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Connecting affordable housing residents to the internet looks more difficult under FCC’s new Lifeline proposal

In NHC’s work to encourage broadband in affordable housing, NHC met with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership and staff to educate them on how affordable housing connects to their work to close the digital divide, as well as how FCC programs like Lifeline could support broadband in affordable housing. The Lifeline program provides a discount for phone service for qualifying low-income consumers and through a modernization order in 2016, the program also made broadband an eligible support service. On Nov. 16, the FCC voted 3-2 to move forward with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and an associated Notice of Inquiry (NOI), which propose significant changes to the Lifeline program. NHC is engaging on this issue because the changes proposed would make it harder to get residents in affordable housing connected to the internet.

One proposed change is a budget cap that would block a significant increase in Lifeline users. Currently, the program does not serve all eligible households. The NPRM also discusses the possibility of limiting the amount of time or the benefit amount a household can receive in the program. The order proposes to eliminate non-facilities-based providers from the Lifeline program. No company who does not own its own network would be eligible to provide Lifeline broadband, which would eliminate the majority of Lifeline providers and significantly reduce options for participating households.

Currently housing providers interested in Lifeline participation can petition their state to be an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) in order to provide broadband to their residents and receive the Lifeline subsidy. Though the process is not easy and has not been done yet by a housing provider, it is possible if the state is willing to work with a housing provider and provide waivers from ETC rules where necessary. However, the proposed rule change would require housing providers to have their own network, as opposed to a partnership or reselling model, which may present challenges. And without allowing time and incentives for new providers to become facilities-based providers, consumers will face an immediate decline in options for broadband service. Additionally, the proposal would eliminate the Lifeline broadband provider category; this category allowed nonprofits and anchor institutions, like housing providers, to participate nationally in the program as opposed to going state by state for approval and did not require these organizations to also provide phone service. The FCC majority also ordered several immediate changes to tribal support within Lifeline, which advocates are concerned will limit access to Lifeline service for tribal communities.

NHC is concerned that many of these proposals will negatively impact access to the internet by residents of affordable housing. Join NHC and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for a webinar to learn more about the proposed changes on Jan. 9 at 2 p.m. ET. Register here.

NHC will be working with its connectivity working group on a response. Comments are due Jan. 24. Please email me if your organization would like to provide input into NHC’s response.

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