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This week is National Telephone Discount Lifeline Awareness Week. The Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates mark this week to highlight the critical role of the federal Lifeline program. Lifeline provides subsidies to low-income families for basic voice or broadband service, and has been a key component of promoting universal service for over three decades. Universal service and universal access to essential communications tools have been the cornerstone of U.S. communications policy dating to the 1930s.
Nearly 13 million households participate in Lifeline, and the program helps ensure students can take online academic courses and complete homework, jobseekers can conduct employment searches and schedule work, parents can arrange for childcare, caregivers can access healthcare information and telemedicine applications, and those in danger can call 9-1-1 and access other public safety resources. Despite such tangible benefits of Lifeline, last year the FCC proposed substantial changes to Lifeline that would severely damage the program and harm the low-income and vulnerable families that rely on Lifeline for basic connectivity. And while the FCC’s proposals would inflict significant harm on the poorest U.S. households, they would essentially do nothing to achieve FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s stated goals of promoting broadband deployment and reducing waste, fraud, and abuse in Lifeline.
In response, nearly every stakeholder that weighed in on the FCC’s proposals opposed the agency’s plan, which restricts provider participation and curtails the program’s effectiveness for communities like seniors and veterans. There was near-consensus regarding the importance of maintaining non-facilities-based service providers, which serve about 70 percent of Lifeline subscribers, but are under threat of being expelled from the program. Additionally, members of Congress from both parties submitted a letter to the FCC explaining that the proposals threaten to widen rather than narrow the digital divide for low-income households. (They suggested that the agency instead focus on implementing the National Eligibility Verifier to promote provider participation and program integrity.) Also, just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit granted a stay preventing the Commission’s 2017 Order regarding the Tribal Lifeline subsidy from going into effect, writing that the FCC was likely to lose on the merits and the agency’s decision looked “arbitrary and capricious.” This legal break in the Commission’s efforts should serve as an opportunity for the FCC to take a step back and rethink its proposals to gut the Lifeline program, and instead refocus its efforts on the agency’s historic mission to promote universal service.
Under the FCC’s 2017 Lifeline proposals, marginalized and vulnerable individuals and families would be most severely harmed. Two in five homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender – 650,000 homeless LGBT teenagers on the streets who face a special risk of bullying, discrimination, and assault. Lifeline provides access to connectivity necessary for homeless, at-risk youth to find a safe place to live, and find the support they need. Furthermore, roughly 20,000 women, men, and children in the U.S. call a domestic violence hotline on any given day. Seventy-seven percent of domestic violence prevention programs distribute phones that are subsidized by Lifeline, and the current proposal would eviscerate the support system available to domestic violence victims. For domestic violence survivors, access to basic communications service may be their only tool to contact law enforcement and legal advice, seek medical assistance, secure alternative housing, and access financial services. Many other communities are at risk.
As we celebrate Lifeline Awareness Week, we recognize the value of Lifeline in our society, acknowledge how it is under attack, and resolve to protect and preserve the benefits the program provides to the most vulnerable among us.
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