If you can believe the rumors swirling around the telecommunications industry and within the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC, the media watchdog is preparing some big changes to the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program.
Most of those rumors revolve around the concept of Lifeline Broadband (sometimes referred to as Lifeline Internet). Word on the street is that the FCC is ready to amend the program to include a free or low-cost internet program similar to the very successful free government cell phone program.
Are the rumors true? Our reading of the bureaucratic tea leaves leads us to believe that although the program will probably be called Lifeline Broadband, it will offer drastically-reduced prices, but not free internet.
CheapInternet.com, our sister website, went out on a limb in the middle of last year and predicted that Lifeline Broadband would be introduced “by the end of 2014.” It now appears that while the editors of CheapInternet.com were off on the timing of the announcement, but they were right on regarding the essentials of program.
We now anticipate a FCC announcement within the next couple months — an announcement that will surely be greeted with cheers by the millions of needy Americans who cannot currently afford the typical monthly rates charged by internet service providers. And although we certainly don’t want to climb out on a limb with the editors of CheapInternet.com, we do agree with them that Lifeline Broadband will probably offer high-speed internet to low-income Americans at very affordable prices.
What makes us now believe that cheap government internet is right around the corner? Comments by the FCC commissioners and staff provide important clues:
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has been signaling for months that she views the funding of broadband as an important goal for the program, including at a speech this past Monday at an NTCA event.
FCC staff have also asked for input from companies that participated in the FCC’s Lifeline broadband pilot program, which analyzed possible service packages and subsidy levels.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released a statement on Monday citing a recent Pew Research Center report that found that “Low-income households—and especially black and Hispanic ones—make up a disproportionate share” of the 5 million household in the United States with school-age children that lack broadband Internet access.
Commissioner Rosenworcel noted that “7 out of 10 teachers assign homework that requires Internet access.”
You simply cannot read those quotes without coming to the logical conclusion that the FCC fully understands the need for an inexpensive internet program aimed at low income Americans.
What will Lifeline Broadband look like?
Fourteen FCC pilot programs designed to test the viability of various Lifeline Broadband options, including consumer reaction to various price levels, equipment offers, and internet speeds, concluded late last year. The FCC has been analyzing the results of those pilot programs to determine what Lifeline Broadband should look like.
If the current rumors are to be believed, Lifeline Internet will be a bit of a hybrid between the free government cell phone program and Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. In other words, it won’t be free, but it will be cheap.
Lifeline Internet will probably be offered at $9.95 per month (like Internet Essentials), and eligibility requirements will probably include participation in another state or federal assistance programs (like the free government cell phone program).
Those programs Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP), Medicaid, National School Free Lunch Program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8), Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and an assortment of state assistance programs. In lieu of participation in those programs, you will probably be eligible if your household income falls at or below 135% of Federal Poverty Guidelines (or as much as 150% in a few states).
Will private broadband providers be required to offer the affordable Lifeline Broadband program, or merely “encouraged” to offer it? Our best guess is that they will be strongly encouraged to offer the program with financial incentives in the form of subsidies taken from the same pot of money that funds the free government cell phone program. That program is funded by adding a few cents to everyone’s phone bill every month. Lifeline Broadband will undoubtedly be funded similarly, by adding a few cents to everyone’s internet bill every month.
We can’t wait. You probably can’t, either.
Lifeline Internet can’t get here soon enough. Too many cash-strapped Americans absolutely need affordable internet service and this is their best chance to get it.
They need it in order to apply for jobs and to communicate with potential employers. They need it so their kids can compete on a level playing field in school. They need it in a thousand different ways.
That’s why we, and millions of other Americans, eagerly await the introduction of Lifeline Broadband.
h/t: Lifeline Law