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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:

  • Setting a savings target of $200 million for 2012, and putting the Commission in a position to adopt an appropriate budget for the program in early 2013 after review of a six-month report and one-year report on the effects of the Order.
  • Creating a National Lifeline Accountability Database to prevent multiple carriers from receiving support for the same subscriber. The database will build on FCC efforts in 2011 that eliminated nearly 270,000 duplicate subscriptions in 12 states following review of over 3.6 million subscriber records, saving $33 million.
  • Creating eligibility databases from governmental data sources, enabling fully automated verification of consumers’ initial and ongoing Lifeline eligibility.
  • Establishing a one-per-household rule applicable to all providers in the program, defining household as an “economic unit” so that separate low-income families living at the same address can get connected.
  • Establishing clear goals and metrics to measure program performance and effectiveness.
  • Phasing out support for services such as Toll Limitation – subsidies to carriers for blocking or restricting long-distance service—and ending Link Up – subsidies to carriers for initial connection charges. Link Up will continue in Tribal lands.
  • Reducing burdens on carriers by establishing a uniform, interim flat rate of reimbursement, allowing carriers to obtain a subscriber’s signature electronically, and streamlining enrollment through uniform, nationwide eligibility criteria.

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:

  • Adopting an express goal for the program of ensuring availability of broadband for all low-income Americans.
  • Establishing a Broadband Adoption Pilot Program using up to $25 million in savings from other reforms to test and determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption among Lifeline-eligible consumers. The FCC solicited applications from broadband providers and selected a number of projects to fund. Lifeline would be used to help reduce the monthly cost of broadband service, but applicants would be expected to help address other challenges to broadband adoption, including the cost of devices and digital literacy.
  • A proposal to increase digital literacy training at libraries and schools. A Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sought comment on using savings from other Universal Service Fund reforms to increase digital literacy training at libraries and schools, a key step in increasing broadband adoption.
  • Addressing broadband adoption barriers through digital literacy training and low-cost broadband availability with public-private partnerships including the Connect-to-Compete initiative.
  • Allowing Lifeline support for bundled services plans combining voice and broadband or packages including optional calling features.

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:

  1. Getting the most bang for the universal service buck by establishing minimum service standards – that include both voice and broadband -- for any provider that receives the $9.25 Lifeline subsidy.
  2. Providers should no longer be responsible for determining customer eligibility: "Lifeline is the only federal benefits program that I am aware of where the provider determines the consumer’s eligibility. Removing this responsibility from the provider will shore up the integrity of the program by further eliminating incentives for waste, fraud and abuse. The consumer would benefit through the reduction of privacy concerns." For the provider, this would mean a substantial reduction in the administrative burdens.
  3. Encourage broader participation through a streamlined approval process.
  4. Leverage efficiencies from existing programs and institute a coordinated enrollment.
  5. Public-private partnerships and coordinated outreach efforts.

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: