FCC broadband lifeline proposal is slow and slower

13 March 2016 by Steve Blum
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Low aspirations.

The broadband lifeline plan under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission would perpetuate the gap between people who have access to wireline broadband at home, and those who rely solely on mobile service. Floated last week by FCC chair Tom Wheeler, the new program would allow low income consumers to opt for subsidised broadband service, instead of or in addition to lifeline telephone service.

But it sets one standard for wireline (and fixed wireless) subscriptions, and another for mobile. To qualify for the FCC’s lifeline subsidy, a wireline broadband package has to deliver 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, with a minimum monthly data cap of 150 gigabytes. That misses the FCC’s benchmark for advanced service – 25 down/3 up – but it’s in line with its rural broadband subsidy program requirements.

If a qualifying consumer opted for subsidised mobile broadband service though, the monthly cap would start as low as 500 megabytes, and increase to 2 GB by 2019. There’s no speed requirement except that it be “3G data”. At least, that’s all the public summary has to say about mobile speeds. The full draft of the new rules – 150 pages, according to one commissioner who’s seen it – won’t be made public until after the FCC votes on it at its meeting at the end of the month.

On the other hand, subsidies for mobile voice service would be phased out by 2019. After that, mobile voice service can included as part of a bundle with broadband, but not be subsidised on a standalone basis.

At this point, there’s no indication of what low income consumers would have to actually pay for lifeline broadband service. The FCC only specifies the amount of the subsidy it’ll give to service providers – $9.25 per month – and then lets them figure how to structure the packages they’ll offer.