By: Andrew Regitsky
In a 2016 Third Report and Order, (Order) in Docket 11-42, the FCC decided that after December 1, 2021, there would no longer be any Lifeline support for voice-only services. Lifeline support for these services has already been phased down from the original amount of $9.25 a month, to $7.25 a month, and now to $5.25 a month. Soon, all support will be eliminated completely.
In the 2016 Order, the FCC did take the wise step of providing Lifeline subsidies for broadband service, but only for customers that purchase mixed voice/broadband services.
After the Order appeared in the Federal Register, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NASUCA) quickly filed a Petition for Reconsideration in which it explained why Lifeline support for voice-only servicez should continue.
[R]emoval of support for stand-alone voice ‒ was not necessary to meet, and in fact, contravenes, the continuing universal service goal. If support for stand-alone services is removed, more Lifeline customers will be forced to buy broadband bundles, which, even with a $9.25 discount, will likely be unaffordable for many of them. Those Lifeline customers who cannot afford broadband bundles could lose all communications service ‒ video, broadband and voice. NASUCA urges the Commission to reconsider its decision to remove support for standalone voice and not impose price caps or other protections to ensure that these customers continue to have access to basic voice service. (Docket 11-42, NASUCA Petition for Reconsideration, filed June 23, 2016, at p. 2).
Unfortunately, the Commission never responded to NASUCA’s Petition, apparently believing it unnecessary while Lifeline for voice-only services continued. Finally, on June 1st of this year, the agency decided that it was time to refresh the record regarding NASUCA’s request. Fortunately, in their comments most agree that Lifeline for voice-only services should continue.
The National Lifeline Association noted that mobile broadband has not become a way of life for low-income customers as the FCC forecasted in 2016.
Mobile broadband has not overtaken voice service in the way that Commission perhaps expected in 2016. Affordable voice service remains essential for low-income households, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Commission failed to address the potential impacts of the voice phase-down on public safety. Since implemented in 2016, there has been no support for the Lifeline voice support phase-down or phase-out among Lifeline stakeholders. The Commission should restore the Lifeline voice reimbursement to $9.25 per month for which many Lifeline providers will offer unlimited or the equivalent of unlimited voice minutes (e.g., 3,000) to eligible low-income households (Docket 11-42, Comments of the National Lifeline Association, filed August 2, 2021, at pp. 2-3.).
Free Press pointed out that Covid has had a devastating impact on voice customers.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic alone ought to have provided sufficient changed circumstances for the Commission to reassess whether to maintain the scheduled total phasedown for standalone voice. The new Commission cited evidence in its Lifeline Marketplace Report that households relied on voice services (and on broadband telecommunications services too) more than ever in response to the shelter-in-place mandates and encouragement of telehealth alternatives to in-person health services. Furthermore, the public health crisis should have prompted the Commission to recognize, beyond the present pandemic, the unique and critical role the Lifeline program can play in responding to emergencies of all sorts. In the Lifeline Marketplace Report, the Commission found that “data from 2020  shows that in times of crisis – in this case during the COVID-19 pandemic – consumers rely heavily on mobile voice to meet their communications needs.” (Id. Free Press Comments, filed August 2, 2021, at p. 6.)
Based on the overall agreement of the industry, and the emergence of the Delta COVID variant, the Commission clearly needs to continue to provide subsidies for voice –only services.
Incidentally, the NASUCA Petition for Reconsideration in 2016 also sought to nudge the FCC to finally update the contribution methodology for universal service. Five years later, there is continued industry agreement on this. However, there is no indication that the Commission plans on acting anytime soon. Maybe Congress needs to finally get involved.