GAO Report Bolsters Need for Lifeline Broadband Expansion

The Lifeline program allows our nation’s most vulnerable communities to maintain telephone service that would otherwise be unaffordable – service that is essential for connecting with loved ones, searching for employment, pursuing further education goals, engaging fully as citizens, and calling 911. But a recent GAO report, commissioned by Sen. John Thune, R. S.D., to evaluate the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) reforms to the Lifeline program, quickly drew fire from some Republican leaders. They allege that the FCC should not work on expanding the program to broadband until it addresses points raised in the GAO report.

But to call to a halt the FCC’s planned reform efforts based on this report would be to ignore its findings.

GAO found that the FCC has fully implemented seven reforms designed to increase accountability and strengthen internal controls. The most important reform—the duplicates database, which ensures that participating telephone companies are not double dipping – has been fully implemented. About 2.2 million duplicate enrollees were eliminated between 2011 and 2013 under the FCC’s reforms, saving $260 million.

And while Lifeline’s critics have alleged that the increase in the size of the program over the last 10 years is evidence of fraud, GAO found that the large increases in Lifeline enrollment may well have been because of increases in poverty. GAO found that the number of Lifeline-eligible households increased by 15 percent between 2008 and 2012, from 35 million to 40 million. SNAP enrollment also increased 64 percent from 2008 to 2012.

GAO faults the FCC for not explicitly stating affordability of phone service as a goal of the Lifeline program. As the FCC has pointed out, voice service is only available to fixed-income and low-income consumers to the extent it is affordable. Phone service is essential to modern existence, so the real issues should be whether low-income households can afford service without undue hardship. If needed, the FCC can easily and quickly formally adopt affordability as a goal, which is already mandated by the Communications Act.

GAO also questions whether the FCC has conducted a full-scale social science study on the Lifeline program to determine whether – without this program – some eligible individuals would still actually subscribe to telephone services. Just because a household with limited means makes sacrifices elsewhere in their budget to pay for phone service does not mean it is affordable. Research that shows the value of Lifeline does exist – and the FCC has relied upon it.

Criticisms raised by GAO – and Republicans aiming to use the report to halt planned reforms – are largely wasted energy, because they are focusing on a program to increase telephone adoption. And while reliable telephone service continues to be a serious issue for many low-income people and people on tribal reservations, broadband adoption actually overtook voice service as the most important communications concern a long time ago.

The FCC is about to begin the next phase of reform to expand Lifeline into supporting broadband, which will give it ample opportunity to implement GAO recommendations where they make most sense.

The need for expansion is urgent. Increases in broadband adoption rate are slowing and, in fact, posted a decline for the lowest income households in 2013. Pew Research Center recently found that 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service at home, constituting almost 20 percent of families with children between 6 and 17 years. And nearly half of Americans who have Internet access, but rely on smartphones for access, have had to cancel their cell phone service because of financial hardship.

In March, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged the FCC to protect and modernize the Lifeline program by implementing this type of expansion. “As broadband rapidly replaces voice service as the basic communications tool for our era, the FCC should rapidly update Lifeline to match the times,” the letter states. “Increasing broadband adoption will improve the economic well-being of those populations as well as the economic competitiveness of our country as a whole.”

Cheryl Leanza is policy advisor for the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry and co-chair of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Media and Telecommunications Task Force.

Patrick McNeil, digital communications associate at The Leadership Conference, contributed to this post.