FCC Considering Reforms to Lifeline Phone Service Program

Categories: Media & Technology, News

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently
considering changes and reforms to the federal Lifeline
program
which helps millions of Americans receive affordable telephone
service.

Established under the FCC’s broader “universal service
program – a telecommunications policy that helps ensure people in rural and
low-incomes areas, schools, libraries and rural health care providers get
access to affordable telephone service – the Lifeline program provides an
average benefit of $10 per month to some 10 million lower-income households
each year, i.e. families earning below 135 percent of the poverty level, or
$30,172 for a family of four.

Among the reforms the FCC is considering is updating the
Lifeline program so that it applies not only to telephone service, but also to
modern broadband technology. In today’s economy, the Internet has become
as essential as a telephone for job seekers, and many employers, such as
McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, take only online applications from job applicants, while
five states offer unemployment benefits online only. As the FCC found in
its National
Broadband Plan
, “[a]ccess to broadband is increasingly important for all
Americans to actively participate in our economy … [and] can serve as a
platform for educational, economic and social opportunities, [and] minimize
economic disparities.” 

In addition to supporting the FCC’s efforts to expand the
Lifeline program to cover broadband, civil and human rights advocates have
welcomed steps taken by the FCC to ensure that Lifeline
recipients are not misled 
by telephone companies seeking to receive
duplicate benefits for duplicate services.

But while the FCC has enacted reforms aimed expanding the
universal service program in rural areas, advocates are concerned about
low-income households being left out of the FCC’s modernization plans. Adding
to these concerns are indications that the FCC may be seeking to cap the
Lifeline program, even though it only reaches approximately 30 percent of
eligible households. What’s more, advocates point to the fact that the
Lifeline program for low-income people, with a funding of $1.2 billion in 2010,
only represents about 15 percent of the total universal service budget. 
By comparison the program spent $4.5 billion in 2010, or 56 percent, on rural
telephone access to deploy infrastructure to unserved areas.  This funding
is disproportionate to the problem, as The Leadership Conference’s Nancy
Zirkin pointed out last month
:  just over 30 percent of Americans
could subscribe to broadband but don’t for cost and other reasons, while about
5 percent of Americans live in areas without broadband infrastructure.

Ensuring access to essential technologies for all Americans
remains a priority of the civil and human rights community. Advocates will
continue to urge policymakers to ensure that the Lifeline program is not left
behind in yesterday’s technology.

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