NCTA to FCC: Avoid One-Size-Fits-All Lifeline

Cable operators have definite opinions on how the FCC should revamp its lifeline subsidy program and they include widening the pool of eligible carriers by making it easier to apply, establishing a third party to verify subscriber eligibility, and allowing subsidy recipients to use the money for more than the basic level of service.

That came in a filing at the FCC from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, where the cable trade group warned against a "one-size-fits-all" approach and said the FCC needs to increase choices for Lifeline users and make it easier for carriers to participate.

As preamble to its arguments, NCTA pointed out that cable operators were already doing a lot on their own to deliver affordable broadband to low-income families, including the Connect2Compete initiative from Cox, Suddenlink, Mediacom and others, and Comcast's Internet Essentials program.

The FCC voted June 18 to restructure the Universal Service Fund's Lifeline subsidy as it is migrated from traditional phone to broadband service. The vote was 3-2, with the Republicans dissenting over what they said was a lack of fiscal reforms to accompany the structural ones.

Lifeline provides subsidies, paid by telecoms and, ultimately, their subscribers, for essential communications services for low-income Americans. The proposals do not deal with the contribution side — whether broadband operators will have to pay into the subsidy, too. That is the subject of a separate proceeding, with the FCC awaiting input from the USF Joint Board.

The Lifeline "reboot" includes adding broadband service to the subsidy, having a third party establish eligibility for the program, establishing minimum services standards for both phone voice and broadband (the FCC is seeking input on what those should be), a database to weed out ineligible recipients and more.

Rather than set minimum service standards, said NCTA, the FCC should let Lifeline users use their subsidy on any level of service from any provider, including Internet Essentials and Connect2Compete.

NCTA said consumers want choice, something the FCC promotes and one of the takeaways from the FCC's Lifeline broadband pilot program, NCTA pointed out.

"Allowing Lifeline subscribers to use their subsidy on any service offered by a provider would eliminate the Commission’s concern that, “[u]nlike competitive offerings for non-Lifeline customers, minutes and service plans for Lifeline customers have largely been stagnant,” the group said.

NCTA said another way to boost participation in the program is to make it easier for carriers to participate. "The Commission should remove this barrier to Lifeline participation by reversing its prior decision to limit Lifeline support solely to ETCs and establish a streamlined national eligibility process," NCTA said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.