As you may know, Lifeline was launched in 1985 to help ensure that land line phone service was affordable for low-income consumers. Congress ratified the program in 1996 and codified the principle that low-income consumers should have access to "advanced telecommunications and information services." In 2008, as consumers snapped up cell phones, the FCC opened the door to Lifeline support for mobility – and then updated its rules in 2012 to protect against the waste, fraud and abuse. Having learned our lesson, in the same order that made huge steps in cleaning up mobile support, the Commission tried to think ahead about gathering the data to consider Lifeline support for broadband, which has become essential to modern life.
Specifically, the FCC launched the Low Income Broadband Pilot Program to study what policies might overcome the barriers to adoption of broadband by low-income households. I’m happy to say that the data are now in from these 14 varied pilots, and we’re releasing the data to the public for analysis, along with our own short report with a few immediate takeaways:
- First, consumers respond well to having a choice of plans. Households have different needs for data speeds, usage amounts, service type and devices. The pilots showed low-income consumers do not all want or need the same products.
- Second, while price is not the only barrier to broadband adoption, price matters.
- Third, carriers aren’t necessarily the best at addressing other barriers to broadband adoption - lack of digital literacy and relevance to one's life.
The pilots have helped staff begin to understand the challenge of tackling low-income broadband adoption. For starters, there is no silver bullet. And, while the pilots were focused on different approaches for adoption, let's be clear that Lifeline is focused on ensuring services are affordable, not to solve the broadband adoption challenge. As the Commission moves forward to consider how to restructure the Lifeline program for the digital age, the pilot report will help provide useful data for the Commission and public to consider.