FCC Chair Proposes Update to Lifeline Program Minimum Standard

On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai sent his fellow Commissioners an order proposing improvements to the agency’s Lifeline program, to “clean up the mess caused by the 2016 order.” Specifically, Pai recommended revising how annual updates to minimum standards for Lifeline’s mobile broadband service are calculated.

According to his statement in the FCC’s press release, Pai expressed hope that his colleagues would vote for the order. He argued that the current method used to calculate annual updates “is flawed.” Rectifying the issue, he said, is “critical … so that Lifeline subscribers do not receive second-class service compared to other consumers.”

According to Pai, the present formula, adopted in 2016, is unworkable because it would result in “drastic year-over-year increases that could impact the ability of Lifeline carriers to continue providing affordable service.” For example, the extant formula would have increased the minimum standard for mobile broadband data capacity to 8.75 GB from 2 GB per month in 2019, if the FCC had not acted. Likewise, this year, the minimum standard would have jumped to 11.75 GB per month.

The FCC’s Lifeline program, originally rolled out in 1985, provides a discounted phone service and, since its modernization in 2016, broadband internet to low-income Americans. The Lifeline program is available to eligible consumers in every state, territory, the commonwealth, and on Tribal lands. The program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) which is responsible for “data collection and maintenance, support calculation, and disbursement for the low-income program.” USAC is nested under the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, a body that works to “ensure that all Americans have access to robust, affordable broadband and voice services.”

The proposed order would also offer greater predictability in year-to-year standard updates for customers and providers, provide improved service for “smaller-than-average households,” and would guarantee the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau access to the latest data in making program-related calculations.