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House Republicans Pan Lifeline Proposals

The Republican chairs of the House committees overseeing communications issues said the just-announced FCC Lifeline program reforms are a lost opportunity, specifically to keep the fund in check.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler circulated proposals to migrate the phone subsidy for low-income Americans by allowing the $9.25 per month subsidy to be used for either phone or broadband. He did not propose capping the fund, but he did propose seeking comment on whether this was the right time to do it.

In a joint statement, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) were already making their input clear, which was that this was the time.

"The time is ripe for reforming the Universal Service Fund to meet the communications and technology environment of the 21st century – unfortunately, this proposal misses the mark on the reforms we need,” they said. “We have long called for the need to cap the USF, and each fund within it [Lifeline is one of those], to ensure that ratepayer dollars are spent wisely. Simply expanding the program without ensuring its effectiveness or longevity is the wrong approach if we're going to do right by those who pay for the program, and those who depend on it.”

The FCC is separately reviewing whether to require broadband providers to start paying into the fund, which would seem likely if broadband service is going to be subsidized. The FCC said that reclassifying Title II would not automatically trigger a Universal Service obligation, but did not rule out that could happen via another vehicle.

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.