FCC Whacking the Lifeline Program

A few weeks ago the FCC took steps a few weeks ago that are going to significantly cut back on the Lifeline program. This is a program that has historically provided a subsidy of $9.25 per month off phone service, but which was expanded under the Tom Wheeler FCC to to also be able to cover broadband.

We had a strong hint that this was coming when one of the first acts of new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was to halt new carriers from becoming eligible to participate in the Lifeline program.

One of the primary stated reasons for the changes are that the Lifeline program is full of fraud and waste. This is something that was identified by the FCC over two years ago and they put in place a remedy to fix the fraud issues. Lifeline goes to households that qualify for various federal welfare programs. The main reasons for fraud was providing the subsidy to those that weren’t eligible or continuing eligibility after people no longer qualified for welfare.

The obvious fix for this was for the FCC to maintain a database of those that are eligible and require providers to verify eligibility for each customer each month. That fix was started two years ago and is apparently still two years from being implemented. I find it astounding that it would take four years to put together what is basically a database lookup, especially for an industry that maintains numerous complex databases. This sounds like something a corporate IT team could implement in a few months and failure to make this work in a timely manner speaks mostly about the failure of government to be able to implement technical systems. Since the fix would largely eliminate the fraud I find it disingenuous for the FCC to still be looking for changes to the program due to fraud issues – this is something they should have fixed long ago.

There are a few changes to the program to be implemented immediately along with a list of proposed future changes. The immediate change to the Lifeline program include the following:

  • Limit Lifeline on Indian reservation to only carriers that are facility-based. This eliminates resellers, who are the primary providers of cellular service in rural areas and on tribal lands. Since AT&T and Verizon don’t actively promote Lifeline this likely means that many eligible customers will lose the subsidy. Even where a customer can change to a facility-based option, it’s often more expensive, which effectively would eliminate any savings from lifeline.
  • Eliminated Lifeline plans that rely on WiFi networks instead of cellular networks. In cities there a number of carriers today that sell WiFi only plans, which are affordable and effective where there is widespread WiFi. These phones use VoIP over WiFi instead of cellular and it seems odd to eliminate based upon the technology used.

The big changes are those proposed for the future. As we’ve seen often in the past, specific changes proposed by the FCC tend to get implemented unless there is big pushback by the industry. The proposed changes include:

  • Requiring people to pay a percentage of their phone bill. Today there are cellular carriers willing to only charge $9.95 for a barebones Lifeline plan that has limited minutes, and the FCC wants all Lifeline customers to pay a share of the cost of the service.
  • Extending the requirement that Lifeline is only available for facility-based carriers. In the cellular world that means AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. It would eliminate the many cellular resellers from participating in the program. Today over 70% of Lifeline recipients are through resellers.
  • Setting some kind of cap on the whole Lifeline program to stop it from growing.

It seems clear to me that this FCC would eliminate Lifeline completely if they could. Since the program was created by Congress it would be impossible to eliminate it without additional Congressional action. But all of the FCC’s proposed changes will significantly cut back on eligibility and make it harder to households to take part in the program.

I will be honest in that I never gave Lifeline a lot of thought in the past. But a few years ago I was introduced to a program that supplied Lifeline phones to the homeless. The carriers provide the phone and the service for $9.25 per month with no cost to the homeless. These are not smart phones, but very basic older-technology phones. And the plans were not lavish, but provides users with some limited minutes during the month plus some basic texting and web connection. The homeless people participating in the program said that it was transformational in that it allowed them to use the phone to connect to social services, to search for work and to communicate with loved ones. The FCC’s proposal would largely eliminate programs like this one, to the benefit of nobody.

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