FCC's Lifeline expansion could see changes before vote

FCC's Lifeline expansion could see changes before vote
© Getty Images

There could be late changes to the Federal Communications Commission's planned overhaul of its phone subsidy program for low-income Americans, one FCC commissioner hinted Tuesday. 

Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, signaled that she is sympathetic to concerns from the wireless industry, saying she would help make changes if the regulations do not strike the right balance. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Next week, the FCC will vote to expand the federal Lifeline program, which currently offers subsidies for low-income families to purchase phone service. If approved, the expansion would allow those subsidies to go toward Internet service as well. The plan also sets minimum service standards, outlining how much speed, data and minutes that providers would have to offer families to qualify for the program. 

Clyburn has helped lead the program's transition from phone to Internet service. But during a House hearing Tuesday, she highlighted more narrow concerns about imposing minimum service standards, which some argue will price families out of the program. 

"My office has been inundated with concerns about the call for minimum standards, particularly for mobile voice," she said in her opening statement. 

"But the strongest part of the FCC's process, one that is the envy of regulators from across the globe, is that our process enables parties to give and receive feedback. If parties believe that the current proposal doesn't strike the right balance, I have been clear from the beginning that I am open to taking appropriate adjustments, and I plan to live up to that promise." 

In a follow-up conversation with The Hill, Clyburn would not say whether she has proposed any specific changes. She said nothing is "set in stone" and noted she is still in "listening mode."

She holds a key vote on the commission. Both Republicans are expected to vote against the proposal, so Chairman Tom Wheeler needs his two fellow Democrats to sign on to approve the measure next week. 

The FCC's plan sets a number of minimum service standards on the speed of Internet and the data allowance of smartphone plans. By December, the FCC will also require Lifeline providers of simple voice-only cellphone service to offer unlimited-minute plans. By 2019, Lifeline will transition completely away from wireless voice-only service. 

The wireless industry has lobbied hard over the past few weeks against the December change to require unlimited minutes. They argue that the $9.25 per month Lifeline subsidies would not fully cover the price of unlimited plans currently on the market, meaning that some low-income families would not be able to cover the extra cost. 

The White House, while supporting the broader proposal, has also expressed concern about the minimum service standards.

"Implementing an unlimited voice requirement as of December 2016 would effectively eliminate the free wireless Lifeline option – an outcome that would be hugely disruptive to millions of Lifeline subscribers," Sprint wrote in a filing this week, echoing other major wireless trade groups.  

Sprint also expressed concern about the "rapid increase" in the amount of data that wireless providers would have to offer under the Lifeline program. The data allowance would start at 500 MB per month and rise to 2 GB per month by the end of 2018.