The announcement by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on changing the status of nine newly designated Lifeline Broadband Providers (LBP) last month raised concerns among many who are focused on increasing broadband access, including NHC. Our understanding after meeting with the FCC is that expansion of broadband and opportunities for housing providers remain, although the new FCC chairman has signaled some revisiting of specific aspects of the Lifeline program, including designation of LBPs. NHC continues to see the Lifeline program as a significant opportunity to get more affordable housing residents connected.
Since 2014, the National Housing Conference has encouraged expansion of broadband in affordable housing to close the digital divide for low-income families. One tool in this effort is the FCC’s Lifeline program. In 2016, the FCC changed the program to allow the Lifeline subsidy to be used for broadband service in addition to phone service. For housing providers, these changes created an opportunity to aggregate Lifeline subsidy among many residents to create a funding source for property-level broadband.
In addition to allowing the Lifeline subsidy to be used for broadband, the Lifeline Modernization Order also created a way for new internet service providers to participate in Lifeline as Lifeline Broadband Providers (LBPs). On February 3, 2017, FCC Chairman Pai revoked the status of nine new LBPs because of concerns about the legality of the LBP status. NHC reached out with our concerns about the future of the Lifeline program, and last week we met with Chairman Pai’s staff.
At the meeting, we learned that Chairman Pai wants to work on closing the digital divide. We determined that housing providers should still pursue broadband solutions using Lifeline, and we discovered that providers can still pursue becoming an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier at the state level. Under the modernization order, aggregation projects are possible wherein nonprofits or housing providers can negotiate with internet service providers (ISPs) to do the program qualification and sign-up paperwork for a fee. This financial support could enable housing providers to pursue broadband solutions at the property level as explore local partnerships around digital literacy and equipment. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) is exploring how the aggregation process could work. NHC is engaged with USAC and hopes to share ideas from NHC members about how to best structure this option. Additionally, for housing providers interested in serving as their own ISP, organizations can still apply for eligibility to participate in Lifeline through their state public utility commissions, while the LBP status is being reconsidered.
NHC hopes housing providers will fully explore how they can best utilize the Lifeline program to benefit their residents. We are a resource and can provide guidance. To learn more about NHC’s Connectivity Working Group and work on broadband in affordable housing, please email me.