Future of Lifeline Hangs in the Balances

The Federal Communications Commission made history with sweeping new changes to its Lifeline program. In adopting its new rule, the Commission sought to make broadband more accessible and affordable to low-income residents across the country. As with many issues before the FCC these days, politics has gotten in the way of progress. Among the contentions opposing the new program, opponents say that extending Lifeline benefits costs too much and does not properly address issues of “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Now, twelve states – Wisconsin, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Connecticut, Mississippi, and Vermont – have filed petitions for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit challenging the Commission’s Lifeline Modernization Order. In its original order, the Commission noted, “at a time when our economy and lives are increasingly moving online and millions of Americans remain offline, the Lifeline program must keep pace with this technological evolution to fulfill its core mission.”

The new program is meant to offer to management and process efficiencies, and enable a pool of funding to support the purchase of high-speed broadband, and not just telephone service, which Lifeline applied exclusively applied to before. In structuring this new program, however, the FCC pre-empted the authority of state public service commissions – the regulatory bodies that previously administered the Lifeline program – to designate authorized service providers for broadband service. On these grounds, the states petitioning the D.C. Circuit are saying the FCC’s action was an overreach of authority, and they’re seeking restrictions on the FCC’s Order that would curtail state action on Lifeline.

The new Lifeline program, which the FCC has budgeted at an $2.25 billion annually, can make it possible for the millions of American families “whose household income in below 135% of the federal poverty lever, or $32,805 for a family of four” to obtain broadband. According to Watchdog.org, “the expansion is expected to add about 5.5 million people to the program that now serves 18 million.”

Around the time opposition mounted against the Lifeline program, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – a consortium of more than 200 civil rights and social justice organizations – issued a letter to members of Congress in which it addressed the Lifeline issue:

“Today, more than ever before, it is critical to ensure that people of color, low-income people, and other vulnerable populations have access to broadband…Protecting the Lifeline program should not be a partisan issue…Although sensationalized and opportunistic attacks on the program have gained traction because they exacerbate and exploit stereotypes about the individuals who use the program, previous and newly-adopted reforms are addressing fraud and abuse in a comprehensive manner.”

Congress Recognizes the Benefits of Lifeline Mobile Broadband Access

This week, the House of Representatives sent a message to the nation supporting easier access to the Internet using mobile phone technology for low-income households. It sent this message by rejecting H.R. 5525, the End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, introduced late last week by U.S. Representative Austin Scott, Republican of Georgia.

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The bill, ostensibly aimed at reducing fraud, would have expressly prohibited funding of cellphones via universal support.
While Congressman Scott’s intentions to combat fraud in the Lifeline program is commendable, denying affordable access to millions of underserved consumers is not wise. It’s uneconomical to prevent consumers from participating in the digital economy via the use of mobile devices.

The members of Congress who voted against this bill should be commended for their vision and support of a program that enables accessible mobile broadband by low-income households.