FCC may force 'millions' of Americans off Lifeline program this winter

The FCC makes the rules for the government's Lifeline program, a program in which millions of Americans receive subsidized phone and internet service. Each person receiving a subsidy for phone/internet service must subscribe to a specific minimum plan with a local phone/data carrier. Over the past couple of years, the amount of cash in this subsidy has decreased, while the minimum data plan has increased – toward the inevitable breaking point we're approaching now.

A letter released on August 10, 2020, was sent to the FCC on behalf of a wide variety of social rights groups. This letter outlined several requests.

COVID-19 pandemic waivers

The document from August requested that the FCC extend COVID-10 Lifeline Program Rule Waivers. Several FCC orders this year extended waivers that might otherwise remove citizens from the program for subscribers residing in rural areas on Tribal lands, until November 30, 2020. That'd pause any involuntary de-enrollment of existing subscribers until November 30.

The August letter requested that these waivers remain in place until at least December 31, 2020. Of course even then it'll be unlikely that we're back out of our current pandemic and financial crisis, so one must assume that these social groups hope for further extensions after the end of the year.

Voice support

The document also requested that the FCC stop decreasing subsidies for Lifeline voice support. Lifeline voice support, once at $9.25 per month, is currently $7.25 per month, and will decrease in December 2020 to $5.25 per month. The FCC's Lifeline program appears to be phasing out voice support entirely – slowly, but surely.

Minimum service standards

At the same time, the FCC's raised the minimum service standards for mobile broadband data. In July of 2020, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released an order in which the regular increase in minimum service standard would be reconsidered. Without said order, the minimum service standard for mobile broadband data capacity would go from its current 3GB to 11.75GB per month. With said order, the minimum would only be increased to 4.5GB.

Pai wrote "the formula the FCC adopted back in 2016 to update the minimum standard for Lifeline mobile broadband data capacity is flawed. It results in drastic year-over-year increases that could impact the ability of Lifeline carriers to continue providing affordable service."

Note here that Pai addresses the concern of the carriers, rather than the subscribers. This move, in this document, is aimed at keeping carriers happy, rather than continuing to provide adequate broadband data to citizens.

Note too, that Pai did not suggest that the subsidy be increased to match the costs of a larger standard minimum for broadband internet. The $9.25 subsidy has not been increased whatsoever since inception in 2011.

The August letter from social groups requested that the data minimum changes be put on hold. "We urge the Commission to revise its proposed order to pause increasing the minimum service standards for mobile broadband data at its current level of 3 GB until the 2021 State of Lifeline Marketplace Report which is required under the 2016 Lifeline Modernization Order."

No more "free" service

A "bipartisan group of state utility commission officials from rural states across America" will hold a call about how a new FCC rule change for Lifeline "will kill phone service for millions of seniors, vets, & others."

Per the latest rule change, the FCC would change the "free" Lifeline service system to one requiring a co-payment. The group (that'll appear on the call in the video above, on Tuesday, September 15, 2020), noted that "surveys show that somewhere between 50-80 percent of the current 6.9 million Lifeline subscribers will be unable to make a co-payment and, therefore, will be forced out of the program."

Take a peek at the timeline below for more information on the Lifeline program as it's evolved over the past near-decade. Then tune in on Tuesday to see / hear the call embedded above.