A warning Tuesday from state public officials to the Federal Communications Commission that pending policy changes would jeopardize mobile broadband service for millions of people included a member of the Missouri Public Service Commission.
Missouri Public Service Commissioner Maida Coleman was among other public service commissioners and a public advocate from Maine, Nebraska and South Dakota on a videoconferencing call hosted by The Hastings Group — an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm. The call was said to have been organized by Crystal Rhoades, the Nebraska Public Service commissioner on the call.
Rhoades and the other officials warned FCC moves affecting the Lifeline program that provides a monthly discount on phone, broadband internet or broadband-voice service bundles to eligible low-income subscribers could impose cost burdens on consumers who could not afford it.
Rhoades said the FCC has proposed minimum service standards to be effective in December for the program that include Lifeline broadband customers move from having free service to a co-payment model.
The fear is if Lifeline consumers have to make co-payments, that could drive away more than five million subscribers nationally by December 2021, compared to the number of people subscribed in December 2019 — more than 6.9 million, according to information shared on the call.
Public officials on Tuesday's call wanted the minimum service standards of Lifeline to be frozen.
"Affordability, especially at this time, is important, because now is precisely the wrong time to allow changes to the Lifeline program," Coleman said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, she added, "people need that connectivity to stay in touch, not only with their loved ones, but for finding jobs, for telework, for health-related consultations, participating in remote learning and having the ability to maintain the social distancing necessary to slow down the coronavirus. This is not the time to take away from folks this lifeline."
Lifeline served more than 84,000 Missouri households in the second quarter of 2020, according to information from Charlene Ketchum, Coleman's policy advisor and legal counsel.
While not directly referenced on Tuesday's call, the FCC also announced in July that the minimum service standard for mobile broadband data capacity through Lifeline would increase from 3 GB to 4.5 GB per month, effective Dec. 1.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a news release: "As the communications marketplace continually evolves, it's critical that minimum standards for Lifeline service increase so that Lifeline subscribers do not receive second-class service compared to other consumers."
The 1.5 GB increase under Pai's order would be less than what it would be without the order — an increase from 3 GB to 11.75 GB per month.
Pai said the order would avoid such a drastic year-over-year increase "that could impact the ability of Lifeline carriers to continue providing affordable service."
However, industry advocates have also protested the proposed lessened increase, saying an increase in required mobile broadband data without an increase in subsidy support would force a co-pay onto consumers, according to a letter from attorneys to the FCC, as reported by Bloomberg Law.