Where's the Lifeline?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, May 1, 2020

Weekly Digest

Where's the Lifeline?

 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 April 27 - May 1, 2020

Kevin Taglang

In the past 6 weeks, over 30 million people in the U.S. have filed initial claims for unemployment insurance. At a time when we are asked to stay at home to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, many state agencies find themselves overwhelmed by the flood of claims, leaving millions with dwindling resources to pay rent or put food on the table or stay connected via telephone or broadband. A program at the Federal Communications Commission should be a lifeline to keep people connected.

The Lifeline Program Then and Now

As Benton Senior Counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman reminded us some years ago, in the wake of the break-up of AT&T in 1984, the FCC was concerned that local service rates would become unaffordable for many because, among other things, the separation of AT&T’s long-distance services from the new local “Baby Bell” companies meant that the long-distance subsidy would end. [For those under 35, your parents' landline phone bill separated out charges for "local" service within their area code and long-distance service for calls outside that area.]

Accordingly, in 1985, the FCC established its Lifeline Service to provide discounted local phone service to low-income consumers.

When Congress overhauled the Communications Act in 1996, it made two important changes. First, it added non-discriminatory language to Section 1 so that it now requires the FCC to “make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges,...” Second, it gave specific statutory recognition to universal service, including Lifeline, for the first time. Additionally, Congress said the definition of universal service is evolving and should include telecommunications services that are essential to education, public health, or public safety; have been subscribed to by a substantial majority of residential customers; are being deployed by carriers in public telecommunications networks; and are consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity. 

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. In that reform, the FCC, for the first time, included broadband as a support service in the Lifeline program. The FCC also set out minimum service standards for Lifeline-supported services to ensure maximum value for the universal service dollar, and established a National Eligibility Verifier to make independent subscriber eligibility determinations.

But in 2017, the FCC came under new leadership with a new majority. As Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn recounted in Wired this week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has spent nearly his entire tenure trying to destroy the Lifeline program. During that tenure, the number of Lifeline recipients has decreased by 40 percent and the program’s budget has shrunk accordingly. Less than 20 percent of Americans who are eligible for Lifeline take advantage of it.

Under Pai's leadership, the FCC has rolled out the National Eligibility Verifier which is intended to allow a Lifeline provider to quickly determine a person’s eligibility by searching the databases of the government assistance programs. But in a rush to say that the verifier had launched, Sohn reports, Pai forced states to connect to the system before they were ready. As a result, a majority of states still have not connected their databases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and other qualified government assistance programs to the verifier. This means that qualified Lifeline recipients are being mistakenly rejected from Lifeline. Given that more than 33 percent of Lifeline recipients qualify under the SNAP program, it follows that large numbers of eligible Americans are being denied benefits.

Lifeline and the Coronavirus

Last month, just ten days after President Donald Trump declared a National Emergency, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society joined some 250 groups in an emergency request to the FCC asking for immediate action to adapt the Lifeline program to meet the COVID-19 crisis and:

  • Prohibit disconnections of Lifeline consumers immediately. Lifeline customers should not lose access during the COVID-19 crisis and for a reasonable period (e.g., 120 days) after the crisis. The Commission should immediately eliminate the non-usage rule and should continue its waiver of the recertification and reverification requirements for the full length of the emergency.
  • Require Lifeline providers to offer unlimited voice minutes and unlimited texting and commensurate voice-only financial support within no more than one week. Further support for phones that can tether or offer hotspots would also ameliorate current limits on broadband access.
  • Create an emergency Lifeline broadband benefit for low-income households within no more than 21 days for $50 per month to fill in the gaps once the initial corporate commitments for 60 days of free service end. An adequate broadband service to the home would provide 100 megabits per second downstream/10 megabits per second upstream to allow for multiple members of the household to have the connectivity necessary for two-way video. To be eligible, such products should not include any waiting period for service or prohibitions for consumers with arrearages. The FCC should forbear from the obligations that broadband providers be designated eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs). [Benton Senior Fellow, Jonathan Sallet, wrote more about the emergency Lifeline broadband subsidy.]

The groups also asked the FCC to streamline access for households impacted suddenly by the COVID-19 emergency. For example, program participants could demonstrate eligibility if they can document a layoff or an unemployment application, combined with a self-certification that it is connected to the COVID-19 crisis. On April 29 in a move along these lines, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau temporarily waived the requirement that consumers seeking to qualify for Lifeline based on their income must provide at least three consecutive months of income documentation. Until June 30, 2020, consumers demonstrating their income-based eligibility can submit an official document that confirms their current income information, such as a notice of unemployment benefits. (At the same time, the FCC also extended recent waivers of the Lifeline program’s recertification, reverification, general de-enrollment, and usage requirements until June 30, 2020. Those waivers are meant to prevent the de-enrollment of any Lifeline subscribers who would otherwise have been required to certify their continued eligibility to the National Verifier during the waiver period.) 

This week, over 140 Members of Congress urged the FCC to work directly with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that the millions of Americans who are now eligible for SNAP or Medicaid due to job loss or reduction in income are informed that they are also eligible for Lifeline. They also asked FCC Chairman Pai to respond to the following:

  1. What is the FCC currently doing to work with the USDA and HHS to help ensure that people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program are aware that they can receive subsidized communications services? 
  2. What data has the FCC collected on the number of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and how many of those newly eligible have enrolled in the program? 
  3. Please detail the additional resources and authorities the FCC needs to ensure qualifying people in the U.S. know that they are eligible for the Lifeline program. 

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks quickly responded, noting that Lifeline enrollment has stayed flat during the pandemic in comparison to surging SNAP applications. Starks continued:

One way or another, new enrollees of these programs must immediately learn about the benefits of Lifeline and how to sign up for it. I am committed to making sure that we use all of the necessary tools within our authority to partner with the appropriate federal agencies to increase participation in the Commission’s Lifeline program. Now is the time to step up and connect our most vulnerable households.

Chairman Pai has not made a public statement about the Congressional letter yet. 

Going past FCC action, former-U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving proposed in March that Congress devise a long-term solution to our continuing digital divide, once and for all. Congress must ensure adequate long-term funding and, even more importantly, must modernize broadband by:

  • Defining and requiring a meaningful level of Lifeline broadband service;
  • Assuring an adequate funding mechanism for Lifeline;
  • Decoupling funding for Lifeline broadband from funding for mobile phones or other devices; and
  • Requiring the FCC to provide annual reports on the success of the Lifeline program in increasing broadband subscribership.

Elements of these various proposals appear to be part of a larger plan released by House Democrats on April 30. The House Democratic Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet includes a number of provisions to ensure Internet affordability:

  • Promote Competition – Gives preference in awarding funding to broadband builds that will provide open access to new infrastructure to allow additional providers to use taxpayer funded infrastructure on fair terms to provide more options to consumers;
  • Require an Affordable Option – Requires internet service providers whose networks are built with new federal funding to offer at least one affordable option;
  • Enhance Payment Support – Increases existing payment support for consumers, expands eligibility for, and applicability of, support, and eliminates barriers to helping low-income and recently unemployed Americans afford broadband access;
  • Protect Local Options – Guarantees the right of local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives to deliver broadband service, which has lowered prices in many communities;
  • Gather Pricing Data – Directs the Federal Communications Commission to collect data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country and make that data widely available with appropriate privacy protections; and
  • Learn More Information – Directs the Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth to conduct a study on the extent to which cost remains a barrier to broadband adoption and the feasibility of providing additional targeted federal subsidies to offset costs for low-income households.

The plan also addresses internet adoption by:

  • Promoting Broadband Adoption and Digital Skills – Provides over $1 billion to establish the State Digital Equity Capacity Program, an annual grant program for states to create and implement comprehensive digital equity plans to help close gaps in broadband adoption and digital skills. Also establishes the Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program to further support these efforts through digital inclusion projects undertaken by individual organizations and local communities;
  • Lending Mobile Hotspots – Provides for the rapid deployment of mobile hotspots and other internet-connected devices to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning and complete homework assignments requiring an internet connection; and
  • Connecting School Buses – Authorizes funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so that students can be connected, especially in rural areas where long bus rides are common.

Democrats say Republicans support the inclusion of broadband investment in the next coronavirus response packages.

As Commissioner Starks pointed out, Americans cannot afford for our government to work in silos right now. Lifeline is the only federal program with the sole mission of bringing affordable communications to low-income Americans, and it is a critical aspect of our social safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Millions are weathering the COVID emergency without home broadband service. A fortified, modernized Lifeline program could ensure that never happens again.

If the FCC is not willing to act with the urgency that Commissioner Starks has expressed, Congress should in its response to our health and economic crises. As Sohn said, " Anything less will ensure that the digital divide in this country will remain a yawning gap."

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

May 5 Exploring the Basics of Broadband (Merit Network)

May 5 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction Webinar (FCC)

May 13 May Open 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
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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