Tuesday, February 22, 2022
Benton Outlines Criteria for Lifeline Reform
The establishment of the Congressionally-mandated Affordable Connectivity Program marks an inflection point for the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program and U.S. universal service policy, the principle that all Americans should have affordable access to essential communications services. Research by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Senior Fellow John B. Horrigan, PhD, finds that low-income households are spending too much on connectivity. For many years, the FCC’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, in late 2020, directed the FCC to launch the Emergency Broadband Benefit program—a historic expansion of financial support for universal service. With the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021, the Emergency Broadband Benefit program 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 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure everyone can afford robust internet access and is a sea change for universal service in this country," said Horrigan. "Teamed with a reformed Lifeline program, focused on wireless connectivity, the Affordable Connectivity Program could deliver for low-income consumers fixed and mobile broadband service—the continuum of connectivity—that most people in the United States enjoy."
Based on Horrigan's research, the Benton Institute, in Reimagining Lifeline: Universal Service, Affordability, and Connectivity, recommends that:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
"Policymakers should never lose sight of the goal of universal service," said Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Executive Director Adriane B. Furniss. "To ensure that essential communications services are available and affordable for all. 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."
The FCC is currently collecting public comment for a report to Congress on the implications of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on how the Commission should achieve its goals of universal deployment, affordability, adoption, availability, and equitable access to broadband throughout the United States. The Benton Institute added Reimagining Lifeline to the docket today.
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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