Why are so few people using Lifeline to reduce their phone and internet bills?

Ari Howard

May 9, 2021 — 3 min read

Despite Lifeline being around for over three decades, it’s still not particularly well-known. Here’s why.

Couple reviewing their finances

Millions of low-income Americans are not applying for the federal government’s phone and broadband subsidy program, known as Lifeline

In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released Lifeline program data that revealed only 1 in 4 Americans who qualify for Lifeline participate in the program. This means there are over 24 million Americans who could be receiving money for their phone or internet service bill. 

The FCC broke out the data for all 50 states, and it revealed that there are only four states in the U.S. where participation among eligible households reaches above 30%. A total of eight states have fewer than 10% of eligible households enrolled in Lifeline. 

Why is the Lifeline program failing? 

Through the Lifeline program, eligible households are able to receive $9.25/mo. off their phone or internet bill. If the program can offer $111/yr. on a phone or internet bill, why are so few people jumping on this opportunity? 

Renewing eligibility 

Arguably the greatest factor for this lack of participation in the Lifeline program is due to the challenges of proving eligibility each year. In order to qualify for the Lifeline program, participants must find a service provider that offers Lifeline-supported services in their area and fill out multiple forms to prove eligibility. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, participants were required to reprove their eligibility each year. That step of the process was waived in 2020 but only for the duration of the pandemic. 

Jessica González, the co-CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group that works to promote equitable access to technology and media platforms, commented on the challenges of proving eligibility. 

We have lost a lot of subscribers, probably who legitimately qualify for the program but didn’t keep up with the paperwork for one reason or another. You’re looking to serve a population, many of whom don’t have a consistent residence where they can receive information, bills, and notices.

Jessica González

Lack of awareness 

Participation, however, is not just low due to the many hurdles it takes for low-income families to prove their eligibility; it is also low because of how few people even know the program exists.

In April 2020, over 140 senators and representatives expressed concern about the lack of awareness around the Lifeline program. As a result, they wrote a letter to the FCC asking for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid participants to be informed about the Lifeline program. 

Lawmakers wrote in the letter,

“Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis.  For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it.”

Although the Lifeline program still lacks the awareness it needs, it is currently being sidelined by the FCC’s newest broadband subsidy program, the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). Although the EBB program is much more extensive, considering it offers eligible low-income households $50/mo. off their internet bill and Lifeline only offers $9.25/mo. this funding will only last for the duration of the pandemic. After the $3.2 billion invested in the program runs out, low-income households will be on their own again. The Lifeline program, therefore, is still the only long-term broadband and phone service subsidy program. 

Insufficient funding

If the Lifeline program is going to be the FCC’s only long-term subsidy program for broadband and phone service, then it is going to need to become much more comprehensive. With only a $9.25/mo. discount for broadband or phone service, low-income households will continue to be left behind by society. Broadband access has become essential in the same way utilities are considered to be and need to be treated as such. The FCC must not only increase awareness about Lifeline, therefore, but also boost its funding and simplify its application process. 

Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC, commented on the need to bridge the digital divide

We’ve been talking about the digital divide for more than two decades now. It is past time to connect all Americans.

Geoffrey Starks

Ari Howard

Written by:

Ari Howard

Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content

Ari Howard is a staff writer Healthline and spent two years as a writer on the Allconnect team. She specialized in broadband news and studies, particularly relating to internet access, digital safety, broadband-… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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