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PA Bulletin, Doc. No. 16-2056


FCC Lifeline Broadband Order: Carrier and Consumer Awareness; Eligible Telecommunications Carrier Transition to Streamlined Eligibility Criteria

[46 Pa.B. 7497]
[Saturday, November 26, 2016]

Public Meeting held
November 9, 2016

Commissioners Present: Gladys M. Brown, Chairperson; Andrew G. Place, Vice Chairperson; John F. Coleman, Jr.; Robert F. Powelson; David W. Sweet

FCC Lifeline Broadband Order: Carrier and Consumer Awareness; ETC Transition to Streamlined Eligibility Criteria; M-2016-2566383

Final Order

By the Commission:

 By this Final Order, we adopt the streamlined eligibility criteria adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in its Lifeline Modernization Order (ETC Order), WC Docket No. 11-42 and WC Docket 09-197 (Order Entered April 27, 2016).1 Program changes take affect December 2, 2016. The FCC reasoned that eligibility changes were necessary to increase efficiency and improve the program for consumers. In the ETC Order, the FCC limited the eligibility for Lifeline support to the following programs: low income households that qualify for and receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance, or the Veterans Pension Benefit.2 The FCC did not modify income-based eligibility (135% of the Federal Poverty guidelines) or the Tribal eligibility criteria. However, state-specific eligibility criteria are no longer eligible for federal Lifeline support. Therefore, Pennsylvania residents will no longer be able to receive federal Lifeline support by solely participating through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), National School Lunch Program's free lunch program (NSLP), and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Procedural History

 In 1984, the FCC established a Lifeline program to promote universal telephone service by providing low-income consumers with discounts on the monthly cost of dial tone service. By 1987, the FCC implemented Link-Up America (Link-UP) to help low-income households pay phone connection charges. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TA-96), the FCC expanded its rules3 so that Federal Lifeline service could be provided to low-income consumers in every state regardless of whether a state provided related support. Under the amended rules, telephone companies designated as eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) must provide Lifeline service to eligible consumers and received federal universal service funding support for doing so.

 On April 29, 2004, the FCC released a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of Lifeline and Link-Up, at CC Docket No. 04-87, WC Docket Nol. 03-109. In this Order, the FCC modified its rules so as to increase the national telephone penetration rate above the current level of 94.7% and make phone service affordable to more low-income households. That order expanded the federal default eligibility criteria so as to include an income-based criterion of 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG)4 and added the National School Lunch Program's free lunch program (NSLP) as a qualifying social program. By Order entered May 23, 2005 (PA Lifeline Order),5 the Commission adopted participation in these programs in an effort to reach more low-income consumers.

 By Order entered August 2, 2010, the Commission entered a Final Policy Statement Order that put all ETC Petitioners on notice that each ETC Petition must specifically address each provision of 47 C.F.R. §§ 201—209, any other applicable federal standards and all Pennsylvania specific standards. In that Order, the Commission also directed that all future Commission review of petitions for ETC designation will be governed by 47 U.S.C. §§ 214(e),6 the FCC's discussion of ETC designations in the Universal Service Order,7 the additional standards for ETC designation set forth in the FCC's ETC Order of May 17, 2005, subsequent order on certification and reporting of February 2006, and the FCC's rules governing ETC designation and annual certification set forth at 47 C.F.R. § 54.101,8 §§ 54.201—203,9 and §§ 54.205—209,10 as well as any further amendment or criteria established by the FCC. In that Order, the Commission concluded that adopt the federal standards and applying them in Pennsylvania would further the FCC's goal as well as the Commission's goal of ensuring an effective ETC process in Pennsylvania.


I. The FCC Order

 In the ETC Order, the FCC outlined its Lifeline Program transition from primarily supporting voice services to targeting support for fixed and mobile broadband services, in an effort to help bridge the digital divide. The FCC Order focuses on eight issues:

 (1) Broadband as a Supported Service: Continued support for bundled voice and broadband services;

 (2) Support Levels and Minimum Service Standards for broadband and mobile voice services;

 (3) Establishing a National Verifier: Transfer of responsibility for Lifeline eligibility determinations in an effort to curb waste, fraud, and abuse;

 (4) Subscribers' Eligibility for Lifeline Support: Streamlining the criteria for program qualification;

 (5) Lifeline Broadband Provider (LBP) ETCs: Encouraging entry of new Lifeline providers by instituting a streamlined federal designation process;

 (6) Requiring Lifeline providers to make available Wi-Fi enabled devices and Lifeline providers of mobile broadband services to make available hotspot-enabled devices;

 (7) Reforming the non-usage rules, making recertification a rolling process, and establishing a twelve-month benefit port freeze for broadband offerings; and,

 (8) Establishing an annual budget of $2.25 billion.

 By this order, the Commission informs jurisdictional ETCs that the Commission retains authority to designate ETC providers that offer fixed and mobile voice service or voice and mobile services combined and will continue to do so until voice only Lifeline support has been phased out on December 1, 2021. This Order also informs jurisdictional ETCs and potential ETCs of Pennsylvania's revised policy on allowing subscribers to self-certify their eligibility for continued Lifeline support necessitated by FCC changes to the Lifeline program.

 The process of phasing out support for voice-only services will begin on December 1, 2019, and end on December 1, 2021. During this time, the subsidy from the Universal Service Fund will incrementally decrease to zero. Once the phase-out has been completed, voice service must be bundled with an eligible broadband service in order to be supported. The lone exception that will allow voice-only service to receive Lifeline support after the phase-out period is where a Census block is served by only one Lifeline provider.

 Pursuant to the FCC Order, the FCC alone will designate Lifeline Broadband Providers (LBPs) who must meet minimum service standards to qualify for Lifeline support. In the FCC Order, USAC was directed to create a National Lifeline Eligibility Verifier (National Verifier), to make eligibility determinations and to perform other functions necessary to enroll eligible subscribers into the Lifeline program. States will be added to the National Verifier in phases. Before the National Verifier is deployed in a state, providers are required to conduct an initial eligibility determination for each enrolling customer regardless of whether that customer previously received Lifeline-discounted services from another provider. This determination is intended to prevent the enrollment of ineligible customers. Once the National Verifier is deployed, eligibility records for a subscriber will allow the National Verifier to recertify their eligibility every 12 months on a rolling basis.

II. PUC Authority

 In regard to a Pennsylvania customer's initial eligibility, our PA Lifeline Order specifically found that:

[T]he companies ought to use the DPW's11
database first to establish if there is acceptable social assistance program participation. If the household12 qualifies, then no further investigation or verification need be done. The household qualifies based on program participation13 or income verification. If the household does not appear to be enrolled in one of the approved social assistance programs, then 135% FPG [Federal Poverty Income Guidelines] income or less may be verified through either copies of written state or federal income tax returns for the prior year, or the carrier may contact [the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DOR)]. . .and pay the nominal fee to have the customer's household's income verified. We agree. . .that self-certification without some form of reasonable independent verification is suspect for fraudulent abuse and will not be acceptable in Pennsylvania as a means for qualifying for our Lifeline. . .programs.

PA Lifeline Order at p. 10.

 In addition to Pennsylvania's initial certification requirements, our annual recertification requirements exceed those of the FCC regulations. Where the FCC allows for subscriber self-certification, Pennsylvania requirements had not allowed for self-certification by individual customers as part of the annual recertification process, and deemed the FCC's regulation at 47 C.F.R. § 410(f)(2)(iii) inapplicable in Pennsylvania.

 The Commission directed carriers to the DHS' database, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Access to Social Services (COMPASS) Network, to verify or recertify an individual's Lifeline eligibility through the following programs: SNAP, Medical Assistance, Supplemental Security Income State Supplementary Payment (SSI SSP), LIHEAP and TANF.

 Continued use of DHS' database, however, presents a problem with changes to the eligible programs and the timing of database upgrades. The COMPASS Network does not administer NSLP or Veterans' Pension Benefits because they are federal programs. Accordingly, Lifeline eligibility determinations for participation in these programs cannot be confirmed through the COMPASS Network. As stated earlier, NSLP will no longer be an eligible program for the federal Lifeline program after December 1, 2016. However, the Veterans' Pension Benefit will now become eligible on that same date.

 Further, in November 2016, LIHEAP and TANF will be removed from the COMPASS Network in a database upgrade, even though the change in eligible programs will not occur until the following month. In the interim, between the time the COMPASS Network is updated in November and December 2, 2016, when the new program eligibility rules take effect, ETCs using the COMPASS Network to verify Lifeline applicants will receive incorrect results for some consumers.

 During this brief period, for initial eligibility purposes, ETCs are directed to continue to use the COMPASS Network to verify consumer eligibility through the three programs administered by DHS: SNAP, Medical Assistance and SSI. For the remaining eligible federal programs not administered by DHS and therefore not a part of the COMPASS Network, Veterans' Pension and Survivors' Pension Benefits and Federal Housing, the Commission will require ETCs to seek documentation of subscribers' initial eligibility that independently verify that they are in fact receiving benefits from those programs. ETCs may also use a subscriber's federal and/or state tax returns to verify income eligibility if necessary.

 For that period of time that COMPASS will be out of sync with state eligible programs (November until December 2, 2016), carriers may allow current subscribers to recertify through self-certification. We will permit self-certification as an interim measure for the few weeks the database will not include all eligible programs in order to limit the risk of incorrectly identify subscribers as ineligible and improperly removing them from the Lifeline program.

 By December 2, 2016, COMPASS will be able to track eligible state programs, but still will not have access to federal enrollments. Past Commission policy would have required additional documentation or federal verification that a subscriber is eligible through programs not in COMPASS. Movement toward a National Verifier is welcome, in that it will alleviate the concerns this Commission has with self-certification and it will streamline the verification process for carriers.

 Recognizing the limitations of the COMPASS database and the forthcoming transition to a National Verifier, we will relax our policy against self-recertification to a degree. We still expect carriers to use COMPASS to recertify subscribers eligible through the state programs SNAP, Medical Assistance, and SSI. However, until the National Verifier is deployed in Pennsylvania, we will allow subscribers to self-certify according to the FCC rules that they remain eligible to receive the Lifeline subsidy under the following criteria: (1) Federal Public Housing Assistance; (2) Veterans Pension Benefits; (3) Income-based eligibility. We reiterate that in Pennsylvania, self-certification is not permitted to determine a subscriber's initial eligibility.


 Based upon the foregoing, we issue this Final Order to inform jurisdictional ETCs and current and future ETC petitioners that we will continue to process ETC petitions for voice-only service offerings until the end of the phase-out period, December 1, 2021. We also notify jurisdictional ETCs that self-certification is not permitted to determine initial eligibility, but is allowed in some instances for recertification purposes until the National Verifier is deployed in Pennsylvania.

 In addition, supplemental information on ETC designation, new program eligibility rules and annual certifications will be provided on our website for the general public and carriers seeking ETC designation and annual certification from the Commission. This Final Order shall be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Therefore,

It Is Ordered That:

 1. The streamlined program eligibility criteria set forth in the FCC's April 27, 2016 ETC Order is hereby adopted.

 2. The list of federal programs eligible for the Lifeline subsidy as of December 2, 2016, are: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance, and the Veterans Pension Benefit.

 3. The programs no longer eligible for the federal Lifeline subsidy as of December 2, 2016, are: Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), National School Lunch Program's free lunch program (NSLP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

 4. Jurisdictional ETCs and all future ETC petitioners are directed to adhere to all applicable federal and Pennsylvania ETC rules, regulations and standards.

 5. This Final Order be served on all jurisdictional ETCs.

 6. The Secretary's Bureau is directed to link docket number M-2016-2566383 to previous ETC Orders at M-00051871 and M-2010-2164741.

 7. The Secretary's Bureau will add a copy of this Final Order to docket numbers P-2010-2155915, P-2011-2226044, P-2011-2275748, P-2012-2287339, P-2011-2269524, P-2011-2245213, P-2011-2241542, P-2011-2275830, P-2012-2325045, P-2010-2154831, P-2011-2234287, P-2013-2378710, P-2013-2369557, and P-2013-2379431.

 8. A copy of this Final Order be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.


[Pa.B. Doc. No. 16-2056. Filed for public inspection November 23, 2016, 9:00 a.m.]


1  See Lifeline and Link Up Reform and Modernization, et al, WC Dockt. No. 1-42 at al., Third Report and Order, Further Report and Order, and Order on Reconsideration, 31 FCC Rcd 3962. On a case by case basis, this Commission has required parties seeking designation as ETCs to satisfy the FCC's standards for designation and has been formally applying the FCC's annual recertification and reporting requirements for ETCs.

2  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration, Pension.

3  Federal-State Board on Universal Service, (FCC May 8, 1997) CC Dockt. No. 96-45, FCC 97-157.

4  At or below 135436000f the FPG is $24,840 for a family of four.

5  In Re: Lifeline and Link-up Programs, Docket No. M-0051871 (May 23, 2005) (PA Lifeline Order).

6  Section 214(e)(1) requires an ETC to offer the services supported by federal universal service mechanisms and advertise the availability of those services and the charges for them in media of general distribution. Section 214(e)(2) permits a state commission to designate a common carrier, either upon the state commission's motion or upon request, for rural areas and requires each designation for other areas so long as the carrier meets the criteria of Section 214(e)(1). Section 214(e)(3) authorizes the FCC to require a carrier to service underserved areas for interstate purposes and authorizes state commissions to designate a carrier for intrastate purposes for similar underserved areas. Section 214(e)(4) authorizes a carrier to relinquish its designation as a carrier in any area served by more than one eligible carrier. Section 214(e)(5) defines a service area as the geographic area established by the state commission for universal service purposes which, for rural areas, is coterminous with the study area unless determined otherwise by states and the FCC after consultation with the Federal-State Joint Board. Section 214(e)(6) directs the FCC to designate where carriers are not subject to the state's jurisdiction See, 47 U.S.C. § 214(e).

7  Universal Service Order, ¶¶127-199 in Section VI.

8  47 C.F.R. § 54.101 lists the services an ETC must provide in order to receive federal universal service support. Section 101(c) lists the limited exceptions.

9  Section 201 concerns a carrier's eligibility to provide services through its own facilities or a combination of facilities. Additional requirements for ETC designation were codified at Section 202(a)(1)—(5). Section 203 authorizes the FCC or the Commission to designate carriers in unserved areas for interstate or intrastate purposes, respectively.

10  Section 207 defines a service area and establishes a process by which the FCC or Commission can propose alternative service areas.

11  The Department of Public Welfare's name has since been changed to the Department of Human Services (DHS).

12  As the term ''household'' is now defined under FCC regulations at 47 C.F.R. § 54.400(h).

13  The FCC has specifically set forth a list of federally qualifying assistance programs at 47 C.F.R. § 54.400(j). We expressly adopt the expanded list of qualifying assistance programs.

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