Under a new federal communications commission (FCC) plan put forward by commission chairman Ajit Pai, the budget for the Lifeline program intended to help low-income households pay for internet and phone services would reportedly be placed under a new cap. However, the plan, which is titled "Bridging the Digitial Divide for Low-Income Consumers," doesn't explicitly say what the new cap would be. Instead, it puts forward the idea that the plan itself should automatically adjust how it parcels out subsidies in order to remain under a budget cap. That could mean it will no longer allow for new enrollment when the cap is hit or that it will provide a smaller monthly subsidy to households in order to accommodate for new enrollment. The previous budget for the Lifeline program was put in place by Pai's predecessor Tom Wheeler and is set at $2.25 billion - allocating around $9.25, monthly, in subsidies for the purchase of the services or an additional $25 per month for those in residing on Tribal lands.
With no indication of what the new budget cap would actually be, whether it increases on the previous budget, keeps that budget, or makes substantial cuts, there's no way of really knowing exactly how low-income families would be affected by the new plan. However, at the outset, the proposal also outlines other aspects of the plan and states a goal of cutting fraud and waste, while reallocating funds to where the FCC perceives the program is most needed. First, Pai's new proposal is said to target enhanced Lifeline support for rural areas, including Tribal lands, and to establish resources to identify which of those require more support. It would also require residents of those lands to independently certify their residency, and provide "enhanced support" to facilities-based providers. Beyond that, it is claimed to be an effort to increase benefit "portability" by eliminating port freezes for both voice and internet access, in addition to clarifying that "premium Wi-Fi" and internet services delivered via Wi-Fi do not qualify under Lifeline program rules. According to the new plan's outline, another goal is to start up a conversation on ending states' ability to preemptively designate telecommunications carriers and to dispense with the "Lifeline Broadband Provider" designation.
As with several of Pai's other actions since his appointment, this new plan is bound to be a controversial topic. Having said that, it won't actually be implemented for several months, pending a second vote on the proposal. The current proposal is intended to garner feedback before that vote. Proponents claim it will widen the use of the program with regard to those who need it most. With more comprehensive guidelines requirements for service providers to meet in order to be usable under the Lifeline program, those participants will have higher-quality options to choose from. They also claim it will keep the cost of the program within a set budget limit while refocusing efforts on ensuring that only those who really need the program can enroll. On the other hand, opponents point out that Pai has already revoked Lifeline approvals because of disagreements with the application process. Mobile and internet, communications, and associated technologies have arguably become a necessity to modern life and they say that limiting the number of available providers or lowering subsidies will be harmful to those seeking assistance. Specifically, it is claimed that it will prevent contact with emergency services or that it will disrupt communications where they are otherwise necessary - such as with educators, employers, or healthcare providers.