FCC’s Low-Income Phone Reform Needs to Connect and Tie Eligibility to People, Not Housing

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to reform and modernize the Lifeline phone program that was created to help low-income household afford phone service. The reform and modernization is expected to move the program beyond traditional landline service to better accommodate wireless phone service and to set a foundation to move to broadband access for poor people. Yet, the reform could also discriminate against the very people the program was designed to help.

How so? The FCC is considering limiting the Lifeline benefit to people with a unique residential street address.(1)

Phone service is no longer limited to the black phone in the hallway and new Lifeline rules should accommodate the reality of the households it’s designed to benefit.

The FCC has the opportunity to modernize Lifeline to reach the underserved and the unserved, which includes:

  • families who have doubled up with other families because they lost or can’t afford their own home,
  • homeless individuals and families,
  • people with special needs who live in group housing,
  • households that rely on a P.O. box or a mailbox on a rural route, and
  • other situations such as Navajo families who live in hogans without a unique residential street address.

Instead of limiting Lifeline to a building, we, along with other low-income advocates in the U.S., have proposed that a “household” definition should be based on the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) (one of the programs that can qualify a household for Lifeline): “Any individual or group of individuals who are living together as an economic unit.” The federal poverty level, which is the basis of income-eligibility for federal assistance programs, is based upon the number of people in a household. Other low-income programs like LIHEAP do not tie eligibility for a benefit to the type of housing the household lives in. The sad reality is that when families have a hard time making ends meet, they sometimes double up with other households because they can’t afford their own home. The 2010 Census reports an increase in the number of households doubling up.

There are also a range of group housing situations that are affected by a Lifeline rule that limits the benefit by housing status, including:

  • domestic violence shelters,
  • single-room occupancies,
  • group homes for those with disabilities
  • nursing homes, and
  • homeless shelters.

Limiting the Lifeline benefit to a unique residential street address would mean that the first low-income household to apply could get Lifeline, but others living at that same address would be rejected because the rule would forbid more than one Lifeline benefit at an address. P.O. boxes would not count as a unique residential street address. What’s more, tying the Lifeline program eligibility to a brick-and-mortar structure would also erect barriers to a key goal of the FCC reform: to expand network connectivity for low-income and rural people.

The federal telephone Lifeline program has played a crucial role in keeping tens of millions of low-income households connected to employers, medical personnel, and families by making local phone service more affordable. This has enhanced the value of the phone network as more people are reachable by phone.

Instead of tying the Lifeline phone service to a building, the FCC should reform and modernize the program to reflect current lifestyles of people. There is still time to make this needed improvement to the reform. We urge the FCC to make the connection.


1) The FCC, in its initial Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the Lifeline Reform and Modernization has proposed to add language to the Lifeline rules that would limit the Lifeline benefit to a “residence” which is defined as a “unique residential address recognized by the U.S. Postal Service . . .” While limiting a federal benefit to a household is common amongst other federal assistance programs that look at the income of the household in eligibility determinations, the FCC’s proposal to equate a household with a brick-and-mortar structure (the “residence”) is where the proposal runs afoul of the intent of the Lifeline program.

Olivia Wein is a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center