Last week, the FCC finally released the full, 224-page text of its controversial and anxiously awaited Lifeline Modernization Order, which was approved by a bitterly divided, party-line 3-2 vote on March 31. As we advised in a post summarizing the meeting, the new Order transforms Lifeline from a voice-only subsidy program to one that subsidizes high speed broadband, phases out voice-only Lifeline service, imposes ambitious service standards, facilitates market entry for broadband providers, and transfers responsibility for verifying eligibility of Lifeline applicants to a national database. In summary, the Order:
- Introduces Lifeline subsidies for broadband services yet maintains the monthly per-household Lifeline subsidy at $9.25;
- Phases out the voice-only subsidy beginning in December 2019 and eliminates it by December 2021 except in areas where there is only one Lifeline provider;
- Imposes graduated minimum fixed and mobile broadband service standards and minimum mobile voice minute requirements;
- Establishes a National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier database to determine the eligibility of low income applicants to participate in the program;
- Streamlines and reduces the number of federal and state programs used to determine Lifeline eligibility;Creates a streamlined nationwide “Lifeline Broadband Provider” designation to increase competitive entry by broadband providers (including cable operators and ISPs), bypassing traditional state-by-state designation requirements;
- Establishes a $2.25 billion “soft” annual budget for the program, subject to reviews;
- Creates requirements for wi-fi and hotspot-enabled devices; and
- Introduces numerous other changes and refinements, including to non-usage rules and the annual recertification process, establishing a 12-month window for transferring broadband benefits, publishing subscriber counts, and creating new forms.
In our advisory, we discuss some of the aspects of the newly-modernized Lifeline program.