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The Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program is a government benefit program that provides discounts on monthly telephone service for eligible low-income consumers to help ensure they have the opportunities and security that telephone service affords, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and 911 services. Lifeline is supported by the federal Universal Service Fund (USF).
Lifeline provides discounts on monthly telephone service (wireline or wireless) for eligible consumers. These discounts average $9.25 per month, and may be more depending on the state.
In early 2012, the FCC addressed Lifeline administrative issues adopting new rules aimed at:
Traditionally, the Lifeline program has supported just landline or very basic wireless service, but we’re seeing efforts to modernize the program so it can bring broadband to low-income consumers. The FCC’s early 2012 reforms also included:
These modernization goals got a new jolt in November 2014. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn spoke at the American Enterprise Institute saying Lifeline should be expanded to cover broadband Internet access and reformed in other ways so that it helps everyone connect in the 21st century. She offered five principles to guide Lifeline reform:
While voting to modernize E-Rate, another universal service program which discounts broadband connections for schools and libraries, a majority of FCC Commissioners voiced support to complete Lifeline modernization, too. Commissioner Clyburn talked about the three-legged broadband stool: broadband at school, broadband in the library and broadband at home. “Absent one leg,” Clyburn said, “the stool does not stand.” She said the educational success hoped for by reforming the E-rate program would not be fulfilled “unless everyone has access to all three legs of that stool. Reforming the FCC’s Lifeline Program is key to this and should be a major priority for the Commission, schools, libraries and the education community. Absent the ability to close the affordability gap for broadband everywhere, the laudable reforms we are poised to launch today will not completely bring [low-income students] out of the digital darkness.”
Fellow Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed that the job was not yet completed. “We need to recognize that expanding opportunity goes beyond the school doors,” she said. “We can’t forget that in a world where students rely on online resources and digital content in the classroom, they also need access to broadband when they go home.” The “Homework Gap,” as Commissioner Rosenworcel calls it, is holding back both individual students and our education system as a whole. Rosenworcel pointed to research indicating that roughly 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband. But FCC data suggest that almost one in three households do not subscribe to broadband services at any speed — for reasons including lack of availability, affordability and interest. For teachers in low-income communities, the Pew Research Center finds that students’ lack of access to online resources at home presents a major challenge to integrating technology into teaching. The result is too many young people going through school without fully developing the skills that give them a fair shot at success in the digital age. Pointing to the FCC’s reform of the E-rate program that is refocusing funding on making broadband more affordable, Rosenworcel proposed allowing Lifeline consumers to choose between applying program support to either voice service or broadband service. “Doing so,” she said, “would modernize the Lifeline program — and also help address the Homework Gap.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler chimed in saying, “I think that we have just counted three votes for Lifeline reform.”
We've noticed a pattern at the FCC: first comes the administrative streamlining, then comes modernization with a focus on broadband.
See a full recap of the FCC's Lifeline reform efforts in A Year in Review (and a Look Ahead): Time for Lifeline Reform and stay tuned for updates in 2015!
On June 17th, 2013 the CPUC held a Public Participation Hearing in Eureka to discuss potential changes to the California LifeLine program, Benton Foundation's Director of Policy Amina Fazlullah participated in the panel, view the video below: