Cheaper broadband the key in $9.25 FCC Lifeline subsidy change

The FCC has proposed the biggest changes to the Lifeline program since its creation, paving the way for more affordable broadband for low-income families. Lifeline was established in 1985 as a way to assist those below 135-percent of the poverty line with getting voice call service, initially through landline subsidies but, as cellphones became more mainstream, wireless options too.

Now, the FCC is suggesting Lifeline evolve once again, this time to recognize the growing importance of having internet connectivity in the home.

According to the proposals, put forward by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler along with commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the $9.25 per month support could optionally be applied to standalone broadband internet service, or packaged service including both voice and data.

While those participating in Lifeline could still choose to stick with voice-only service, the proposal outlines a minimum standard of internet connectivity they could expect.

That includes 10 Mbps download speeds and 1 Mbps upload speeds, and a minimum monthly data allowance of 150 GB for fixed broadband providers. Mobile broadband would have more humble expectations, of 500 MB per month of 3G data, though that would rise to 2 GB per month by the end of 2018.

As VoIP services proliferate, the evolving nature of voice and internet provision are also being taken into account. From December 1st, 2016, mobile voice providers will be expected to offer unlimited talktime as a minimum of any Lifeline-provided service until the end of 2019, after which point they'll be expected to include some form of mobile broadband, too.

Reflecting the drop in voice costs, the FCC envisages reducing mobile voice-alone subsidies to $7.25 on December 1, 2017, then down to $5.25 twelve months later, and finally with no support from December 1, 2019. However, it will still be eligible for full support if bundled as part of a voice/data plan.

The changes to Lifeline come amid growing criticisms of the program, with accusations of fraudulent claims and over-spending. That's something the FCC proposals also tackle, with suggestions that a standalone, independent National Eligibility Verifier could be established to judge applications.

A tightening of the list of indicators for eligibility, using federal programs that support electronic validation online – like SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, and others – is another suggestion, in addition to income-based eligibility.

Meanwhile the FCC would be more open with its statistics about how many participants are benefiting from the program, among other details. A budget of $2.25 billion, indexed to inflation, has been suggested to cover the changes.

The next step is a vote by the full Commission, which will take place on March 31.

MORE FCC [pdf link]