FCC Announces Official Lifeline Modernization Proposal, Will Vote On It This Month

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Internet access is a necessity, but it’s also kind of a luxury: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to have it. Even while, to keep living in the always-on, always-connected world of the 21st century, you really need it.

Fixing that — or at least mitigating it — is part of the FCC’s job. And today, the FCC announced their proposal for bringing affordable broadband to more Americans by expanding the Lifeline program.

If it sounds like we’ve been here before, that’s because this is the second half of a long procedure. The process by which new rules or orders are implemented at the FCC has a couple of steps. First the commission has to vote to consider the Order, which in this case they did in June of last year.

That kicks off a process where the FCC goes back and forth on the details and creates (or chooses not to create) a final rule. Then they vote to adopt an Order, which makes it an official piece of policy. That’s what the FCC has announced today.

MORE: What is Lifeline, And How Does It Work?

According to the FCC’s fact sheet (PDF), the Order will indeed allow consumers to apply their $9.25 Lifeline credit to broadband services instead of or in addition to landline or mobile phone service — the order explicitly permits using the credit toward “bundling of fixed or mobile voice and broadband.”

The credit can also be applied to fixed or mobile broadband service which, considering the high number of low-income Americans who have mobile-only access, is very helpful. In fact, by the end of 2019 any mobile provider who serves Lifeline customers will be required to include mobile broadband as part of any supported service.

The proposed Order also sets a minimum standard broadband speed (10 Mbps down / 1 Mbps up) by 2018 and minimum data cap (150 GB) for mobile broadband plans on Lifeline.

Additional changes require that all Lifeline mobile voice plans have unlimited talk minutes by the end of the year, and slowly phase out the credit available for voice-only mobile service.

In terms of implementation and funding, the order also establishes a third-party eligibility verifier, refines the list of federal programs that can be considered to determine eligibility, and sets budgetary procedures to keep the program running.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler and commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued a joint blog post in which they laid out the case for making the changes.

“We can recite statistics all we want, but we must never lose sight of the fact that what we’re really talking about is people – unemployed workers who miss out on jobs that are only listed online, students who go to fast-food restaurants to use the Wi-Fi hotspots to do homework, veterans who are unable to apply for their hard-earned benefits, seniors who can’t look up health information when they get sick,” they wrote.

“This idea that we have to pick between adopting measures that help low-income Americans or cracking down on waste is a false choice. Today’s plan does both.”

The commission is scheduled to vote on the Lifeline modernization order during their monthly open meeting on March 31.

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