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Dems Introduce Bill to Reform Lifeline Program

Three top House Democrats from California have introduced a bill that would reform the government's Lifeline program, which subsidizes basic telecommunications services provided by eligible telecommunications carriers to the primary residences of low income households. The bill was praised by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

The bill was introduced Tuesday, April 23, by Communications subcommittee member Doris Matsui, parent Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman and Communications subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo.

The FCC voted in 2012 to adopt a pilot program that used the Lifeline subsidies, traditionally used for phone service, for broadband. That was part of a larger effort to migrate the Universal Service Fund from traditional phone support to broadband.

They acknowledged that the FCC has taken steps to reform the Universal Service Fund's broadband subsidy programs, but that more needs to be done. The bill mirrors some of the FCC's planned reforms, but puts a congressional spur to the process.

The bill requires the FCC to reform the current lifeline program by including accountability measures, like requiring the commission to create a national eligibility database to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, and limiting the benefit to one per household, to be used for traditional phone, mobile or broadband purposes. Eligible households would have to meet federal low-income guidelines or qualify for one of a handful of social service programs, including the National School Lunch Program.

With Comcast leading the way, the cable industry is already teaming with the FCC on a Connect2Compete program that provides low-cost broadband to homes with children eligible for the program.

"We commend Reps. Matsui, Waxman and Eshoo for their tireless efforts to promote broadband adoption and help low-income households realize the benefits of high-speed Internet service," NCAT said in a statement. "We also applaud them for introducing the 'Broadband Adoption Act,' that adopts appropriate universal service reforms and focuses greater attention on digital literacy and competitively neutral strategies to promote broadband adoption. We look forward to working with them and other members as Congress considers ways to bring new households online."

The bill came on the eve of an April 25 hearing in the Communications Subcommittee, "The Lifeline Fund: Money Well Spent?" According to the majority staff memo on the hearing, Republicans have some similar concerns, including stemming waste, fraud and abuse, whether the FCC reforms are sufficient and that the reforms might not contain the size of the fund, which they point out has nearly tripled since 2009 to $2.2 billion.