Assessing Broadband Subsidies and Lifeline Reform

by on March 16, 2016 · 1 comment

The FCC has signaled that it may vote to overhaul the Lifeline program this month. Today, Lifeline typically provides a $9.25 subsidy for low-income households to purchase landline or mobile telephone service from eligible providers. While Lifeline has problems–hence the bipartisan push for reform–years ago the FCC structured Lifeline in a way that generally improves access and mitigates abuse (the same cannot be said about the three other major universal service programs).

A direct subsidy plus a menu of options is a good way to expand access to low-income people (assuming there are effective anti-fraud procedures). A direct subsidy is more or less how the US and state governments help lower-income families afford products and services like energy, food, housing, and education. For energy bills there’s LIHEAP. For grocery bills there’s SNAP and WIC. For housing, there’s Section 8 vouchers. For higher education, there’s Pell grants.

Programs structured this way make transfers fairly transparent, which makes them an easy target for criticism but also promotes government accountability, and gives low-income households the ability to consume these services according to their preferences. If you want to attend a small Christian college, not a state university, Pell grants enable that. If you want to purchase rice and tomatoes, not bread and apples, SNAP enables that. The alternative, and far more costly, ways to improve consumer access to various services is to subsidize providers, which is basically how Medicare the rural telephone programs operate, or command-and-control industrial policy, like we have for television and much of agriculture.

Because the FCC is maintaining the consumer subsidy and expanding the menu of Lifeline options to include wired broadband, mobile broadband, and wifi devices, there’s much to commend in the proposed reforms.

Lifeline Broadband Subsidies

Ironically, despite tech activist declarations that 10 Mbps is not “real broadband,” the FCC considers 10 Mbps broadband totally adequate as low-income families’ sole connection to the digital world. If the proposals stand, Lifeline subsidies can be used for 10 Mbps wireline and wireless subscriptions.

The confusion about “real broadband” echoed from tech activists, some tech reporting, and a presidential candidate arises because the FCC has at least three different conceptions of “broadband,” essentially based on whatever definition will increase its regulatory control. For Title II purposes, even a mere 1 Mbps is “broadband” because the FCC wants to be inclusive and regulate all providers. For Section 706, defining “broadband” as high as practical increases the agency’s regulatory powers, so it’s not “real broadband” unless it’s 25 Mbps. For universal service and (apparently) Lifeline subsidies, 10 Mbps is “broadband” because setting it too high would be too restrictive for the consumers and carriers who benefit from a moderate standard.

Wireless Substitution

Expanding Lifeline to mobile broadband suggests an increasing awareness by the FCC that, for many Americans, wireless broadband is a substitute for wireline broadband. This is a little surprising because the FCC decided in January 2016 that “fixed and mobile broadband services are not functional substitutes.” The available data, however, shows that wireless is a substitute for the millions of homes that don’t contain avid Netflix watchers. While popular broadband offerings have monthly limits of 300 GB or more, based on Sandvine data, the typical US home with a wired Internet connection probably uses under 30 GB per month.

Pew surveys also reveal many Americans who substitute wireless for wireline. Of those in the growing number of smartphone-only households, 65% said their smartphones allow them to do everything online they need. Note also that, of those with no home broadband connection–which includes smartphone-only households–only 25% are interested in subscribing. This is why it’s good the FCC doesn’t simply subsidize carriers–most nonadopters simply have no interest in home Internet. Certainly there are some in these groups who don’t realize that their lives would be enriched by a wired broadband connection, but that is mainly a question of digital literacy and education.

Concerns and Reforms

While I support the FCC expanding the menu of Lifeline options and improving the eligibility process, I’m wary of some of the proposed reforms. More details will come out later but Commissioner O’Rielly has pointed out several potential problems with the direction this is going. For one, the eligibility process has always been a mess, in part because it’s based on a patchwork of federal and state programs. The largest problem is the FCC is proposing a major increase in the Lifeline budget, which will increase most Americans’ phone bills. Until the FCC gets its Lifeline house in order, it’s premature to increase the fund so substantially.

Further, I’d like to see satellite broadband on the “menu” of options for Lifeline consumers. Based on the preliminary reports, it’s not clear that satellite broadband will be eligible. Satellite broadband satisfies the speed requirement (10 Mbps) but the FCC plans to require a 150 GB allowance for fixed connections. Satellite is considered a fixed connection. However, satellite broadband providers generally have a low data allowance during daytime hours. On the other hand, they often have unmetered, unlimited data in off-peak hours. Arguably, because data is unmetered every day, satellite broadband should qualify. It would give low-income rural households, who have very low Internet penetration, one more option to be connected.

Finally, one possible reform to ensure the truly needy are benefiting would be to simultaneously increase substantially the $9.25 monthly subsidy but disallow subsidies to households with subscription TV. The most recent data I can find is a 2010 FCC report that 80% of Internet non-adopters have satellite or “cable premium” television. Tightening the requirements means fewer households are eligible but it would increase public support for the program and I think the FCC could then afford to be more generous with the Lifeline subsidy.

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