COVID-19 has had an disparate impact on Tribal communities. As part of ongoing relief efforts, on June 1, 2020, the FCC announced plans to ease application and enrollment process rules for Lifeline consumers living on rural Tribal lands. For local officials working desperately to connect low-income residents with broadband services, it means that more of those in need will be able to use Lifeline as a tool to get and stay connected. 

The proposal targets rural Tribal areas. Adopting the definition of “rural” as used by the E-Rate program, the Commission defines a rural area as any area that is not defined as “urban.” Urban is defined as “an urbanized area or urban cluster area with a population equal to or greater than 25,000.” Next Century Cities’ members have cited concerns with falling short of the rural designation, rendering the certain areas as ineligible for rural program benefits. The definition allows the Universal Service Administrative Company to better identify which areas are eligible for relief under the waiver. 

The Lifeline program uses a national verifier database to confirm applicant identities and eligibility for the Lifeline program. If an applicant fails the automated check they are asked to confirm their qualifications through the submission of supporting documentation. The new FCC rules will allow a Lifeline carrier to begin to provide service to that applicant immediately. Meanwhile, under the revised protocols, the subscriber will have 45 days from the date of application to provide the necessary documentation. Otherwise, the subscriber will be de-enrolled from the Lifeline Program. 

The new eligibility waiver will be in effect until August 31, 2020. The Commission also extended its previous rule waivers for recertification, reverification, general de-enrollment, usage requirements, and three-month documentation requirements for income verification through August 31, 2020 as well. In sum, these procedural actions make it easier for those who are eligible for Lifeline to actually be able to benefit from the program.