AT&T, Cox Opt Out of Broadband Lifeline Program

November 23, 2016–AT&T, Inc., is opting into the forbearance relief that the FCC provided in its Lifeline modernization order earlier this year, saying that it believes its Access from AT&T discounted broadband program “is a better way for AT&T to address broadband adoption than by participating in the new Lifeline broadband program” and that it makes “little sense” to implement changes in the face of new rules that will be replaced when a new subscriber eligibility verification mechanism goes into effect.

Cox Communications has also notified the FCC that although its telecom entities have been providing Lifeline voice services in 14 states for several years, they do not offer broadband Internet access services (BIAS) and have no plans to provide Lifeline-discounted BIAS offerings in the census blocks in which they provide Lifeline voice service.  “Accordingly, Cox, on behalf of its Telecom Entities, must avail itself of the blanket forbearance relief granted in the Lifeline Broadband Order,” it said.

AT&T rolled out its Access from AT&T offering this spring in fulfillment of one of the conditions the FCC imposed last year in its order approving the company’s acquisition of Directv, Inc. (TRDaily, April 22).  The offering allows eligible households—those with at least one member who participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—to obtain 5 or 10 megabits per second BIAS for $10 a month, or 3 Mbps BIA for $5 a month, if the higher speeds are not available at the household’s address.

In a blog post today, AT&T Senior Vice President–federal regulatory Joan Marsh said, “The problem is, while the new Lifeline broadband requirements for service providers take effect in a little over a week, the National Eligibility Verifier will not be fully implemented until 2019.  In the interim, service providers are left carrying the same administrative load and compliance risks they had before the reform.  AT&T wireline currently has less than 3% of the voice Lifeline market.  Accepting the forbearance means we still have the option to offer Lifeline discounts on broadband.  But it makes little sense to spend resources on implementation of soon-to-be-replaced administrative rules for a new service when we are already offering low-income consumers a better deal through our Access from AT&T program.”

Ms. Marsh added, “Lifeline consumers purchasing 10/1 service at, for example, the FCC’s Urban Rate Benchmark would pay about $60 a month after the $9.25 Lifeline discount.  Consumers living in areas without 4/1 service get no discount at all under the new Lifeline rules. But they could get broadband for just $5 a month through Access from AT&T.  These are the types of rates that will help encourage consumers to adopt broadband.”

In the Lifeline modernization order, the FCC extended Lifeline subsidies for low-income households to mobile and fixed broadband Internet access services (BIAS) on a stand-alone basis or bundled with voice, and to phase out support for both fixed and mobile stand-alone voice service by the end of 2021 (TRDaily, March 31).

In the order, the FCC “forbore from requiring Lifeline-only eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) to offer Lifeline-supported BIAS services.  It also forbore from requiring other ETCs (high-cost recipients) to offer Lifeline-supported BIAS in areas where they do not receive high-cost support or do not commercially offer broadband services that meet the Lifeline minimum service standards.  Starting December 2, 2016, Lifeline-only ETCs and high-cost recipients are obligated to offer Lifeline-supported BIAS throughout their designated service areas, except to the extent that they have elected to avail themselves of forbearance relief from the obligation to provide Lifeline-supported BIAS,” the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau said yesterday in a public notice offering guidance on procedures for filing for forbearance.

The deadline for electing to operate under the forbearance provision is Dec. 2, the bureau announced last month (TRDaily, Oct. 4). – Lynn Stanton, lynn.stanton@wolterskluwer.com

Courtesy TRDaily