Thursday, August 13, 2020

Defer the Lifeline Minimum Service Standards Increase

I have been a decades-long supporter of the FCC's Lifeline program as a "safety net" for low income persons so long as the program is operated in a manner that is as efficient and free from fraud or abuse as possible. It is inarguable that during the COVID-19 crisis, with its attendant adverse economic effects, the Lifeline program is more important than ever in helping to ensure that low-income persons are able to remain connected.


Commendably, under the leadership of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency has granted several temporary waivers intended to ensure that those currently receiving Lifeline service will stay connected during the pandemic and also that those eligible for Lifeline services can enroll. These actions were important. 


But there is more the Commission should do, especially now during the current economic difficulties, which almost certainly disproportionately impact low-income persons. Of near-term concern, the Commission should defer increasing the mobile broadband minimum service standards (MSS). Currently, the mobile broadband MSS is scheduled on December 1, 2020, to increase from 3 GB per month to 11.75 GB per month.


On July 30, 2020, Chairman Pai circulated to his fellow commissioners a draft order that, on December 1, 2020, would increase the MSS for mobile broadband to 4.5 GB per month rather than 11.75 GB per month. In his press release announcing the proposed action, Chairman Pai states that his proposal would improve the way the FCC calculates annual updates to the MSS for mobile broadband services. And he acknowledges that the "Lifeline program plays an important role in ensuring that low-income Americans have access to affordable broadband service."


Chairman Pai's acknowledgment of Lifeline's important role is welcome, along with his proposal to postpone implementation of the MSS scheduled December 1 increase to 11.75 GB per month. But even the more modest increase to 4.5 GB per month is problematic when it is not accompanied by any increase in the current $9.25 federal subsidy, which has remained the same for years.


Absent such a subsidy increase and pending completion and review of the Commission's ongoing State of the Lifeline Marketplace Report, it would make sense for the agency to postpone any further increase in MSS levels for mobile broadband. The existence of the current economic distress, caused by the COVID-19 adverse impacts, is further support for this course.