The Impact of Lifeline Programs on Low-Income Communities

Lifeline provides discounted phone and internet service to help low-income Americans stay connected. These services empower people to access critical information and resources and connect with family, friends, and employers. Despite the FCC’s attempts to undermine Lifeline, states are implementing reforms like enacting a national verification process to protect the program’s integrity and ensure that only qualified subscribers receive benefits. 

Access to Communication Services

For many low-income Americans, accessing phone and internet service is essential to participate in today’s digital society. The Affordable Connectivity Program provides a monthly discount towards broadband service and connected devices for eligible households. The FCC’s proposals threaten to disrupt this vital support. They would require providers to monitor the data usage of Lifeline subscribers in an attempt to prevent unused subsidy funds from going toward unauthorized services. This is deeply invasive and will likely vilify the people who Lifeline was meant to help introduce new security risks for those using these services.

Moreover, the proposal to limit the type of service that can be subsidized to a voice bundle or broadband services may disqualify those who need it most, especially those living on tribal lands, who can currently get enhanced Lifeline service, which covers their phone and internet. These proposals and other efforts to change the program’s fundamental purpose will make it even harder for low-income communities to stay connected and participate in a modern world.

Access to Education

The Lifeline discount program for customers in Texas and other parts of the country helps close the “homework gap,” giving students who receive this service access to telecommunication services that enable them to complete homework assignments online. Without it, these students are at a significant disadvantage compared to their peers who can afford home internet connections.

Despite these programs’ positive impact on low-income families, they face new challenges in their efforts to remain vital. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) proposed changes to the Lifeline program, which would require applicants to answer invasive personal finance questions and might prevent resellers from offering subsidized subscription plans on tribal lands, threatening to disrupt these communities’ access to these critical communication tools. In addition, the FCC is proposing to monitor data usage of Lifeline subscribers—a deeply invasive practice that vilifies the people the program is meant to help. It also introduces privacy concerns for the program’s nearly 12.8 million participants, who must report their usage to the FCC each month to not waste the limited funds available. For families that depend on these programs, losing access to telecommunications means more than just a loss of connection—it can have real consequences for their financial stability, healthcare access, and educational opportunities. 

Access to Health Care

In the wake of COVID-19, communities in rural America are especially concerned about staying connected. In many cases, they rely on Lifeline and ACP to keep in touch with their family and to access vital health information and services. The impact of these programs goes well beyond telecommunications, and their importance in closing the digital divide is undeniable.

Sadly, the FCC is actively attacking these vital programs. Earlier this year, the agency proposed new rules that would make it difficult for low-income households to use Lifeline to pay for broadband. They include a rule requiring Lifeline applicants to answer intrusive personal finance questions and a proposal requiring the government to kick participants off the program if they don’t “value” their service by paying a co-pay.

These proposals threaten the ability of millions of people to stay safe and connect with the services they need. In addition, the rules threaten to disrupt the ongoing efforts to ensure that Lifeline recipients can get and stay online.

Access to Energy

While Lifeline can help low-income households connect, many barriers exist to accessing affordable internet and phone service. These barriers can include difficult paperwork and confusing application procedures. To apply for Lifeline, consumers must know if they are eligible, find a provider that offers the service they need, and submit multiple forms with different requirements and deadlines. This process can be particularly difficult for families whose income fluctuates due to the pandemic and other factors. For households that do receive a subsidy, the telecommunications equipment and services they can use depend on the availability of electricity. As such, these families are more vulnerable to having their utilities shut off. With phone and internet access, families can maintain remote communication with their healthcare providers and get critical information about evacuations and shelter locations during natural disasters. Lifeline can also make it easier for low-income families to access energy efficiency upgrades that reduce their electricity costs and improve their quality of life. However, there are significant barriers to accessing these technologies, including a lack of capital and difficulty finding and financing the right products for their home. Additionally, the predominance of renters in low-income communities means landlords are only sometimes motivated to pay for these upgrades on behalf of tenants.