Supporters Come to Lifeline Defense

The GAO report critical of the FCC's Lifeline low-income basic telecom service subsidy brought the program's defenders out in droves to make sure that the report was not going to be used as a broadside against the program in general.

They pointed out that most of the investigation occurred before FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler took steps to reign in waste, fraud and abuse, including improving verification of eligibility.

“We have a statutory obligation as a Commission to ensure all Americans, including low income consumers and those living in rural and insular areas, have affordable voice and broadband access," said FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "Recognition of this responsibility goes hand-in-hand with my long stated belief that we must aggressively root out waste, fraud, and abuse in all of our universal service programs, including Lifeline.

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“In recent years, the Commission has taken numerous steps to achieve this goal, including setting up a national eligibility verifier, adopting a periodic recertification requirement and ensuring that people who are signed up are actually using their service. The Lifeline program already has a very low improper payment rate of 0.45%, and it must be noted, that many of the issues highlighted by the GAO’s report will be addressed by the national eligibility verifier. I am pleased that the work on this effort is proceeding as planned, and will work with my colleagues to address all of the GAO’s recommendations.

“Today the FCC’s Lifeline program remains the only means-tested universal service program, where only the consumers who cannot afford to be connected are given the ability to do so. So while we invest in the infrastructure needed to bring connectivity into every community in America, we must not forget that ‘if we build it, they will come’ only holds true if the services are affordable.

“Some may use the limited findings of this report as justification to cut back on the Lifeline program even further, but that would be catastrophic for those most in need. The answer is not denying access to those who cannot afford connectivity and access to critical services like 911, the next steps should include rolling up our sleeves and addressing any imperfections that remain."

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Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, talked up the program as well, saying: “The Lifeline program is of vital importance to millions of America’s low-income seniors, veterans and limited-English speakers. It is unfortunate that certain carriers and consumers are violating the existing rules that govern the Lifeline program.

"We note that much of the GAO’s investigation took place before the FCC adopted its latest reforms and that many of the issues it found have been addressed successfully. We applaud the FCC for taking steps to address concerns about Lifeline wireless and applaud reforms that are working. An Energy and Commerce Democratic Staff Report found last year that the FCC already has reined in a billion dollars in waste, fraud and abuse that took place under Bush-era amendments to the program. We urge the FCC to continue to monitor the program for fraud and abuse and implement new safeguards when necessary.

"We urge the Federal Communications Commission to take reasonable additional steps to crack down on remaining ‘bad actors’ and effectively curb their abuses. We don’t want to make it harder for people who need Lifeline help to get it.”

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Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, said: “The Lifeline program was established during the Reagan-era and has helped make critical communications services more affordable for low-income families for more than thirty years.

“In 2016 the FCC recognized that the internet is the essential communications service of the 21st century, and that families rely on broadband access for communicating with loved ones, as well as education, employment, health care, news, and civic engagement.

"As a result, the FCC modernized the Lifeline program to meet the needs of low-income families that could not afford broadband services—to help close the affordability gap that limits the economic and educational opportunities for millions of families.

“Historically, the improper payment rate of the Lifeline program has been significantly lower than the corresponding rate across the federal government. Since 2012, the Commission has repeatedly taken action to protect the integrity of the Lifeline program."

As the GAO reported in 2015, the FCC has demonstrated significant progress implementing its reforms to address problems with duplicates and ineligible participants.

“Although there has been great progress extending broadband’s reach to more and more Americans, there remain too many households and communities that are not enjoying the benefits of broadband," said Adrianne Furniss, executive director of the Benton Foundation. "Research shows, for example, that families earning under $25,000 a year are about half as likely to have the Internet at home as families that are the most well-off. The FCC’s Lifeline program brings the many benefits of reliable, robust Internet access to low-income households. That means better access to job listings and workforce training, to education and healthcare, and allows people to fully engage in today’s society."

“Since 1997, the United Church of Christ has formally recognized we risk becoming a society of 'information rich' and 'information poor' – with dramatic consequences for exacerbating inequities that already exist in our midst," said Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor, to the United Church of Christ, OC Inc.. Communications is a human right – a tool that connects us to our communities, helps to disclose injustice, and facilitates innumerable aspects of modern life. Lifeline is the only program that assists households with the cost of broadband internet. Fortunately, last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) modernized the Lifeline program and established new, more rigorous safeguards. We insist that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai move ahead swiftly to ensure the new eligibility verification process will be implemented as quickly as possible.”

“I generally support free market-oriented communications policies," said Free State Foundation President Randolph May. "Nevertheless, I have been a long-time supporter of a properly structured and implemented Lifeline program that provides a safety net for low income persons. The GAO report finds that the FCC has more work to do to ensure against fraud and abuse of the program and to verify that those receiving benefits are indeed eligible. I don’t want to see public support for Lifeline undermined by failure to ensure the program’s integrity, but that is what will happen unless fraud and abuse are curtailed. The GAO report’s findings will help focus on the need for reform.”

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.