One has to ask if the FCC’s Lifeline program is in trouble. First, within the last month 80 carriers have asked to be relieved from participating in the program. This includes many of the largest ISPs / telcos and includes AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Charter, Cox, Frontier, Fairpoint, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell. There are a lot of wireless companies on the list and it’s easier to understand why they might not want to participate. The rest of the list is filled out with smaller telcos and some fiber overbuilders.
These companies easily represent more than half of all the telephone customers and a significant percentage of data customers in the country. If these companies don’t participate in the Lifeline program then it’s not going to be available to a large portion of the country. The purpose of the Lifeline program is to provide assistance to low-income households to buy telecom services. It’s hard to see how the program can be sustained with such a reduced participation.
Originally the program was used only to subsidize landline telephone service. For the las few years it also has been available to cover cellphone service as an alternative to a landline. The most recent changes expand the definition to also allow the plan to cover broadband connections, with the caveat that only one service can be subsidized per household. While it’s not yet official, one can foresee that ultimately it will be used to subsidize only broadband and that coverage of telephones will eventually disappear.
The coverage that the new Lifeline provides for cellular data is a mystery. The plan covers 3G data connections and allows the providers to cap such services at a measly 500 megabytes of total downloaded per month. This seems to be in direct opposition to the stated goal of the Lifeline program to provide support to close the ‘homework gap’.
I also foresee larger problems looming for the entire Universal Service Fund program, of which Lifeline is one component. It’s already clear that the new administration is going to remake the FCC to be a weaker regulatory body. At a minimum the new FCC will reverse many of the regulations affecting the large telcos and cable companies.
But there is a bigger threat in that there are many in Congress that have been calling for years for the abolishment of the FCC and for scattering their responsibilities to other parts of the government. This could be done during budget appropriations or by including it in a new Telecom Act.
The opponents of the FCC in Congress have also specifically railed against the Lifeline program for years. There was a huge furor a few years ago about the so-called Obamaphones, where carriers were supposedly giving smartphones to customers, all paid for by the government. It turns out those claims were false. The only plan that was anywhere close to this was a plan from SafeLink Wireless. They used the Lifeline subsidy to provide eligible low-income households with a cheap flip-phone that came with one-hour of free calling plus voice mail. This very minimalist telephone connection gave people a way to have a phone number to use while hunting for a job and to connect with social services. But there were no Lifeline plans that provided smartphones to low income households like was portrayed by many opponents of the Lifeline program.
But rightly or wrongly, there are now a number of opponents to the Lifeline program, and that means that the plan could be a target for those trying to trim back the FCC. It’s going to be a lot harder to defend the Lifeline program if none of the major carriers are participating in it. There certainly will be a lot of changes made in the coming year at the FCC, and my gut tells me that programs like Lifeline could be on the chopping block if the big players in the industry don’t support it. If nothing else, the big ISPs would prefer to have funds allocated to Lifeline today to be re-purposed for something that benefits them more directly.
Note: In an interesting development the FCC just rejected a petition from the NTCA and the WTA that asked that small companies be excused from some provisions of the Lifeline order. The FCC ruling basically says that any small company that is receiving high cost support and that offers a standalone data product must accept requests from customers who want to participate in the Lifeline Program. I am sure that this is not the end of the story and there will be more back and forth on the issue.
Lifeline goes hand in hand with universal service. Near universal service for legacy POTS was achieved well before lifeline telephone rates became available in 1985. As long as universal service is not public policy, lifeline isn’t going to happen.