Policy: A Measured Lifeline Reboot
By Diane Smith
This piece was originally published on Morning Consult.
The Federal Communications Commission created the Lifeline program during the Reagan administration to ensure that low-income consumers could afford the opportunities and security provided by basic telephone service. That’s right, even as far back as rotary dial phones, the opportunities and security of basic communications services were so obvious that policymakers wanted to ensure these services were widely available. Last year, the Lifeline program was expanded to include broadband so future generations will have access to the opportunities and security that it provides.
Fortunately, there appears to be little question that the Lifeline program is a critical component to expanding access to broadband for millions of low-income Americans. To be sure, affordable internet access is essential to consumers relying on the internet for everything from finding a job, to managing their health care, to digital learning and building opportunity. Given the ubiquity of wireless devices, and the national reliance on connectivity, it is crystal clear that access to mobile broadband cannot occur within silos of “haves” and “have nots.”
Ajit Pai, in his first remarks as chairman of the FCC, spoke passionately about his personal commitment to eliminating broadband barriers by closing the digital divide — the gap between “those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.”
To be fair, there have been ongoing inquiries into the efficiency of Lifeline in recent years due to well-publicized fraud within the program. There also is little debate that the program’s long-term sustainability requires continued improvements to root out waste. As well-intentioned as Lifeline is, it will fall under its own weight if there are continued concerns over the integrity of the program.
That’s why it is disappointing that a recent order from the FCC’s Wireline Bureau to reconsider the eligibility for participation of just nine of the more than 900 companies currently participating in the Lifeline program has sparked such a maelstrom of misinformation and motive-questioning.
Notably, the FCC did not cut funding for the Lifeline program, nor did it attempt to unwind the more than 30-year commitment to ensuring American consumers have access to baseline communications. The FCC simply announced it was putting on hold the eligibility of less than 1 percent of the companies currently participating in the program while it takes steps to ensure the program’s integrity.
Ensuring digital opportunity for everyone includes affordable broadband options for low-income consumers. But companies that game the system threaten its effectiveness and, ultimately, its existence. Bottom line? Closing the digital divide and maintaining the integrity of the Lifeline program are hardly objectives that should be at odds. It is imperative that our government leaders take clear and firm action to protect low-income Americans who need financial help to get and stay connected — and weed out entities that are siphoning resources away from those who need broadband’s many opportunities most.
Thanks to wireless company investment, more than 99.9 percent of the U.S. population now has access to 4G LTE networks. But that coverage is of no use to a family that can’t afford to use it. That’s why Mobile Future supports the objectives of the Lifeline program and the chairman’s actions to ensure Lifeline remains a sustainable tool for connecting low-income consumers, rather than a victim of bad actors looking to make a quick buck.
The chairman’s approach is reasonable and measured. Now is the time for folks to take a deep breath and keep in mind the long-term goal of ensuring every American has access to the opportunities made possible by broadband, regardless of circumstance.