—a different emphasis than in the recent past.

Reimagining Lifeline: Universal Service, Affordability, and ConnectivityIn Reimagining Lifeline: Universal Service, Affordability, and Connectivity, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, I examine data about the tools typical American households have for accessing the internet and how affordable they are, and explore the administrative journey of Lifeline, which is all the more significant because the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the Lifeline program, will also administer the Affordable Connectivity Program.

My research finds that:

  • In the United States, the new connectivity norm is both wireline and wireless, with the devices needed to make use of these broadband services.
  • Low-income households are spending too much on connectivity.
  • Lifeline has survived “managed decline.”

As the FCC considers the future of universal service, the Benton Institute is recommending that:

  1. The standard for universal service support in the United States should be a fixed broadband subscription and a cellular data plan that meets connectivity needs outside the home.
  2. The Affordable Connectivity Program should foster home wireline broadband connectivity. An increase in the Lifeline subsidy to $20 per month can position that program to better address wireless mobile needs for eligible low-income households.
  3. Operationally, policymakers should take steps to facilitate Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment, which includes ensuring that the National Verifier links to all appropriate databases to improve the enrollment process for beneficiaries. In addition, funding is critical for outreach in communities with high proportions of eligible households.

The new Affordable Connectivity Program, coupled with Lifeline, has the potential to deliver more equitable connectivity solutions to low-income households.

Policymakers should never lose sight of the goal of universal service: to ensure that essential communications services are available and affordable for all. Expanding broadband usage can enhance U.S. economic growth and build stronger democratic institutions. Expanding broadband usage can improve lives, opens windows on the world, connect people to people, and connect people to services.

Broadband’s fundamental value doesn’t simply come from connecting computers to networks; it comes from connecting people to opportunity, and society to new solutions—because at the end of the day, people are the most critical half of the last-mile equation.

John B. Horrigan is a Benton Senior Fellow. He is a national expert on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. Additionally, as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data. 

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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