Legal Alerts Jun 22, 2016

FCC’s Lifeline Order

Opportunities for Public Housing Residents and Local Government Agencies

This is the first in a series of three BB&K Legal Alerts that examines the issues of digital inclusion in public housing, and local government’s role in bringing about access to these services. Look for the second installment coming Monday, and the third on June 30.

The Federal Communication Commission's recent expansion of Universal Services from supporting only voice services to broadband services (also known as the “Lifeline Broadband program”) could lead to enhanced broadband availability for residents of public housing as soon as Dec.1, and an increased role for local governments and public housing authorities.1

The Lifeline Order represents the most dramatic change to the program in its history. Key changes for public housing residents include:

  • Public housing residency is an automatic Lifeline eligibility criteria;2
  • A new designation for entities that may offer services — "Lifeline Broadband Provider;"
  • The availability of "aggregation projects" to provide Lifeline directly to a group of eligible Lifeline recipients, such as public housing residents; and
  • Funding for the overall program increased to an annual $2.25 billion target.

Public Housing Eligibility
Eligibility for Lifeline has traditionally been determined through documented participation in federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income. The FCC’s order establishes, effective Dec. 1, two new eligibility categories: the Veterans Pension and the Survivors Pension benefits, and all residents supported by Federal Public Housing Assistance .

Public Housing Authorities Can Become a Lifeline Broadband Provider
Existing FCC rules provide that only eligible telecommunications carrier can provide universal service fund-supported services. The Order expands the universe of authorized providers to include Lifeline Broadband Providers, which might include nonprofit organizations that seek to serve the communications needs of low-income communities.3 While there is no bar on the ability of a public housing authority to pursue provider status (so long as they commit to comply with Lifeline requirements), officials involved in implementing the Lifeline program expect that it will be new entities with a full-time focus on broadband, rather than public housing entities, that will become the primary providers serving the public housing community.

Public Housing Authorities Can Be an Aggregator of Lifeline Broadband Service
Leaving aside the specific question about whether a public housing authority would seek to become a provider per se, the FCC Order has created the category of "aggregator," or an entity that could help provide Lifeline Broadband services to a large number of individuals and public housing projects that were specifically referenced in the Order. The Order directed the Universal Services Administrative Company to develop specific, programmatic rules for the development of aggregation projects.

To be an aggregator, a public housing agency: 1.) must certify that the aggregation project will provide Lifeline eligible service directly to the eligible low-income subscribers’ residences, 2.) describe the technologies the Lifeline provider plans to utilize for that specific project, 3.) certify that the service provided through the project will otherwise comply with all other Lifeline rules, and 4) they must also comply with all other Lifeline rules.4

In addition to enhancing broadband availability for public housing residents, the Lifeline Order could lead to rewards for public housing authorities or local governments who play a role in facilitating the availability of such services. With a new $2.25 billion annual budget, the program is one worthy of the attention of local governments.

For more information about this Order and how it may impact your agency, contact the attorney authors of this Legal Alert listed at right in the Telecommunications practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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Disclaimer: BB&K Legal Alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.

  1.  "Third Report and Order, Further Report and Order, and Order on Reconsideration, Lifeline and Link Up Reform and Moderation (“FCC Order”), Adopted March 31, 2016, Released April 27, 2016, paras. 167-178.The Order provides the later of Dec. 1, 2016, or 60 days following Office of Management and Budget approval under the Paperwork Reduction Act
  2.  Previously, residents of Section 8 public housing were eligible, but the Order broadens eligibility for all residents of federal public housing. See Lifeline Modernization Webinar, May 11, 2016, Universal Service Administrative Company.
  3. Nonprofit organizations that do not currently offer broadband services may petition the FCC for LBP status. Applicants must demonstrate their ability to comply with all other Lifeline service requirements and the FCC is required to act on such a petition within six months, para 281.
  4. FCC Order, para. 144.
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