Reaction to FCC Broadband Lifeline Piles Up

There were plenty of folks ready to give the FCC a hand, including the back of the hand, over its proposal to extend Lifeline broadband subsidies to stand-alone fixed and wireless broadband — the chairman has circulated an item for a vote at the March 31 meeting.

Comcast senior executive VP David Cohen blogged his applause for and advice to the FCC for its effort to modernize the program to support broadband and to simplify the process for provider participation. But he also said that addressed only one barrier to adoption, and that it must prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

"[T]he Commission must continue to take steps to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the program," Cohen said. "Recent FCC actions have helped in this regard, but as the Commission reforms Lifeline, it should, as with all universal service programs, do so in a financially responsible and cost-effective manner. The Commission must ensure that the Lifeline program meets its goals but also that the universal service fund as a whole does not impose an unreasonable burden on consumers. The fact that universal service is financed by U.S. consumers underscores the importance of that responsibility. The Commission’s proposal that eligibility and recertification functions currently performed by service providers are instead handled by a national verifier will help in this regard."

Cohen pointed to the success of Comcast's Internet Essentials low-cost broadband program as another way to clear the adoption hurdle and said price is not the biggest barrier, but rather "a bucket of digital literacy issues, including a perceived lack of relevance of the Internet and a lack of understanding as to its value or usefulness."

Free Press agreed that Lifeline was only one arrow in the quiver, but it was aiming another at big companies like Comcast.

“Internet access is as essential to participating in today’s economy and society as a landline phone was 30 years ago. It makes sense to give low-income Americans the ability to apply the Lifeline discount to broadband — the defining communications service of the 21st century," said Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood.

“However, we must stay vigilant if we truly wish to eradicate the digital divide. Lifeline is but one tool to address the issue of affordability. If the FCC’s primary goal is to get as many people using broadband as possible, then the best thing it can do is take all possible steps to make all broadband services affordable.

“The issue of affordability is deeply intertwined with the challenging problem of insufficient competition. Letting a small handful of companies control last-mile access to Internet users drives the cost of a connection far beyond the reach of many lower-income communities. If the Commission wants to increase affordability, it must address the lack of competition.

In the "back of the hand" department was Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who echoed a complaint he lodged against the chairman over previewing the item for press before circulating it.

"Hours after the Chairman launched his press campaign and multiple sources reported he had circulated this item, it has just landed in my inbox," he said. "I haven’t had a chance to review all 150 pages yet, but as usual, the “Fact Sheet” released this morning raises more questions than answers. It’s impossible to tell whether the “budget mechanism” is actually a budget in any real sense of the word. It is unclear what “Commission action” would take place when spending gets close to the amount specified – would the full Commission get a vote? And what is the rationale to justify increasing spending on this Universal Service program – but not others – by $750 million, an increase of 50%?

"These are the answers I will be looking for as I review the Order. But since they are not actually given in the information made public so far, under the current rules I will be barred from discussing them. This fiasco seems to add fuel to my arguments for releasing the document to the public or at minimum to stop censoring Commissioners with rules that aren’t being applied equally."

Common Sense Media saw the FCC move as, well, common sense.

"High-speed Internet access is an essential part of learning today – just like textbooks, rulers, and science labs. Homework is assigned online, there are incredible learning apps and web sites, and a wealth of information and research online," said James Steyer, founder of Common Sense, which has long advocated for closing the digital divide, including via the e-rate subsidy. "But too many people today — including millions of young students — still cannot access those essential tools at home, where so much learning takes place. We applaud the FCC's draft Lifeline order because it will take America a critical step closer to eliminating the gaping divide between today's digital haves and have nots. The FCC's thoughtfully drafted plan will ensure the program is efficient and accountable and that millions of America's children and adults can more fully participate in our modern economy and education system."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, urged the FCC to approve the draft order and said it would benefit veterans.

“Today’s draft order takes critical steps to ensure veterans have access to the essential services provided by the Lifeline program,” he said. “The discounts provided through Lifeline make it easier for veterans to contact the VA for benefits and medical appointments, to contact potential employers, and to find housing. In times of most need, an affordable telephone service also makes it easier for veterans to reach the Veterans Crisis Line and the Help for Homeless Veterans hotline.

“It is vital that Lifeline assistance be extended to broadband services, as well, providing all low-income consumers with access to the economy of the 21st century."

Scott Bergmann, VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA, said his group was still evaluating the proposal, but that they "generally support the FCC’s efforts to expand the Lifeline program to broadband services and to improve the administration of the Lifeline program."

But there were some major caveats. "We are, however, concerned that by dictating service offerings, the FCC will increase costs for consumers and put the 21st Century out of reach for millions of low-income Americans. We are also troubled by the proposal to eliminate support for wireless voice services (there is a three-year phaseout) while continuing to fund wireline voice, which ignores the cord-cutting trend that has taken hold across the nation. A reform effort that raises barriers to pro-consumer wireless services and drives users to solely landline offerings is counter to the needs of low-income Americans.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who joined other legislators pushing for lifeline reform, was pleased.  

“The Lifeline modernization proposal released today by Chairman [Tom] Wheeler and Commissioner [Mignon] Clyburn is a welcome step toward helping low-income families gain meaningful access to broadband Internet," he said. "Just like home phone service in the 1980s and mobile phone service in the 2000s, high-speed Internet is critical to participating in the modern economy. I applaud the FCC’s commitment to closing the digital divide that prevents families from gaining a foothold in the middle class.

“Today’s proposal also reflects the FCC’s focus on making the Lifeline program live up to its promise. By removing unnecessary administrative burdens and establishing powerful checks on waste, fraud, and abuse, the modernized program will operate seamlessly for all eligible families. "

The Benton Foundation added its applause to those clapping, not slapping.

"The Benton Foundation applauds the Federal Communications Commission on taking another step to reform and modernize the Lifeline program," said Benton Foundation director of policy Amina Fazlullah.

"Broadband has a crucial impact on our economy – creating efficiencies, improving productivity, and accelerating innovation," said Fazlullah. "And it is an essential service for education, public health, and public safety. Some segments of the U.S. population have reached near-100 percent broadband adoption rates. For these populations, market forces have been sufficient to get us toward our goal of universal adoption. But there are nagging, persistent divides in broadband deployment and adoption – what we at Benton call “digital deserts.” As recent research makes clear, the cost of service remains the biggest barrier to broadband adoption."

Joshua Stager, policy counsel for New America’s Open Technology Institute, invoked some Republicans with his applause lines.

"Today’s announcement is a welcome step toward closing America’s longstanding digital divide, which has left millions of Americans without Internet access," he said. "Chairman Wheeler’s proposal would bring flexibility and common-sense modernization to a program that has successfully helped low-income households get telephone service for 30 years. OTI commends this latest effort to modernize Lifeline, another prudent step in the program’s evolution that began with its creation during the Reagan Administration and continued with an expansion into wireless voice service under George W. Bush."

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.