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April 1, 2016

Modernization of the FCC's Lifeline Program: a path to improving broadband access

  • , policy & innovation

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Broadband access truly makes a difference in people’s lives, bringing economic, social, and educational opportunities to those who are online. Yet more than a third of Americans still do not subscribe to home broadband, while half of the nation’s households in the lowest income tier do not subscribe. For many families, affordability remains one of the primary barriers to getting online at home.

Improving access to affordable broadband has always been part of Google Fiber’s DNA—our digital inclusion efforts and community impact work are a central part of our ongoing efforts to help bring fast Internet to more people. Regardless of income, everyone should be able to experience the benefits of high speed connectivity.

Yesterday, the FCC adopted its Lifeline modernization order, an essential move to encouraging broadband adoption nationwide. Until now, Lifeline has provided funds to enable providers to deliver voice service to consumers at affordable rates. When the Lifeline Assistance Program was established in 1985, high speed broadband to homes didn’t exist. But much has changed since 1985—while voice service remains important, increasingly people use their broadband connection as a critical means of communication. As FCC Chairman Wheeler said, “... at a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online and millions of Americans remain offline, it doesn’t make sense for Lifeline to remain focused only on 20th century voice service.”

For the first time, low-income consumers can apply the $9.25 Lifeline subsidy to lower the cost of qualifying broadband plans. Now consumers have the opportunity to use their benefit to reduce the cost of subscribing to broadband Internet—not just voice service—so people can choose the connectivity services that meet their needs.

Importantly, the FCC’s reforms also shift the responsibility for determining consumer eligibility out of the hands of the carriers that currently receive subsidies and to a National Eligibility Verifier. As described in the FCC’s statements, the independent third party verifier will make eligibility determinations using data from existing trusted programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), streamlining the income verification process. Shifting eligibility determinations away from the service provider has two benefits. First, subscribers can take their benefits with them to a different provider or new address, leading to more consumer choice. Second, because the eligibility determination is based on existing trusted data, it can better protect consumer privacy and security and bring more dignity to the process.

Families with low incomes increasingly choose not to purchase home broadband because it just isn’t affordable—these and many of the other changes that the FCC has voted on go a long way to address this critical problem.