Modernizing America’s communications lifeline

We need to make sure that low-income Americans, in both urban and rural areas, aren’t missing out on the benefits modern communications, from searching and applying for jobs online, to working from home when a child is sick, to taking classes online,  consulting with doctors remotely, or accessing essential government services. This is why it is so critical that we have an efficient and effective Lifeline program.

Started in 1985 under President Reagan, the Lifeline program makes voice communications more affordable by lowering the monthly cost of phone service for the most needy. Lifeline became a permanent part of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Universal Service Fund programs when Congress amended the Communications Act in 1996 to ensure that “consumers in all regions, including low-income consumers… have access to telecommunications and information services.”

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Thanks to Lifeline, an elderly woman who was stranded during Hurricane Sandy was able to use her wireless service to call for help; a resident of a homeless shelter could contact doctors for her sick child; and a single father of two children, one with special needs, can communicate with his children’s doctors and caregivers.

Lifeline has grown and changed with the times.  At first, it provided support only for legacy wireline phone service.  Since that time we’ve witnessed the incredible growth in wireless, and today, more than a third of Americans (and more than half of low-income Americans) rely solely on mobile phones for their personal communications needs — and Lifeline has adapted to support that service.

Unfortunately, this expansion into wireless was not accompanied by sufficient controls to prevent fraud and abuse.

In 2009, the FCC began a bipartisan effort to overhaul Lifeline, not only to root out waste, fraud, and abuse, but also to reflect the emerging importance of broadband Internet access to all Americans.

The FCC has made great strides to ensure that the Lifeline program is more accountable.  Reform efforts have already saved in excess of $200 million and are on track to save $2 billion through the end of 2014 by substantially tightening entry into the program and eliminating elements of the program that no longer serve their intended purpose.  For example, the reforms limit Lifeline service to one person per household, require that all consumers enrolled in Lifeline document their eligibility and certify under penalty of perjury that they are eligible to participate, and require that consumers recertify annually in order to remain eligible.  An automated nation-wide database to confirm that potential subscribers don’t already have Lifeline service in their household is nearing completion, as work continues on developing an automated means for verifying subscriber eligibility. Companies that provide Lifeline service are subject to audits to determine whether they are complying with all the program rules.  And the states, which share in the oversight of Lifeline, can enact even tougher requirements.

The FCC’s reforms have stabilized the program, placed it on sound footing, and will enable the Commission to look ahead towards further program enhancements.   And it’s important that we look ahead.  Plain old voice service is necessary, but clearly not sufficient in today’s communications ecosystem.  Universal broadband is imperative for all Americans, especially as our economy becomes increasingly linked to the Internet.  A connected America will promote cost-effective solutions for many of our nation’s challenges and open doors to vulnerable populations seeking greater opportunities.  The FCC’s Lifeline Broadband Pilot, currently underway, is testing strategies for increasing broadband adoption among low-income consumers through 14 selected projects, within 21 states and Puerto Rico, using both wireline and wireless technologies.  The data the Pilot produces will guide us all as we consider the future of Lifeline and in Congress, the Broadband Adoption Act would allow households that qualify for Lifeline support to choose support for landline service, mobile service or broadband.

All of us must work together to ensure that the United States remains a global leader in the digital age and that no American is left unconnected.  Closing our digital divide and providing a modern communications lifeline will go a long way toward ensuring that our nation is a worldwide leader in the generations to come.

Clyburn is acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Matsui represents California's 6th Congressional District and is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications & Technology.