FCC Lifeline Program: What Is It & How Does It Work

What is the Lifeline program?

The Lifeline program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide discounts on phone and internet service for qualifying low-income consumers (https://www.fcc.gov/general/lifeline-program-low-income-consumers). Lifeline was established in 1985 during the Ronald Reagan administration to make communications services more affordable for low-income households.

The aim of the Lifeline program is to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable basic telecommunications services. Lifeline provides subscribers a discount on monthly telephone or broadband Internet service purchased from participating providers. The program applies to one Lifeline subscription per household.

Who qualifies for Lifeline?

The Lifeline program is available to low-income households that meet specific eligibility criteria. The main requirement is that household income must be at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. As of 2023, this means that individuals making $18,347 or less per year and families of four making $37,600 or less per year are eligible for Lifeline benefits.

The Lifeline income thresholds are updated annually based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Consumers can check the latest income limits on the Lifeline Support website or by contacting their local Lifeline provider. The program is also available to residents of federally recognized tribal lands, regardless of their income level.

In addition to the income requirement, applicants must show proof that they participate in certain government assistance programs, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance, Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit, or certain Tribal-specific programs.

Detailed eligibility criteria for the Lifeline program is provided on the Lifeline Support website.

How does Lifeline work?

The Lifeline program works by providing monthly discounts to help eligible low-income consumers pay for phone or internet service. Lifeline provides a discount of up to $9.25 per month for phone service or up to $34.25 per month for broadband internet service (FCC). The discounts are applied by Lifeline providers directly to the monthly bill for eligible subscribers.

Consumers can only receive the Lifeline discount on either phone service or broadband internet – not both. Lifeline subsidies are limited to one per household, not per person. Only one Lifeline benefit is allowed per household, regardless of how many eligible people live there (FCC). Having more than one Lifeline subsidy per household is considered a violation of FCC rules.

Lifeline Discount Amounts

The Lifeline program provides monthly discounts on phone and internet service for eligible low-income consumers. According to the FCC’s Lifeline Support for Affordable Communications, the discount amounts are:

  • Up to $9.25 monthly discount on phone service
  • Up to $34.25 monthly discount on broadband internet service

The purpose of these discounts is to help ensure affordable access to telecommunications services for qualifying low-income Americans. The program aims to bridge the “digital divide” by providing discounts that make vital communications services more affordable.

How to apply for Lifeline

The application process for Lifeline is handled through the National Verifier system. This online system was launched in 2019 to streamline Lifeline applications and prevent fraud (FCC.gov).

To apply for Lifeline benefits, you must provide the following documentation (LifelineSupport.org):

  • Proof of income or program participation
  • Proof of identity
  • Proof of address

Income documentation can include the previous year’s tax return, pay stubs, or proof of enrollment in programs like Medicaid, SNAP, or Supplemental Security Income. Identity documentation requires a government-issued ID. Proof of address may include a utility bill or lease.

You can start the Lifeline application process online at LifelineSupport.org. This will take you through the steps to confirm your eligibility and submit all required documentation. The National Verifier system will review your information and determine your Lifeline benefit amount.

Lifeline Usage Statistics

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s Program Data, there were around 6.8 million Lifeline subscribers in 2022. The number of Lifeline subscribers has decreased over the past several years, down from over 12 million subscribers in 2012.

The recent FCC report found that Lifeline subscriber growth has slowed due to greater availability of affordable standalone broadband service options. However, Lifeline remains an important program for low-income Americans, providing discounted phone and internet access.

Lifeline reaches a diverse demographic of participants across ages, locations, and backgrounds. Over 60% of Lifeline recipients are female. The majority of Lifeline subscribers are ages 35-64, and over 60% live in metropolitan areas. Approximately 59% of Lifeline households make $10,000 or less per year.

Lifeline program history

The Lifeline program was created in 1985 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President Ronald Reagan. The initial aim was to provide low-income households with discounted telephone service by reimbursing phone companies for waiving subscriber line charges for qualifying customers [1]. This allowed eligible landline customers to get basic phone service at a reduced cost.

Over the next few decades, the Lifeline program expanded to include prepaid wireless service in 2005 and broadband internet access in 2016. These additions enabled Lifeline subscribers to get discounted cell phone plans and home internet service [2].

The criteria to qualify for Lifeline discounts have also changed over time. Income thresholds, household size calculations, and the types of government assistance programs that confer eligibility have all been updated periodically. Despite some controversies and funding issues, Lifeline remains an important program to help lower-income Americans get connected.

Lifeline Provider Options

There are a number of major phone and internet providers that accept Lifeline subsidies to offer discounted service plans to eligible low-income subscribers. Some of the major Lifeline providers include:

  • Assurance Wireless
  • SafeLink Wireless
  • Q Link Wireless
  • TruConnect
  • EnTouch Wireless
  • TAG Mobile

Verizon also offers Lifeline plans for home phone service, wireless, and Fios home internet https://www.verizon.com/support/lifeline/. TracFone offers Lifeline services on prepaid cell phones and service plans.

The availability of Lifeline providers varies by state. Some providers like Assurance Wireless, SafeLink, and Q Link offer nationwide coverage. Others like TruConnect and EnTouch have more limited availability in certain states and regions. Subscribers can check with providers directly or use the Lifeline Companies Near Me tool at https://www.lifelinesupport.org/companies-near-me/ to find Lifeline services available in their area.

While the major wireless carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint do not directly participate in the Lifeline program, some of their prepaid brands like Cricket Wireless, Metro by T-Mobile, and Boost Mobile do offer Lifeline plans in select states.

Lifeline controversies

The Lifeline program has faced criticism and controversies around issues of waste, fraud, and abuse of the program. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office released a report stating that Lifeline likely paid over $1.4 billion in support to ineligible subscribers between 2010 and 2014, representing nearly 36% of total disbursements during that period (source). The report found weaknesses in the National Lifeline Accountability Database that allowed providers to enroll duplicative and ineligible subscribers.

Under the Trump administration, the FCC proposed several reforms to Lifeline intended to combat fraud, including creating a National Eligibility Verifier to confirm subscriber eligibility. However, critics argue these changes would also restrict access and decrease enrollment (source). A 2018 Government Accountability Office report found the FCC had made progress in reducing fraud, but still needed to improve identity authentication and eligibility checks.

Overall, Lifeline continues to face scrutiny over how to balance expanding telecommunication access to low-income households while reducing waste and improving accountability within the program.

The future of Lifeline

The FCC is focused on ongoing efforts to modernize and improve the Lifeline program. In 2021, the FCC released a report summarizing the state of the Lifeline marketplace and identifying areas for future improvements, such as reducing waste, fraud, and abuse [1]. There is also a major push to increase Lifeline subsidies for broadband internet access, to help close the digital divide. Currently, Lifeline provides a discount on phone service, but not home internet. Expanding the program could significantly increase home broadband adoption among low-income households.

However, the budget and political outlook for Lifeline is uncertain. Some policymakers want to phase out Lifeline in favor of the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which also provides internet discounts for low-income households [2]. ACP has more funding allocated by Congress, but only runs through 2024 right now. There are concerns current Lifeline beneficiaries could lose discounts if the program is ended and ACP funding is not extended. The FCC paused Lifeline phase-outs in 2021 to assess the programs [3]. The future direction will likely depend on FCC leadership priorities and Congressional budget decisions in coming years.

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