In recent weeks, there has been considerable discussion on both Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission about modernizing the Universal Service Lifeline Program – a program established in 1985 to extend telephone service to our nation’s most vulnerable and needy consumers. Low-income customers have benefitted from the subsidized monthly service, first for wireline service, and then in more recent years for wireless phones. The $9.25 per month subsidy has connected them to family, friends, potential employers, and health and emergency services. The program is true to its name: it’s a lifeline.
Following an FCC meeting in late June, Chairman Tom Wheeler launched a Second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (the first having been in 2012) seeking comment on proposed reforms to the Lifeline program that would “promote the availability of modern services for low-income families.” With the reply comment deadline fast approaching on August 17, it is clear that the Commission is committed to updating Lifeline for the Internet age.
Most of us rely on the Internet for communications services. As such, a broadband connection has become a necessary lifeline that enables consumers to participate in all facets of society. The FCC has recognized this and is taking some initial steps to address providing broadband services for low-income consumers. I support these steps, but I also recognize that as the Lifeline program reaches this important milestone, it must also initiate measures toward efficiency and modernization. The 30 year old Lifeline program is due for a makeover.
The digital divide is greatest today in low-income and older populations. The Pew Research Center reports that in 64 percent of Americans with incomes of less than $30,000, 54 percent of those with incomes under $20,000 and 42 percent of those with incomes less than $10,000 have broadband service at home. Among older adults, only 47 percent have broadband at home. How does this all compare to other adults? According to Pew, nationally 70 percent of adults have broadband at home – and for those with incomes above $100,000, 90 percent have broadband at home. Income does matter.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has recognized that the Internet is “the great equalizer of our time” and has called for modernization of the Lifeline program. She’s right; we must initiate steps to modernize the Lifeline program in order to help close the digital divide for our low-income and older consumers. A broadband connection has become an essential part of daily life. It offers access to education, employment opportunities and tools, health information and health providers, and provides a gateway to community information, social engagement, and family connections.
The measures for a modern Lifeline program include the following: First and foremost, we must continue efforts to eliminate fraud, waste and abuse within the program. The FCC has already initiated efforts over the past couple of years to do just that, and the work must continue in force to ensure that the Lifeline dollars are used efficiently and are delivered to those who are most deserving. Another important measure is to allow Lifeline customers to be treated just the same as any other customer in the marketplace, with their benefits delivered directly to them, and allowing the customer to choose the broadband services that best serve their needs. This makes sense in our competitive communications marketplace and provides consumers with additional privacy protections.
In the interest of increasing the program’s efficiency, it is important that we coordinate enrollment and allow consumers to sig -up for Lifeline at the same time as they apply for other government benefits. This process will not only achieve efficiencies for the program and consumers, it will aid in reducing fraud, waste and abuse. In addition to all these initiatives to update the Lifeline program, it is also important to institute measures to manage costs in order to ensure that program dollars are allocated in the best interest of all consumers.
We have a unique opportunity to stay true to the mission of the Lifeline program without forsaking its great benefits for low-income consumers.
Debra Berlyn is consumer advocate and President of Consumer Policy Solutions and currently serves as the chairperson for the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee.