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Why We Still Need A Lifeline: Ensuring Phone Access for Low- Income Families in the US

March 15, 2013

As congressional leaders battle over the looming sequester,
the need and expense of basic social service programs has been subject of
national debate. On Capitol Hill, the costs and benefits of such services are
described in terms of dollars and cents. The Universal Service
Fund
(USF) is no exception from scrutiny and it is the position of Public
Knowledge that cuts to our communications service safety net, is a mistake that
would harm millions of Americans.

Our telephone system is one of that has made America great.
Its reliability has fostered innovation and growth as well as provided an
essential public safety net. As mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC is
required to ensure that all Americans
have access to affordable communication services. Unlike other federal safety
net programs USF is subsidized by carriers, not through federal taxes, and
provides millions of Americans with critical services they might have not otherwise
had access to.

The USF provides low-income families with phone service via
a household subsidy on either one wire-line or mobile phone line. It ensures
access remains affordable in rural and tribal households by offsetting the higher
costs of maintaining networks in those areas. Schools and libraries are able to
receive subsidies for Internet access via the E-rate
program.

Policy-makers, who cry fiscal wolf and urge cuts to the USF
program, ignore the fact that although economic recovery is occurring- many
Americans are still hurting. Economically challenged Americans need that
connection that Lifeline guarantees to remain connected to employment and
educational opportunities. Low income Americans, including the elderly on fixed
incomes also rely on Lifeline to connect to 911 and emergency medical services.
Protecting the ability of elderly and low income Americans to remain connected
to community services and the greater economy is a responsibility that should
be a priority to policy-makers on both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately like similar social programs, USF has come
under recent attack because of reported abuses, giving fodder to opponents who point
to these instances as proof of government wastefulness. Commissioner Mignon
Clyburn clarified that the USF does not provide free cell phones to poor, and
instead is an important benefit to 15 million families who could otherwise not
afford phone service.

The Lifeline program has undergone significant reforms
according to Clyburn. Strides have been taken within the
Commission to investigate claims of fraud and abuse, reform the eligibility confirmation
process and improve the overall education about the Lifeline program. Clyburn
reported over $200 million was saved last year as a result of these reforms,
with an additional $400 million projected savings over the next.

As the technology advances, the conversations will only
become more complicated, and the scrutiny will continue. I applaud policy
makers like Commissioner Clyburn who, despite the current political climate- remain
committed to protecting a vital lifeline for so many Americans.