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FCC Considering Reforms to Lifeline Phone Service Program

December 16, 2011 - Posted by Cheryl Leanza

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.

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