In the 2016 Lifeline Modernization Order released in March by the FCC, one of the key components is the Lifeline benefit port freeze. According to the commission, to further incentivize investment in high quality Lifeline free government phone and free cell phone service offerings, consumers will not be able to port their Lifeline service to another provider until 12 months have passed for data services, and 60 days for voice services. So if you apply for Lifeline free government cell service with data, you must stay with the provider you applied with for a year, if you’re on voice only you must stay for 60 days before transferring your benefit to another telecom.
Who Does It Help?
Telecom providers may not seek or receive reimbursement through the Lifeline program for service provided to a subscriber who used the Lifeline benefit to enroll in Lifeline within the previous 12 months for a Lifeline data offering and 60 days for voice. Per the FCC, this will ease market entry for new Lifeline phone program providers and enhance competition and innovation in the market. One of the problems many Lifeline service providers have had is customer churn, as customers could switch providers as often as every 60 days. This churn makes it difficult for providers to participate and invest in offering superior broadband offerings and outreach as they tended to have a very unstable customer base with unpredictable cash flow.
Are there Any Exceptions?
Telecoms providing Lifeline free phones and free cell phone service can apply for a Port Freeze Exception if they meet one of the following exception qualifications:
- Customer moves and changes their residential address
- Current Lifeline service provider ceases operations or otherwise fails to provide service
- Current Lifeline service provider is found to be in violation of the FCC’s rules during the benefit year and the subscriber is impacted by such violation
- Late fees billed by the Lifeline service provider meet or exceed the month end user charge for the supported Lifeline phone service.
In any of the above circumstances, Lifeline subscribers may cancel service and receive a new Lifeline-supported service with another provider until the end of the original 12-month period. In these circumstances, the subscriber is not required to re-verify eligibility until the end of the original 12-month period. Requests for exception are reviewed on a case by case basis by USAC.
When Will This Start?
Per the FCC, the 2016 Lifeline Modernization Order takes effect on December 2, 2016. This means that as of now, Lifeline phone program users must wait 12 months to transfer their service to another telecom providing Lifeline government phones with data, or 60 days for Lifeline free cell phones that are voice only.
But What if I Live in California or Oregon?
California and Oregon both applied for waivers to this new Lifeline benefit port freeze rule. Oregon applied for a waiver as it claims it will take up to 6 months to update its system to administer both port freezes. California argued it will require significant changes to the Lifeline program administrator’s enrollment process and the California Lifeline database. The FCC has approved the waivers for both states. Oregon now has up until June 1, 2017 to implement its Lifeline benefit port freeze while California has until June 1, 2017 or whenever it updates its relevant state databases and processes to enable telecoms to fully comply with the new rules, whichever is sooner.