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D.C. Lines Up to Vet FCC Lifeline Proposals

Washington was quick to react to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's circulation of proposals on how to migrate phone subsidies for lower-income Americans to broadband subsidies and to reduce waste, fraud, abuse and possible conflicts.

Even the chairman himself weighed in.

"Getting Lifeline reform right won’t be easy," Wheeler said in a blog post. "Fortunately, Lifeline reforms adopted in 2012 put the program on stable footing and laid the foundation for a comprehensive overhaul. I look forward to working with my colleagues to resolve the difficult questions before us. In particular, I want to commend Commissioner Clyburn for driving the important effort to further eliminate waste in the program and re-focus the program to better serve those who need it most."

“The Lifeline program provides millions of low-income Americans the ability to be connected to work, health care and 9-1-1," said CTIA: The Wireless Association VP Scott Bergmann. "We look forward to working with the FCC as it evolves this critical program in a manner that is fiscally responsible as well as responsive to Americans’ reliance on mobile solutions.”

"Our organization supports the FCC in its efforts to transition the program to support broadband to help bring all citizens online," said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union. "Our nation continues to face a serious gap in broadband availability that leaves millions of Americans unable to realize the economic, educational, entrepreneurial, and social benefits that flow from these services. We applaud the Commission's work to get affordable broadband to as many people as possible."

“At a time when access to high-speed Internet is critical for education, healthcare, jobs, and civic engagement, we must bring high-speed connectivity to the millions of low-income households with school age children that do not have high-speed Internet today," said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Kids Action, which has pushed for broadband subsidy reform.

"This will help to ensure all kids have equal opportunity to do their homework and that parents have the opportunity to look for and apply for jobs and engage in other important activities. We urge the FCC to act now to bridge the digital divide, and reform and improve the Lifeline program to make broadband more affordable and accessible for today’s low-income consumers and their children.”

"Extending Lifeline benefits to broadband is a prudent step that reflects Americans' increasing reliance on Internet-based services. OTI strongly supports the Commission's efforts to reboot this vital program,” said Sarah Morris, senior policy counsel for New America's Open Technology Institute.

“The proposal to ‘reboot’ the Lifeline program to include broadband subsidies for our most poor and vulnerable follows in a long, bipartisan tradition of ensuring that all Americans have access to basic communications services," said Kristine DeBry, VP at Public Knowledge. "The FCC should move quickly to adopt this proposal as the first step of upgrading our national communications lifeline for the digital age.”

The proposals have been teed up for a vote by the other commissioners at its June 18 meeting. If they are approved, the public still gets to comment, then the commissioners would have to vote on a final order.

Free Press policy counsel Lauren Wilson said more than just FCC action was needed.

"The FCC is right to ask how it can modernize its low-income telephone-subsidy program to reflect the central role the Internet plays in our daily lives. For 30 years, our nation’s most vulnerable communities have relied on Lifeline to connect with loved ones, access medical care and seek job opportunities....But getting all Americans online isn’t a challenge just one agency can address. Policymakers at every level — from the White House and Congress to local school boards — need to explore the most effective and efficient ways to connect people, and especially those in disadvantaged communities."

NTCA: The Rural Broadband Association, signaled more was needed as well. “As always, NTCA welcomes carefully constructed, well-coordinated updates that look to solve the challenges of universal service in all of its forms," said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “At the same time, in high-cost areas, the Lifeline program and other USF programs can only be effective to the extent that a network for consumer use is there in the first instance and if the services offered on that network are reasonably comparable in price and quality to those in urban areas."

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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.