Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has circulated an order that will modernize the universal service Lifeline program. Chairman Wheeler made the announcement by releasing a fact sheet that summarizes many of the changes to the Lifeline program contained in the order. As expected, the order revises the Lifeline program to allow subscribers to apply the monthly Lifeline discount to stand alone fixed or mobile broadband service as well as bundled voice and broadband service packages. The order also sets minimum speed and monthly usage standards for fixed Lifeline broadband service.
The order contains fundamental changes to the way Lifeline supports voice service. According to the fact sheet, the Lifeline program will require providers of mobile voice service to offer Lifeline plans with unlimited minutes, and the program will phase out support for standalone mobile voice over a period of three years, starting in December 2017. Support for fixed-only voice service will remain.
The order creates a third-party national eligibility verifier that will make the determination of whether a consumer is eligible to receive Lifeline benefits. The order also “refines” the list of government assistance programs that will qualify an individual for Lifeline to those programs “that support electronic validation, are most accountable, and best identify people needing support.” Individuals will still be able to qualify for Lifeline based on household income level. The order also creates a process for “Lifeline Broadband Providers” to gain nationwide entry into the Lifeline program. Finally, the order maintains the monthly $9.25 discount level, but sets an annual $2.25 billion budget for the Lifeline program that is indexed to inflation. The order will be voted on by the full Commission at the FCC’s March 31 open meeting.