Connect with us

Expert Opinion

Adrianne Furniss: Lifeline Needs A Lifeline

The FCC should hit the pause button on a current plan to zero out support for voice-only services.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society

In less than three months, nearly 800,000 low-income people who receive telephone subsidies through the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program will be negatively impacted by changes scheduled to go into effect at the Federal Communications Commission on December 1. That is one of the most troubling — and pressing — conclusions of an independent evaluation of the FCC’s Lifeline program conducted by Grant Thornton. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the FCC must act now to ensure people can retain essential communications services.

As of June 20, 2021, approximately 6.9 million subscribers were enrolled in the Lifeline program; most (approximately 94 percent) are enrolled in supported wireless plans. Voice service remains a desired service for both Lifeline subscribers and the general American consumer. Only 1 percent of surveyed American adults live in a home with neither fixed nor mobile voice service, and mobile-only voice subscribers comprise more than 60 percent of U.S. households.

In 2016, the FCC adopted a comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. For the first time, the FCC included broadband as a supported service in the program. Lifeline program rules allowed support for stand-alone mobile (think cell phone) or fixed broadband Internet access service (think home broadband service delivered over a wire), as well as bundles including fixed or mobile voice and broadband. The 2016 decision also set in motion a plan to zero-out support for voice-only services.

In its February 2021 report, Thornton found that the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of voice services by December 1, 2021 may negatively impact 797,454 Lifeline consumers (that’s over 10 percent of all Lifeline enrollees) who use voice-only services for fundamental needs. So that’s nearly 800,000 households that could face being disconnected from phone service this winter.

The FCC needs to change course and help more Americans keep connected to communications services that are essential to navigate the ongoing public health and economic crisis.

And it needs to act before December 1.

Most importantly, the FCC should act swiftly and hit the pause button on the 2016 plan to zero-out support for voice-only services. During the pandemic, the stakes are just too high for anyone to be disconnected from essential communications networks.

Then the FCC should launch a new effort to reform and further modernize the Lifeline program, informed by what we’ve witnessed during COVID, and the findings in Thornton’s and the FCC’s own recent review of the Lifeline program.

First, Lifeline needs to have foundational governance documents—such as strategic plans, performance objectives, and an integrated communications plan—to assist in the longitudinal success and guidance of the program.

Second, the FCC has to consider raising Lifeline’s monthly subsidy, $9.25, so it can make more meaningful services affordable for low-income families. Home-broadband prices (both for fixed and wireless service) remain disproportionately high when compared to the Lifeline program subsidy. The FCC should evaluate minimum service standards in relation to the average cost of wireless, wireline, and broadband data plans and determine if the subsidy will cover all, or even the majority of costs to provide Lifeline services.

Third, the FCC must adopt changes in the program so it better benefits the people it was created to connect.

  • The FCC should seek to understand the composition of Lifeline households and what services various members need (i.e., school-aged children, telecommuters, etc.). The minimum services supported by Lifeline should address the needs of the entire household.
  • Just 25 percent of the people eligible to participate in the Lifeline program actually enroll. The FCC must understand why and should consider ways to improve awareness of the Lifeline program. One idea is to partner with other federal benefit programs, and the state agencies that administer those programs, to not only increase outreach about Lifeline, but ideally to integrate Lifeline’s application processes into those program applications.
  • The FCC should adopt program rules that incorporate Lifeline consumer feedback to ensure the program works for the most vulnerable people in society.

Fourth, changes in the Lifeline program should encourage all telecommunications and broadband service providers to compete to serve low-income households in their service areas.

Finally, the FCC should also consider revising its measure of affordability of broadband for low-income consumers. Currently, the FCC considers “affordable service” as 2 percent of disposable income of those below 135 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, the FCC should consider affordability in the context of a subscriber’s purchasing power in a geographic location and balanced with availability of services and choice of providers. The FCC should evaluate the pricing packages of voice and broadband services offered by Lifeline carriers and provide assurance that packages offered are in the reasonable standard of affordability for low-income consumers. And the FCC should institute a structured process to regularly review the Lifeline program’s pricing packages and incorporate measures of both the subsidy rate and service standards for similar programs (like the Emergency Broadband Benefit), income statistics of current consumers, and the percentage of Lifeline subscribers who pay out of pocket for services.

The commitment to connecting people with low incomes to essential communications services is not new. But the past 18 months have offered stark reminders of the importance of universal service. We need the FCC to act now to keep everyone connected. And we need the FCC to update the Lifeline program so everyone can rely on a basic level of connectivity no matter how much income they have.

Adrianne Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. She manages the institute’s staff and relationships with Benton experts, partners, and supporters in service to Benton’s mission and in consultation with Benton’s Trustees and Board of Directors. Previously, she held management positions at both non-profit and for-profit content creation companies, focused on program development, marketing, and distribution. This piece was originally published in the Benton Institute’s Digital Beat, and is reprinted with permission. © Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this publication – both internally and externally – is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Expert Opinion

Kate Forscey: Mobile Broadband Gap Needs to Be Remedied, Too

A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute

It’s no longer a question: Whether it’s launching a new business, keeping up with friends, or finding the cheapest gas station nearby, the Internet is quintessential to the extent we don’t even think twice—until we don’t have it.

While Internet in America’s cities and suburbs weathered COVID’s storm, rural and low-income Americans have struggled to get any Internet access for decades.  The well-known stories of parents taking their kids to McDonald’s parking lots to do their homework haven’t ended—far too many Americans still lack access to the broadband they need.

The federal government, however, is taking steps to change the story.  The FCC’s Universal Service Fund has awarded billion dollars to deploy fiber and fixed wireless service to unserved areas through an alphabet soup of programs like the ACAM, the CAF, the HCLS, and the CAF BLS.  The most prominent of these is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that auctioned off $9.2 billion in federal support to connect 5.2 million unserved homes with high-speed broadband.

Congress has stepped up, too, with the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act.  That legislation sent $42.45 billion for states to build out fixed, high-speed broadband.  In addition, Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program, allocating $14.2 billion to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income households.

Policymakers recognize the problem and their responsibility to do something, and they are taking action on a bipartisan basis.  This is good.  But it’s not enough.  All of this funding is directed at one broadband gap—fixed connections to the home.

Mobile connectivity gap remains unresolved

There is another broadband gap—mobile connectivity—that’s unresolved.  A recent study by CostQuest suggests that 37,000 more towers are needed to bring mobile coverage up to speed nationwide.

Mobile broadband is central to the daily goings-on of families and businesses as we leave our houses with the fading of the pandemic.  That’s especially true for rural communities where commutes are longer, educational opportunities are sparse, and precision agriculture is necessary to stay in business.

To be fair, work is underway.  The FCC allocated $9 billion in 2020 for its 5G Fund, a support program to bring high-speed mobile connectivity to unserved Americans.  But that’s only a fraction of the funding needed to close the mobile gap.  And the FCC cannot move forward with the 5G Fund until it finishes updating its broadband coverage maps, which it’s been working on since 2019 and should be ready this fall.

So what to do?  Well, the FCC can move forward with its 5G Fund.  The auction model for that fund, as the Commission has proposed, would work—the RDOF used a similar model, costing the federal government $6.8 billion less than the FCC originally estimated.  And that $6.8 billion in savings could be redirected to the 5G Fund now that Congress is working to close the fixed-broadband gap.  The only downside is that the 5G Fund is a long-term solution—it will likely take several years before the funding is awarded.

Private companies are bringing new solutions to bear

In the interim, private companies are bringing innovative solutions to bear.  For example, AST SpaceMobile is building the first space-based cellular broadband network, allowing existing mobile phones to jump seamlessly from their terrestrial service to the company’s satellites and back again.  If the FCC were to fully authorize the service, it could expand the reach of existing towers and lower the cost of building out 5G to the far reaches of America.

Following in AST’s footsteps, SpaceX’s Starlink just announced a technology partnership with T-Mobile to enable connectivity to mobile phones in areas that don’t currently have access. Amazon’s Project Kuiper has similarly partnered with Verizon to extend the reach of mobile networks.

The advantage of these immediate solutions is they don’t require granular mapping or government funding to get started—they just need the FCC’s okay.  And while they don’t solve the problem entirely (satellite service works much better in Kansas cornfields than in the forested hills and hollers of West Virginia), they can quickly close the mobile gap where they do work well.

I remain hopeful that we can and will close the mobile gap.  Just as Congress and the FCC have relied on a variety of solutions to connect every household, we’ll need a multi-pronged approach to bring mobile connectivity to every American.  That means moving forward on government solutions like the 5G Fund as well as private solutions that give companies the flexibility to serve new customers.

Connectivity is having a bipartisan moment—let’s make it last.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Broadband Mapping & Data

Kirsten Compitello: The Need for a Digital Equity Focus on Broadband Mapping

Incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Kirsten Compitello, National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International

Broadband for all is in the spotlight right now, and closing the digital divide is recognized as a national priority. The divide goes far beyond access and touches issues of costs, ownership, culture, awareness, skills, and more. As we enter into a period of major statewide planning and deployment efforts, incorporating equitable processes and outcomes from the start is crucial to avoid perpetuating continued inequalities in access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital equity is not just a value statement: it’s a commitment to inclusive and equitable decision making at every stage of broadband deployment, from planning to service delivery.

Ensuring equitable representation at the table

Embedding digital equity analysis into mapping is especially critical at this moment in time as we prepare for historic broadband funding. This funding is an opportunity to rebalance systemic patterns of exclusion and ensure rapidly deployed planning and implementation funds are fairly dispersed.

The Digital Equity Act provides $2.75 billion to establish three grant programs that promote digital equity and inclusion, including the State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program, a $60 million grant program for states and territories to develop digital equity plans. In creating these Statewide Digital Equity Plans, extensive outreach to and collaboration with underserved, unserved and historically marginalized populations will prove critical. These discussions will be much more informative and effective in guiding successful policies, programs and projects if they are rooted in clear understanding of social, economic and environmental patterns alongside broadband access maps.

Documenting the effects of digital exclusion

Access is not an equal term: reducing it simply to speed of service available neglects the social and economic complexities that determine how and where users are affected by a lack of broadband. In short, mapping where the infrastructure exists only tells part of the story. Data analysis needs to layer in demographic and economic information in order to reveal patterns of exclusion and identify root causes.

To better understand community impacts, our team at Michael Baker developed data visualization tools such as a Digital Equity Atlas which takes the next step toward analyzing how broadband gaps disproportionately impact segments of the population. The methodology looks at Title VI and Environmental Justice data to reveal where poor connectivity correlates to social factors including low income, senior populations, English as a Second Language, households without a vehicle and more. As an example, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission leveraged the Digital Equity Atlas to prioritize new broadband expansion projects that stand to benefit the greatest number of at-risk or marginalized households. These households should not be last in line to see broadband investment finally bringing greater connectivity and opportunities to their doorsteps.

Fulfilling Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program requirements

Federal reporting requirements for upcoming Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act funding call for a proven and documented understanding and analysis of digital equity needs, from planning to projects in the ground.

The IIJA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.45 billion to expand broadband access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs across the country. Statewide Five-Year Action Plans, funded through this program, will require government agencies and their partners to take an integrated digital equity approach.

From planning through the ensuing reporting requirements, establishing digital equity strategies and a clear rubric for measuring success in achieving digital equity goals is a must for agencies. These entities must demonstrate how projects funded through BEAD improve digital equity. A strong data-driven baseline – such as the Digital Equity Atlas – will be a necessary starting point for agencies to track and monitor the effect of each new deployment on surrounding households. These data-driven metrics will also be a win for state and local governments to tell the story of their successes with clear data to back it up.

Setting a goal for sustainable inclusivity

As the consumption of internet content continues to rise and as broadband for all projects bring connectivity to the unserved, baseline expectations for broadband service and speed will only continue to grow. If we aren’t careful, new categories of have-nots will emerge: for example, those who pay high fees for minimum speeds versus those with lower fees for premier plans and Gig speeds. The currently unserved will gain access to service, but many will continue to struggle with basic internet skills, navigating through complex terms of service, or even simply finding time to schedule installation without missing a day of work.

To create a truly equitable society, everyone – no matter age, ability, location or status – needs access to affordable and reliable broadband; internet-connected devices; education on digital technology and best use practices; tech support and online resources that help users participate, collaborate and work independently.

By grounding our planning in equitable practices from the very first step, we can help to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from Internet for All.

Kirsten Compitello, AICP, is the National Broadband Digital Equity Director at Michael Baker International. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Broadband's Impact

Dianne Crocker: Recession Fears Have Real Estate Market Forecasters Hitting the Reset Button

Growing fears of recession trigger pullback on previous rosy forecasts.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Dianne Crocker, Principal Analyst for LightBox

The lyrics to “Same As It Ever Was” by the Talking Heads certainly don’t apply to how 2022 is playing out in the commercial real estate market. Two quarters of negative economic growth has put a damper on market sentiment and triggered fears that the U.S. economy is heading for a recession. By midyear, market analysts were taking a good, hard look at their rosy forecasts from the start of the New Year and redrawing the lines.

Once upon a time…

At the start of 2022, forecasters were bullishly predicting that commercial real estate investment and lending levels would be nearly as good as 2021. This was significant, considering that 2021 set new records for deal-making and lending volume as the debt and equity capital amassed during the pandemic while looking for a home in U.S. commercial real estate.

What a difference a few quarters have made. Virtually, all the predictions that started the New Year were obsolete by mid-summer. The abrupt shift in market conditions is palpable and surprised just about everyone. Now, markets are reaching an inflection point that is in sharp contrast with the strong rebound of last year.

The two I’s: Inflation and interest rates

At the core of the recent upset in market sentiment is the persistence of high inflation, which seems to be ignoring all attempts by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and bring prices down. Higher inflation is having a ripple effect throughout the economy, pushing up the costs of construction materials, energy, and consumer goods. Among the notable economic indicators showing stress at mid-year was the GDP, which fell for the second consecutive quarter, and the Consumer Price Index, which jumped 9.1% year-over-year in June – the highest increase in about four decades.

In July, the CPI fell to 8.5%, an encouraging sign that inflation was beginning to stabilize. By the latest August report from LightBox, however, hopes were dashed when the CPI showed little improvement, holding firm at a still high of 8.3%.

The market is responding to a higher cost of capital as lenders tap the brakes. As the cost of capital rises with each interest rate hike and concerns of a recession intensify, many large U.S. financial institutions are pulling back on their loan originations for the rest of 2022 and into 2023. This change in tenor is a significant shift, given that 2021 was a record-breaking year for commercial real estate lending. Many lenders have already shifted to a more defensive underwriting position as they look to mitigate risks.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, which had previously predicted that lending levels in 2022 would break the $1 trillion mark for the first time revised their forecast downward in mid-July. By year-end, the MBA now expects volume to be a significant 18% below 2021 levels—and one-third lower than the bullish forecast made in February. Now, investment activity is cooling as higher borrowing costs drive some buyers from the market.

In the investment world, transactions were down by 29% at midyear due to a thinning buyer pool as higher rates impact access to debt capital. Market volatility is causing investors, lenders, and owners to rethink strategies, reconsider assumptions, and prepare for possible disruption.

Looking ahead to year-end and 2023

The rapid and diverse shifts in the market make for an uncertain forecast and certainly a more cautious investment environment. The battle between inflation and interest rates will continue over the near term. As LightBox’s investor, lender, valuation, and environmental due diligence clients move toward the 4th quarter—typically the busiest quarter of the year–unprecedented volatility is driving them to recalibrate and reforecast given recent market developments.

Continued softness in transaction volume is likely to continue as rates and valuations establish a new equilibrium. If property prices begin to level out, there will be more pressure on buyers to consider how to improve a property to get their return on investment. The next chapter of the commercial real estate market will be defined by how long inflation sticks around, how high interest rates go, and whether the economy slips into a recession (and how deeply). The greatest areas of opportunity will be found in asset classes like office and retail that are evolving away from traditional uses and morphing to meet the needs of today’s market. Until barometers stabilize, it’s important to rethink assumptions, watch developments, and recalibrate as necessary.

Dianne Crocker is the Principal Analyst for LightBox, delivering strategic analytics, best practices in risk management, market intelligence reports, educational seminars, and customized research for stakeholders in commercial real estate deals. She is a highly respected expert on commercial real estate market trends. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Recent

Signup for Broadband Breakfast

Get twice-weekly Breakfast Media news alerts.
* = required field

Trending