Tomorrow, the Senate Commerce Committee will convene a hearing on the future of the FCC’s Lifeline program. Given the recent GAO report on the program and the FCC report on the broadband Lifeline trial, some folks might argue that Lifeline is irreversibly broken and incapable of accomplishing any credible goals. While I would agree that the existing program is broken and in dire need of reform, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that the program cannot be fixed and modernized for the 21st Century. I was in the Reagan White House when the Lifeline program was debated and ultimately created. Back then the goal of the program was not to increase telephone penetration, but rather to create a program to help low income Americans through a difficult time in life by providing them a tool to get back on their feet. In short, Lifeline was envisioned as part of our country’s social safety net for those with very low incomes or out of work.
Communications technology – voice service then – was the critical tool that provided access to emergency services, friends and family, and job opportunities. If you had a phone, you had a chance. Fast forward 30+ years to the 21st Century. People still fall on hard times and they still need safety net programs like Lifeline. But increasingly in today’s society, having a voice line is not enough. The way people find job opportunities today is different than it was back in 1985. We’ve gone from want ads in the newspaper to posting available jobs online. Apps like Facebook and LinkedIn have become important job networking tools. Education and training courses – even the process of applying for a job – have all moved online, along with needed services like child care. In short, Internet access has quickly become the more needed Lifeline technology for the 21st century. If we still believe this part of the social safety net was soundly conceived and is still needed today – and I do – we need to focus on fixing the program to eliminate abuses and modernizing it to meet today’s needs, all while preserving the essence of the program’s good intentions.
So, what should a reformed Lifeline program look like?
First, AT&T believes that the government, not carriers, should be responsible for determining Lifeline eligibility and enrollment. This is the way most federal benefit programs work, and there’s no good reason for handling Lifeline in a radically different way. Many of the problems associated with Lifeline are rooted in this flawed approach. Administrative burdens on carriers today are huge, and innocent mistakes can lead to disproportionate punishment—which in turn discourages carrier participation. And the potential for fraud by less reputable players is very real. Moreover, consumers are saddled with difficult burdens if they simply want to change carriers. Government itself should determine eligibility, and can provide the benefit through a debit card approach much like food stamps. Consumers could then use the benefit for the service of their choice.
Second, we believe the Lifeline program could, and should, support broadband service. We ought to trust eligible consumers to choose which benefit, voice, data, or a combination of both, best meets their needs.
Third, this debate should not bog down based on whether or not we are expanding the program. Certainly, it makes little sense to expand the program financially when most everyone agrees it’s broken. Fixing Lifeline should be Job One. If we manage to reform Lifeline so that it can establish a track record of meeting the goals set for it, then that is the proper time to debate the merits of financial expansion. But simply taking the current Lifeline budget and making the benefit usable for either voice or data is common sense, consistent with the program’s intentions when it was started, and should not be considered an expansion. Plus the inherent bargain in this approach might allow all sides, and both parties, to come together on the right set of reforms.
The FCC took some important steps toward reform in 2012, but the GAO report reminds us there is still plenty of work to be done. It’s time to fundamentally rethink how Lifeline operates by making it work better for those consumers the program is intended to help. If we do so, and can make the program more efficient, more responsive, and less vulnerable to abuse, we can then have an informed discussion over whether or not to provide more resources.
These ideas are just a start, and I want to commend Commissioner Clyburn, in particular, for her leadership on this issue. Chairman Wheeler has now invited a more public discussion on Lifeline reform, and we look forward to participating with a view toward fixing the program and modernizing it for the 21st Century. It’s a worthwhile task.