A April 2013 Congressional hearing made us think – “Why don’t we make it easy for people to follow developments in the FCC’s Lifeline program?”
In 2020, the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) reached exciting milestones with the Lifeline National Eligibility Verifier (National Verifier). With the full launch of California on December 18, 2020, all 56 states and territories have fully launched in the National Verifier.
Pressure is rising on the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to rethink the $8 billion Universal Service Fund that subsidizes phone and broadband service, as it teeters on a shrinking budget base. Big phone companies like AT&T, entities that benefit from USF programs, and public interest groups see the Biden administration as a new opportunity to press their case for an overhaul of the funding mechanism.
For some time, many experts have been warning that the universal service funding system is in a death spiral, as the base on which the fees are assessed—generally a telecom company’s interstate and international end-user revenues—is shrinking. The new Federal Communications Commission is forced to consider a rising assessment on a shrinking revenue base to address an increasing demand, with Ajit Pai’s FCC having not done any of the analytic, political, or legal work necessary to make adjustments. Pai was willing to spend billions to address the needs of rural communities lacking broadband.
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to figure out how to operationalize the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and early in Jan 2021 released a Notice of Inquiry to ask for public comments. While we applaud the Benefit Program, the FCC must ensure the eligibility and enrollment requirements are streamlined and build a path to make the benefit permanent through Lifeline. The FCC must not only clarify but take the lead on three key points: eligibility, responsibility, sustainability.
FCC Has Implemented the Lifeline National Verifier but Should Improve Consumer Awareness and Experience
As of June 2020, the Federal Communications Commission required consumers nationwide to use the Lifeline National Verifier (Verifier), a centralized process and data system, to check their eligibility for Lifeline, the FCC program that provides discounts on phone and internet service for low-income Americans. The FCC created the Verifier with the stated goals of reducing fraud and costs and improving the consumer experience. But the FCC hasn't made people aware of the Verifier, or provided information tribal governments need to help people use it.
The Trump administration did little to address the digital divide. The Biden administration and the new Congress have an opportunity to do better. A study by the New Center suggests:
My top priority for the coming weeks is getting emergency broadband access to as many Americans as possible. If we’re successful, the Emergency Broadband Benefit will reach more disconnected low-income people and households of color than any previous Federal Communications Commission effort to close the digital divide. But Congress has—quite reasonably under the circumstances—given us just 60 days to set up the program.
Solving the country’s broadband challenges will require bold new government action. That’s why Verizon is calling on Congress to take critical steps to further expand broadband access and implement new tools that will enable even more Americans to use the power of the internet, including:
Today, there’s a glaring inequity in one crucial area that guarantees inequity in myriad others: Internet access.
How to Revive the FCC’s Lifeline Program: A Blueprint to Build Back Better After Four Years of Neglect and Regulatory War
For the past four years, the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program has been dogged by neglectful leadership and repeated attacks from the commission under Chairman Ajit Pai. As the COVID19 pandemic and a persistent digital divide exacerbate income, racial, and geographic inequities, this program has been stifled at a crucial time. In this paper, we review the myriad attacks that Lifeline has endured during the Trump Administration—and build a blueprint for a better path forward.