Cell phone and internet bills can be expensive and, for some people, the expense may be hard to handle. 63 percent of Americans don’t have enough saved up to handle a $500 car repair bill or a $1,000 emergency room treatment, a Bankrate survey found. Between phone equipment expenses and carrier service costs, this seemingly puts cell phone and internet service out of reach for many Americans’ budgets. Fortunately, many people in this situation may qualify for the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline Assistance program, designed to bring universal telecommunications coverage to everyone regardless of income or location. If you or a loved one are having a hard time paying for phone or internet service, here is what you should know about the Lifeline Assistance program, how it works, who qualifies and how to sign up for it.
Following the Justice Department’s 1984 breakup of AT&T’s phone monopoly, the U.S. Senate passed the Lifeline Telephone Service Act of 1985. The act amended the Federal Communications Act of 1934 by creating the Lifeline Assistance fund to reimburse carriers who provided low-income families with basic landline phone service at affordable rates. The program was intended to assist the unemployed, single heads of households, the elderly and the disabled.
In 1996, the Senate passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, an overhaul of the Federal Communications Act that allowed phone companies to compete in the cable TV and internet industries. One provision of the act created a Universal Service Fund to pay for Lifeline Assistance costs, as well as funding for telecommunications services in rural and remote areas, telehealth and telemedicine services in rural areas, and internet and telecommunications services for schools and libraries. The act required all telecommunications providers to pay into the fund.
In 2005, the Lifeline Assistance program was expanded to include wireless carriers as well as landline carriers. Then in 2016, the Lifeline Modernization Order further expanded Lifeline Assistance to encompass broadband internet services. The order also established minimum service standards for Lifeline-supported services. Additionally, it created a National Eligibility Verifier to make eligibility determinations for individual subscribers.
A related program, Link-Up, assists consumers with costs of phone installation.
As of December 1, 2016, consumers whose income is at or below 135 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines qualify for Lifeline Assistance. Federal Poverty Guidelines are updated annually by the Census Bureau and vary depending on the number of persons in a family or household and location, with different guidelines for Alaska and Hawaii. For the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, the Federal Poverty Guideline for a household of one is set at $12,060. For each additional person, the guideline goes up by $4,180, so for example, the guideline for a household of two would be $16,240, while a household of three would be $20,420.
Consumers can also qualify for Lifeline Assistance if they participate in Federal Public Housing Assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid or tribal-specific programs under the Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) or Head Start.
If you think you or a loved one might qualify for Lifeline Assistance, you can sign up with a carrier that provides Lifetime-supported services. Lifetime-supported providers typically have registration forms on their websites. For instance, T-Mobile provides Lifeline-supported services as well as unlimited data plans. Low-income residents of the Raleigh area and other parts of North Carolina can sign up for Lifeline Assistance with T-Mobile by printing, filling out and mailing in a PDF form located on T-Mobile’s website. If you don’t have access to a printer, check with your local library, career counseling center or educational institution.