The digital divide had the FCC divided as the Commission approved its Lifeline program modernization program on Thursday to help low-income consumers afford access to broadband — but by 3-2. Budgetary concerns had the two Republican commissioners voting no, including Ajit Pai who earlier this week proposed a compromise.
For low-income consumers, the crux of the plan revolves around an approved $9.25 a month subsidy. For service providers, there are details about bundling, minimum broadband standards and the establishment of a third-party “National Eligibility Verifier,” which is designed to reduce cost to providers of verifying subscriber eligibility.
That third-party program was hailed as a key component by some stakeholders, including Charter, which backed the proposal before the vote.
“Removing the requirement that providers determine eligibility would eliminate an important cost previously imposed on providers,” Charter said in a statement earlier this week. “By shifting that responsibility to a national third-party verifier, this reform would facilitate greater provider participation.”
The verifier mechanism is also put in place to help protect taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse, which has long been a criticism of the Lifeline program. The program sets budget at $2.25 billion, indexed to inflation.
Details of the new FCC rules are available here.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association commended the FCC action, particularly pointing out the oversight rules.
“Streamlined Lifeline provider requirements will encourage robust participation, offering eligible low-income consumers increased options among plans and providers, while enabling the FCC to provide sufficient oversight of the program to combat waste, fraud and abuse,” the association says in a statement.
While it previously came out in support of expanding the Lifeline program, Free Press also had filed comments in the proceeding asking the FCC to take a wider approach to addressing affordability and competition problems in the telecommunications marketplace. The group says it welcomes the news about Lifeline from the FCC, but adds that it believes that much work remains.
“The FCC needs to devote additional resources to promoting affordable broadband options across the board. Consolidation and the lack of effective competition have left people of all income levels in the United States paying way too much for Internet access,” Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood says.
“It’s a shortcoming that has direct and negative impacts on everyone seeking these essential services. Lifeline is but one tool the FCC can use to address costs. If the agency’s primary goal is to get as many people as possible using broadband, it must do more to make all broadband services affordable,” Wood adds.
Common Cause Special Advisor on Media and Democracy Reform and former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps maintains the action is a giant leap forward that will benefit school children, jobseekers, the elderly and infirm in particular.
“There are those who would have eliminated this program,” Copps says. “Thank goodness, and the FCC, that this lifeline to the 21st Century opportunity can now do even more for millions of Americans.”
Filed Under: Industry regulations