On February 19, 2018, NDIA submitted comments in response to the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry, titled “Bridging the Digital Divide for Low-Income Consumers”. The proposed rules seem explicitly designed to reduce the Lifeline program’s availability, participation levels, and provider choice and economic value for participants, for voice as well as Internet data service. Of particular concern to digital inclusion advocates and practitioners, the Commission proposes to roll back all of the 2016 Lifeline Order’s movement in the direction of consumer choice, provider diversification and service innovation… thus eliminating the program’s potential to help “Bridge the Digital Divide for Low-Income Consumers” in any meaningful way.

NDIA was first organized in 2015 to provide a needed voice for experienced digital inclusion practitioners in the proceeding which led to the FCC’s Third Report and Order, Further Report and Order, and Order On Reconsideration adopted March 2, 2016 – referred to as the 2016 Lifeline Order, which created a framework for limited but important Lifeline support for broadband Internet access for low-income Americans. Less than two years after that Order, the FCC now seeks public comment on a new Proposed Rulemaking with the apparent purpose of dismantling most of that framework.

This is an extremely counterproductive direction for the FCC to take to ensure access to broadband for all Americans.

Apart from addressing jurisdictional objections raised by state and tribal governments – objections which the FCC could resolve without calling the 2016 Lifeline Order’s overall framework into question – NDIA sees no good, non-ideological reason for the FCC to be pursuing any of the issues raised by either the NPRM or the NOI  at this time.  If “Bridging the Digital Divide” is actually the Commission’s goal, that goal can best be pursued by a simple good-faith effort to implement the framework created by the Lifeline Order – including the measures intended to control fraud and abuse – and give it a fair chance to succeed.

There are several points which NDIA must address specifically from the perspective of the local digital inclusion practitioners and leaders we represent:

  1. NDIA opposes the proposed outright elimination of the Lifeline Broadband Provider designation created by the 2016 Lifeline Order (paragraph 55).

  2. NDIA opposes the elimination of non-facilities based ETCs (paragraphs 62 and 64), as well as the underlying rationale that Lifeline subsidies should be directed to support broadband network investments, rather than to overcome affordability barriers for low-income households. NDIA provides examples of community-based organizations who should receive designation of “Lifeline Broadband Provider”.

  3. NDIA opposes the elimination of the Lifeline program’s “equipment requirement” as discussed in paragraph 76.

  4. NDIA strongly opposes the entire framework of maximum discount levels, mandatory contributions and benefit limits for Lifeline households discussed in paragraphs 111 through 118.

  5. The Commission’s suggestion that the “digital redlining” of low income urban neighborhoods can be remedied by targeting enhanced Lifeline subsidies, discussed in paragraph 123, is either disingenuous, or reflects a serious misunderstanding of the “redlining” phenomenon.

The Commission does ask a series of questions regarding the proper definition of a digitally redlined neighborhood. Since Lifeline is a communications subsidy and digital redlining is broadband infrastructure intentionally withheld from lower income neighborhoods, this is not the appropriate docket. NDIA offers to fully engage in the question of how to remedy digital redlining the effects of historical redlining, or to prevent it in the future (e.g. in the deployment of 5G infrastructure).

NDIA’s Comments to the FCC in Dockets 17-287, 11-42, and 09-197 – NDIA Lifeline Comments 17-155.