AT&T, Comcast Throw Support Behind Lifeline Overhaul

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By Lydia Beyoud

March 1 — A broad range of telecommunications and cable industry members and public interest groups signed onto a joint letter March 1 supporting an overhaul of the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program, an item expected to appear on the agency's March 31 meeting agenda.

The FCC proposed in June 2015 to expand the program to include broadband Internet subsidies for low-income households . Current program subsidies only cover the cost of telephone service.

The coalition of 23 groups, including Lifeline providers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., as well as non-program participants like Comcast Corp., called on the FCC to “encourage broad provider participation in the new broadband Lifeline program” by making it easier for nontraditional providers to offer the subsidies.

The groups called for the FCC to “centralize and streamline the process of authorizing providers to offer Lifeline-supported broadband Internet access service.”

Uniformity Needed

The key to broader participation is a uniform national policy that would establish one set of standards for companies to follow without subjecting program providers to myriad state-level regulations on issues such as billing systems or advertisements for Lifeline services, a telecom industry source told Bloomberg BNA on background.

That patchwork of state-by-state rules has discouraged some prominent broadband providers from participating in the program, the source said.

Whatever the FCC does consider at its next meeting is unlikely to be the last word on modifying the Lifeline program for the broadband age, the source said. The agency is likely to issue further notices of proposed rulemaking or other items in the future to address the many details involved in overhauling the program, such as how a new third-party program eligibility verification provider would be selected and how subsidy reimbursements would be issued, the source said.

Schools and Libraries

Schools and libraries may be interested in becoming Lifeline providers depending on how the FCC structures eligibility requirements for telecom carriers, John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) told Bloomberg BNA. The SHLB is among the signatories to the letter.

Some schools and municipalities are deploying fiber and wireless networks in their communities to help students get broadband service to do their homework.

Getting rid of some of the FCC's requirements to meet the eligibility threshold would let anchor institutions help close the persistent “homework gap,” which the Pew Research Center has said leaves about five million U.S. families whose children don't have regular broadband access, particularly in rural and low-income areas.

“It is time that Lifeline-eligible consumers have the opportunity to use their benefit to reduce the cost of subscribing to broadband Internet access service,” the coalition said.

While the letter highlights the strong support from a cross-section of the telecommunications ecosystem around the broad strokes of updating the Lifeline program, serious differences of opinion between the commissioners at the vote on the notice of proposed rulemaking could foretell difficulty in hammering out the details for a final rule.

The FCC is expected to announce its draft March meeting agenda by March 10.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine in Washington at kperine@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the letter is at http://src.bna.com/cZD.