The Federal Communication Commission established the Lifeline program (Lifeline) in 1985 under President Reagan as a means of ensuring that low-income individuals had access to essential telecommunications services. Lifeline has been in place for 30 years, working to eliminate the telephone divide, and with the implementation of the 2016 Modernization Order, it will work to close the digital divide as well. The program provides a discount of $9.25 per month per household to low-income individuals for telecommunication services. Beginning December 2, 2016, where available, recipients of the Lifeline program will be able to apply their benefit to either broadband or telephone service.

Broadband service today is as integral to daily life in America as telephone service was when Lifeline was originally introduced. Low-income people are disproportionately less likely to have internet access — 25 percent of those making less than $30,000 per year do not have internet access — and cost is one of the most commonly cited reasons. Without broadband service school-aged children are unable to complete homework assignments and research projects online, adults are unable to apply for most jobs (80 percent of Fortune 500 jobs only accept online applications), and individuals in rural areas are often unable to access the same quality of specialized care as their urban counterparts. Lifeline has been successful in ensuring that millions of previously unconnected Americans are able to communicate with each other, and access the many benefits of telephone service, and it has the potential to be equally successful in connecting low-income individuals with the countless benefits of internet access.

 

Lifeline Modernization: December 2, 2016

The first round of new provisions will go into effect on December 2, 2016 and more rules will go into effect over the course of the next five years. The first round of modernization measures to be implemented include:

Expanded Service Offerings:

Depending on availability, Lifeline customers can choose one of three options to put their $9.25 discount towards: fixed or mobile broadband, fixed or mobile voice, or bundled voice and broadband service.

Designated Lifeline Broadband Providers must offer at least 500 minutes for mobile voice, 500MB of 3G service for mobile broadband, or 150GB of 10/1 Mbps for fixed broadband. These minimum service standards will increase over the next five years.

Streamlined Eligibility:

To be eligible for Lifeline, subscribers must either have an income at or below 135% of the poverty line, or participate in an accepted assistance program. Participation in any of the following programs qualifies an individual for Lifeline assistance:

Medicaid

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or Food Stamps)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8 and Section 9)

Veterans Pension

Veterans Survivors Benefit

Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance

Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

Head Start (when income eligibility criteria are met)

Some state assistance programs where applicable

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can no longer be used to qualify Lifeline applicants for the program.

National Verifier System:

The Universal Service Administrative Corporation (USAC) will establish a National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier (NLEV) in order to facilitate the ease of enrollment, reduce the administrative burden on providers, and further eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse of the program. The National Verifier Draft Plan was submitted to the FCC on November 30, 2016 and will begin rolling out in early 2017 to be completely rolled out by December 31, 2019.

USAC is seeking feedback on the Draft Plan from Lifeline stakeholders from December 5, 2016 to December 30, 2016.  This plan will be updated every 6 months during the implementation of the National Verifier.

The National Verifier will determine subscriber eligibility, create and maintain a  Lifeline Eligibility Database, determine the appropriate support amount per person per month, and allow access to providers, subscribers, states, and state administrators.

Aggregation Projects:

The National Verifier will work with community-based organizations, housing associations, and institutions to coordinate the aggregation of Lifeline program benefits.

Rolling Recertification:

Once the verification system has been established, all subscribers to Lifeline service must be recertified each year in order to verify that they are still eligible. Subscribers will be recertified on the anniversary of their enrollment.

Non-Usage and De-Enrollment:

The non-usage period has been shortened from 60 to 30 days, meaning that if a subscriber does not use their service (voice, text, or broadband) for 30 days they will be de-enrolled from the Lifeline program.

Individuals who become ineligible for Lifeline service must notify their service provider and de-enroll.

If a provider believes an individual is no longer eligible, that individual will be sent a notice of impending termination. The individual then has 30 days to prove eligibility by recertifying. If USAC notifies a provider that an individual is receiving a Lifeline discount on more than one service, the provider must de-enroll the individual within five business days.

Usage Requirements:

Previously, texts were not considered usage, meaning if a Lifeline subscriber used their service plan to text, but not to make calls they were not considered to be using their plan and could be de-enrolled. The new rules will allow texts to be considered usage, and individuals using their service to text will not be de-enrolled.

Benefit Freeze Port:

Lifeline subscribers will now be required to remain with a voice service provider for a minimum of sixty days and with a broadband service provider for twelve months before they are able to switch to a different provider.

Hotspot Functionality:

Mobile broadband Lifeline programs that offer devices to consumers must ensure that at least one of the offered devices has hotspot functionality.

 

Lifeline Over the Next Five Years:

Each year on December 1 from 2017- 2021 a new phase of the Lifeline Modernization Order will go into effect. Providers must update their plans for each year as follows:

December 1, 2017:

Increase the number of mobile voice minutes offered from 500 to 750 minutes.

Increase mobile broadband offered from 500MB to 1GB per month

December 1, 2018:

Increase the number of mobile voice minutes offered from 750 to 1000 minutes.

Increase mobile broadband offered from 1GB to 2GB per month

December 1, 2019:

Minimum service standards for included data, data usage allowance, and speed will be evaluated to determine how much should be offered.

The discount amount for both fixed and wireless voice support will be reduced from $9.25 per month to $7.25 per month.

December 1, 2020:

Minimum service standards for included data, data usage allowance, and speed will be evaluated to determine how much should be offered.

The discount amount for both fixed and wireless voice support will be reduced from $7.25 per month to $5.25 per month.

December 1, 2021:

Minimum service standards for included data, data usage allowance, and speed will be evaluated to determine how much should be offered.

The discount amount for both fixed and wireless voice support will be reduced from $5.25 per month to $0 per month.

 

Who Can Provide Service:

In order to provide Lifeline service, providers must become an eligible telecommunication carrier (ETC). Providers may receive designation as a Lifeline Broadband Provider (LBP) from the FCC, and once certified must offer broadband service throughout a designated service area (DSA). For tribal providers, providers with over 1000 non-Lifeline customers, and providers offering Lifeline for at least two years, the FCC has 60 days to respond to a request for LPB designation. For all other providers, the FCC must respond within six months. If it does not respond, the petition is considered granted.

A full list of pending and approved ETC petitions can be found here.

On December 1, the FCC issued an order approving the first four LBP’s: Spot On Networks, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, and STS Media (FreedomPop). The plans are as follows:

Spot On will provide 20Mbps service with no usage limits for $9.75/month in the New York Housing Authority Queensbridge housing unit (zip code 11101).

Boomerang Wireless will offer 500MB of mobile data at 3G speeds and 100 units for text or voice services to subscribers on non-tribal lands, and 750MB with unlimited talk and text to subscribers on tribal lands. There will be no cost to the consumer after the Lifeline discount has been applied.

KonaTel will offer two non-tribal and one tribal plan. The first non-tribal plan will offer 500MB at 4G or 3G with unlimited talk and text and will cost an additional $9.95/month after the Lifeline discount is applied. The second non-tribal KonaTel plan provides 2GB at 4G speeds with unlimited data at 3G or 2G after the cap has been met, as well as unlimited talk and text for $19.95 after the Lifeline discount has been applied. On tribal lands, KonaTel will offer a plan with unlimited data at 4G, unlimited talk and text to eligible tribal consumers for $19.95 after the Lifeline discount has been applied.

FreedomPop will offer a variety of mobile plans, the most basic of which will include 500MB at 3G speed at no cost to the consumer after applying the Lifeline discount.

To find out if these providers will offer service in your area, and to see the full list of providers who have submitted a petition for approval as an LBP, visit this website.

 

What Can Cities Do to Ensure Their Citizens Receive Lifeline Broadband Service?

At the time of this writing, ETCs/LBPs have been tasked with creating programs that are in keeping with the new rules under the 2016 Lifeline Modernization Order.  LBP applications, must among other things, describe the terms and conditions of the BIAS plans, including details on the speeds, data, any additional charges and the rates. These filings are available at Lifeline.gov. We at Next Century Cities will continue working on a national level to ensure that the Lifeline program is robust and inclusive of all eligible individuals. We are working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the FCC, and the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to discuss future aggregation plans, their implementation, and the ways in which our member cities can engage with federal organizations in the roll out of new Lifeline services.

But this work must happen at both a national and local level. Next Century Cities recommends that community leaders contact the providers in their areas as soon as possible to ensure that their eligible citizens receive all the benefits the Lifeline program is intended to offer. Leaders could ask the following of their providers:

What are your plans for offering Lifeline service under the new rules (voice, broadband, bundles)?

Do you need more information about becoming a Lifeline Broadband Provider?

How are you marketing these programs to eligible individuals?

How can we as community leaders collaborate with you to make sure people are aware of their eligibility, and can easily enroll in the programs?

Are you interested in a Lifeline aggregation partnership?

For more information about the 2016 Modernization Order, and the ways in which your community can ensure that residents receive Lifeline broadband service, please watch our recent webinar featuring Olivia Wein, attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, and Jaymie Gustafson, Director of Stakeholder Engagement for the Lifeline Program at the Universal Service Administrative Company.

As always, Next Century Cities is here to assist communities in any facility they need as they attempt to bring fast, affordable broadband to their constituents. If you or a member of your community would like assistance discussing the Lifeline program with providers in your area please contact Executive Director Deb Socia: deb@nextcenturycities.org