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GAO calls for review of low-income phone program

The Federal Communications Commission should review the efficiency of its Lifeline program that helps offer phone service to low-income Americans, according to a Governmental Accountability Office report.

Phone service penetration has increased since the program began in the 1980s. But without an internal evaluation, the FCC “does not know the extent to which the narrowing of the penetration rate is attributable to the Lifeline program.” 

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Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback Congress faces late-year logjam Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over the agency, said the FCC should take the GAO's advice before expanding the program to help cover high-speed internet service. 

“Before the FCC moves forward with fundamental changes or contemplated expansions to Lifeline, I urge the FCC to conduct a full program evaluation in accordance with GAO’s recommendations,” he said in a statement. 

In the absence of an FCC evaluation, the GAO pointed to outside data that suggests “the program may be a rather inefficient and costly mechanism to increase telephone subscribers.”

The lifeline program was created in the 1980s to help low-income households receive telephone service. It is funded by Universal Service fees usually passed along to phone customers. 

Starting in 2005, the program started expanding to help provide wireless service as well. Major reforms were again made in 2012, after weak controls resulted in abuse of the wireless program. 

A few years ago, the commission authorized 14 pilot programs to expand Lifeline to help provide broadband connections for low-income communities. Thune asked for those results to be made public. 

FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler and other Democrats on the commission have become increasingly vocal about a broadband expansion in the past few months.

In response to the GAO, Julie Veach, the FCC’s chief of the Wireless Competition Bureau, said the commission would continue to evaluate the program. Veach said the data from the broadband pilot program would help “determine whether and how to make further improvements to the program.”