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FCC Extends Deadline for Lifeline Phase-out After Pressure

Associations and public interest groups said there are still many Americans using only voice services.

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Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Executive Director Adrianne Furniss

WASHINGTON, November 8, 2021 – After pressure from groups, the Federal Communications Commission ruled Friday that it will extend by a year the deadline to phase-out the Lifeline low-income broadband subsidy for voice-only subscribers.

The commission said in its decision that recent data show that “a persistent percentage of Lifeline subscribers still rely on voice-only support for their connectivity needs.

“Moreover, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides unique justifications for continuing voice-only support, and the newly formed [Emergency Broadband Benefit] Program, which also provides support for broadband service for low-income consumers, present new considerations for the future role of the Lifeline program,” the agency added.

The commission said the pause makes sense because the EBB’s creation could help those voice-reliant people get broadband, which would then give it the impetus to phase-out the voice-only support.

The Lifeline program, which is a product of the Universal Service Fund, provides a $5.25 subsidy for low-income Americans who only have voice services for communications. That subsidy has been whittled down over the years, after the agency in 2016 put in place a plan to phase-out that subsidy for voice-only subscribers when it broadened the beneficiaries of the program to broadband customers. It also was set to increase the minimum service standard for mobile broadband data capacity, which was also halted as a result of Friday’s decision.

Industry pressure to suspend phase-out

Friday’s decision comes after pressure from associations and public interest groups to suspend the phase-out of the subsidy, citing specific data to show that a chunk of Americans still only use voice for their communications needs.

On Wednesday, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners submitted a letter to the FCC saying the phase-out of voice-only support is “illogical on its face,” considering that low income need basic voice services to get emergency services, get a job, access medical services and communicate with the government. The NARUC estimates that roughly 522,000 Americans would’ve been affected by this phase-out.

NARUC is not just asking for a stop to the phase-out, but a reinstatement of the full subsidy, which was once $9.25 and been gradually reduced over time.

The National Tribal Telecommunications Association and the NTCA Rural Broadband Association had also urged the FCC to reconsider the move, as well.

Previously, the executive director of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, Adrianne Furniss, said in a Broadband Breakfast op-ed in September that such a move would harm nearly 800,000 low-income people and urged the agency to pause the phase-out.

Funding

Decades-Old Legislation Can Play Supplement to Federal Broadband Infrastructure Money

The Community Reinvestment Act was expanded to include broadband investments in 2016.

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Photo of Jordana Barton-Garcia (far right)

CLEVELAND, June 27, 2022 – A decades-old piece of legislation can play an important and supplemental role to federal grants for broadband infrastructure, said panelists at the Pew Charitable Trust Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977 to address redlining – the practice of denying financial services to individuals or groups based on where they are located, often along racial or soci-economic lines. The law encourages banks to make community development loans and investments in low- and moderate-income communities, rural, and tribal communities.

The legislation expanded to include investments in broadband infrastructure in 2016, after broadband was deemed an essential community service, said Jordana Barton-Garcia, principal of the social enterprise at Barton-Garcia Advisors. That means that it could play a key role in filling some of the broadband gaps, she said, as the federal government moves to distribute billions to the states under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In response to the pandemic, banks can now qualify to receive CRA credit for broadband deployment activities, said Barton-Garcia. Activities include loans, investments, and services that support digital inclusion or affordability programs.

Banks receive CRA credit for investing in community development projects and are reviewed on their CRA performance every three years. Their scores are open to the general public. If the bank receives a negative rating, it may prevent the bank from opening new branches and the bank will be expected to correct the rating.

Currently, the Federal Reserve is seeking comments on a joint agency proposal to strengthen and modernize CRA regulations.

A report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in 2016 laid the groundwork for broadband to be included under the CRA. “Under the CRA, infrastructure investment includes facilitating the construction, expansion, improvement, maintenance or operation of essential infrastructure…  broadband is now a basic infrastructure needed in all communities.”

The CRA also includes workforce development investments, digital literacy projects, and technical assistance for small businesses.

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Researching the Impact of Digital Equity Funding Starts With Community Collaboration

Understanding the funding impact will ‘begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.’

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Photo of Fallon Wilson

CLEVELAND, June 23, 2022 – Formulating research questions and making data readily accessible will contribute to the impact of federal and state digital equity funding, said experts speaking at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Summit Wednesday.

It is essential to “formulate the research questions with communities” so that researchers will understand what is of interest and importance to the residents and local leaders, said Nicole Marwell from the University of Chicago,

Marwell said it is “critical” for researchers to consider how to “ask questions that bring answers that are more relevant for the community partners and then for [researchers] to try and figure out a way to make that interesting for a research audience.”

“We can demystify research,” said Fallon Wilson of the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute, speaking on how researchers can effectively work with community members. When data looks friendly to local leaders, they can go directly to their state broadband offices and advocate for their specific needs in specific areas.

“The best advocates are the people who advocate for themselves,” said Wilson.

Our role as researchers can play is to make data digestible for the non-academic, said Hernan Galperin of the University of Southern California.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration requires states to work with community leaders and partners for the funds distributed by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Wilson praised this mandate, saying that understanding the funding impact will “begin with the NTIA’s mandate to work with community partners.”

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BEAD Program Initiative Should Utilize Analysis of Affordable Connectivity Program Enrollment

Analyzing ACP enrollment can help the BEAD program solve the ‘persisting gap between deployment and subscription.’

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Photo of John Horrigan

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 – The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should utilize adoption data from the Affordable Connectivity Program to maximize the effectiveness of its $42.5-billion infrastructure program, according to a broadband adoption expert.

“If the federal government’s investments in broadband connectivity are to be effective, different programmatic pieces must work together,” said John Horrigan, Benton Senior Fellow and expert on technology adoption and digital inclusion, in a blog post Thursday.

Analyzing the enrollment data of the Federal Communications Commission’s ACP can help the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program — a $42.5 billion fund for infrastructure to be handed to the states — solve the “persisting gap between deployment and subscription” in three ways, said Horrigan.

First, examining ACP enrollment in zip codes can help target which areas within cities are unaware of ACP. Second, understanding where ACP enrollment is over-performing can “launch productive inquiry into models that may be effective – and replicable.” Third, ACP enrollment findings can help structure community outreach initiatives for digital inclusion.

“The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has emphasized that a key goal of BEAD investments in digital equity,” said Horrigan. “State planners will need all the tools they can find to work toward that goal – and analysis of ACP performance is one such tool.”

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