FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn nailed it:
Lifeline has remained unchanged for 30 years. We need to retool, update and future proof this program, while preventing fraud.
January 21, 2016
Commissioner Clyburn tweeted this after last month's appearance at MMTC's Broadband and Social Justice Summit. That event focused on the crucial links connecting broadband adoption with empowerment and social equality.
MMTC and Commissioner Clyburn each deserve praise for their efforts not only to draw attention to broadband adoption but also for highlighting an obvious solution: reforming the FCC's outdated Lifeline program, which offers phone service discounts for low-income consumers.
As Commissioner Clyburn noted, Lifeline's goals are noble but the program itself has become ridiculously outdated. Its focus is entirely on phone calling instead of Internet service. Moreover, even granting changes in 2005 to include pre-paid wireless calling, the program still focuses on "solving" a problem that for most people hasn't existed in a decade or more.
Free phone calls and free texting long ago became staples of wireless service. On the wired side, bundles of broadband and entertainment services have for years included unlimited calling as a free add-on.
Yet Lifeline soldiers on with an outdated emphasis solely on phone calling. Fraud is a problem and by ignoring broadband adoption, the program effectively undercuts efforts to promote health care, education and social justice. (For more on the health care implications, see my Dec. 4 entry, "A lifeline for mHealth.")
The way to modernize Lifeline is obvious, particularly given the growth of discounted bundled services: allow the program's funds to be used for fixed or wireless broadband Internet service. A coordinated enrollment process managed by state agencies instead of providers would play the key role in determining eligibility for Lifeline. This approach will make Lifeline more efficient and reduce fraud.
Most important, it will give low-income consumers what's they truly need in today's society - an Internet link to opportunity, health care and a better life. Average broadband speeds in the U.S have tripled since early 2011 so today's access should be easily sufficient for most needs.
Technology and consumer preferences have both changed radically since the Lifeline program was created over three decades ago. It's time that Lifeline changed too.