Lifeline Funding Gets Hill Workout

Lifeline communications subsidies to low-income residents drew both light and heat at the House Communications Subcommittee FCC oversight hearing Tuesday.

Republicans, including FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, has charged the program with some $500 million in potential fraud, the "potential" being the key sticking point.

Republicans are not happy that the FCC did not cap the Lifeline fund in its recent reform proposal, which followed the collapse of a bipartisan compromise that would have done so.

Democrats in the hearing accused the Republicans of conflating the problem of waste, fraud and abuse in the program—everyone concedes there is some of that—by citing potential duplicate subscriptions in one household residents of multiple-dwelling units like nursing homes or shelters or veterans hospitals.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler came armed with stats showing that more than two million people getting lifeline subsidies were in those multiple-dwelling units.

After some heated probing from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Pai conceded that the $500 million figure was of potential, not established, waste, fraud and abuse but said that is why there needed to be more study.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said that the Democrats had done their own study showing the $500 million figure was off base. Eshoo said it was a "source of shame" for the majority to attack the lifeline program and numerous Democrats said that Republicans needed to make sure they were drawing the distinction between potential and actual fraud.

"Our report finds that most of the waste, fraud, and abuse that had plagued the program resulted from policies the FCC adopted during the Bush Administration," said Pallone. "And while some waste, fraud, and abuse likely still does take place, the FCC has worked hard over the past few years to track it down and wipe it out.  Nearly $1 billion of unnecessary spending has been eliminated from the program as a result of the FCC’s actions over the last 6 years."

John Eggerton

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.