The FCC set the Lifeline minimum service standard for mobile broadband at 4.5 GB monthly, effective December 1. This is what the Commission characterizes as a “moderate” 50 percent increase over last year.
In 2016, the agency outlined a formula to calculate the updated minimum service standard for mobile broadband uptake based on data regarding consumer use. It’s calculated by finding the product of: (1) the average number of mobile subscriptions per household; (2) the percentage of Americans who own a smartphone; and (3) the average data used per mobile smartphone subscriber. The product of (1)-(3) is then multiplied by 0.7, and the result is rounded up to the nearest 250 MB.
The agency gave providers time to adjust to the new standard. It was initially set at 500 MB/month beginning on December 2, 2016, increased to 1 GB/month on December 1, 2017, and increased again to 2 GB/month on December 1, 2018.
Last year, when faced with a more than four-fold increase, the Commission continued this gradual approach by instead implementing a more limited 50 percent increase to 3 GB/month. Now, absent FCC intervention, Lifeline subscribers and providers face a dramatic increase in the mobile broadband usage standard from 3 GB to 11.75 GB—the same, massive jump as last year.
The rise potentially threatens the affordability of Lifeline services, said the Commission. The agency decided that a nearly four-fold increase would require significantly greater network resources and, in turn, the associated costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers.
In order not to leave low-income Lifeline users behind during a pandemic, the Wireline Competition Bureau said the modest increase in mobile broadband usage minimum service standards mirrors the increase the average smartphone user experienced in the latest year for which data is available. It ensures that low-income Americans “are not left behind during the pandemic with ‘second class’ service, and ‘remove[s] the incentive for providers to offer minimal, un-innovative services,’” the bureau stated.