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LIFELINE MODERNIZATION: FCC Decision to Modernize Lifeline Program Extends Internet Access to Low-Income Families

Low-income families will soon be able to purchase reduced internet access thanks to a March 31 vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize its Lifeline program. Previously, the thirty-year-old Lifeline provided a discount on monthly telephone service to eligible low-income households, but it did not support internet access.

“By dramatically improving Lifeline’s management and design, and putting the program on sound fiscal footing moving forward, we will help low-income Americans all across our nation connect to the internet and the opportunities of the broadband revolution,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “Internet access has become essential for full participation in our modern economy and our society, but 64.5 million Americans are missing out on the opportunities made possible by the most powerful and pervasive platform in history.”

With the changes to the program, qualifying low-income consumers can use the $9.25 per month that they receive through the Lifeline program for stand-alone mobile or fixed broadband service, as well as bundled voice and data service packages. Wheeler said the changes to the Lifeline program will ensure that low-income consumers are “not relegated to second class service” and will “have choices that allow them to get the most value for the subsidy.”

The new Lifeline program will establish minimum broadband service standards that are consistent with the FCC’s definition of high-speed internet. In many rural communities, cost is not the only barrier to reliable broadband access. Slow connection speeds and limited options for broadband providers are also a concern. The changes the FCC adopted are intended to improve the quality of service and encourage more providers to serve low-income and rural areas. The changes will also make it easier for broadband providers to participate in the program and create an independent third party to verify eligibility.

Adding internet access as a service of the Lifeline program was especially critical for students from low-income families. In their statements, FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel describe the great lengths that students—both young and old—frequently went to access a Wi-Fi signal, including sitting in a McDonald’s for hours, pretending to be a hotel guest, or standing in an elementary school parking lot after school hours.

“[These individuals] struggle to make ends meet, feed their families, and better themselves educationally, professionally, and medically,” Clyburn said. “Their goal is not to forever qualify for Lifeline, but to take advantage of a fully reformed program that could be the bridge for them to better themselves and have increased opportunities.”

“Today, as many as seven in ten teachers assign homework that requires access to broadband,” Rosenworcel said. “But data here at the Commission show that as many as one in three households do not subscribe to broadband service, citing lack of affordability and lack of interest. … “There was a time when broadband access was a luxury. No more. And nothing demonstrates this as clearly as with education.”

According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, more than 5 million American households with children between the ages of six and seventeen do not have access to high-speed internet at home. A disproportionate share of those 5 million households are comprised of low-income African American and Latino families.

“Trying to navigate today’s complex world with telephone service but no internet access is like using a horse and buggy on the interstate,” said Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise. “Today’s FCC vote follows the December 2014 vote to expand high-speed Wi-Fi access to 99 percent of schools and libraries. Together, these important votes will close gaps in connectivity—both at school and at home—and bring ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning to the nation’s students.”

The FCC also established a budget for the program of $2.25 billion, indexed for inflation. When spending reaches 90 percent of that ceiling, the FCC will be notified. “This mechanism will ensure that the Commission has the notice and comprehensive information it needs to determine the reasons for growth in the program and to promptly make any necessary changes to the program to keep it on sound financial footing,” Wheeler said.

The new changes to Lifeline will be phased in over the next few years. As the FCC implements the new regulation, the Alliance for Excellent Education will share additional information and resources on how to help students and families take advantage of this important opportunity.

For more information on the changes to the Lifeline program, read the FCC’s press release at https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-modernizes-lifeline-program-digital-age.

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Digital Equity

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