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FCC Gauges Lifeline’s Progress Toward Shift To Broadband

Law360 (March 22, 2021, 5:43 PM EDT) — The Federal Communications Commission is asking the public to weigh in ahead of a staff report this summer on the state of the Lifeline low-income program and its shift toward subsidizing broadband service and away from landline.

In a notice issued Friday, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau said the input from Lifeline providers and others would “inform the bureau’s review” as it prepares an FCC-mandated report that will be submitted to commissioners by June 30.

The report aims to help the commission decide “whether the Lifeline program’s transition to chiefly supporting broadband services, as set out in the 2016 Lifeline Order, should be completed.” The order from five years ago said the report must either recommend the FCC finish the changeover to primarily broadband or “act to continue delaying” the switch.

The market report will include the “prevalence of subscriptions to various service offerings in the Lifeline program, the affordability of both voice and broadband services, the pace since adoption of the 2016 Lifeline Order at which voice and data usage has changed, minimum service standards, and the net benefits of continuing to support voice service as a standalone option,” according to the FCC.

The commission’s efforts in recent years to adjust Lifeline to shifting market dynamics have caused some controversy, particularly regarding broadband subsidies. Two years ago, New America’s Open Technology Institute said it was troubled by an FCC proposal to roll back several aspects of Lifeline even after it went through a modernization plan.

In November 2017, the FCC altered the way funds for the Lifeline subsidy program are awarded and disbursed by allowing enhanced subsidy payouts only to facilities-based providers that maintain their own networks, rather than companies that lease capacity from other providers.

In Friday’s notice, the Wireline Competition Bureau also asked for comment on the “intersection between” the recently enacted Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and the Lifeline marketplace. The $3.2 billion emergency program, passed under the $900 billion coronavirus rescue package in December, includes monthly subsidies of between $50 and $75 to help low-income families afford at-home broadband access.

Comments on the Lifeline marketplace are due April 19, with replies due May 4. They may be filed under FCC docket number 11-42 in the Wireline Competition Bureau.

–Additional reporting by Nadia Dreid. Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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