State Action Can Make Lifeline Telephone Assistance Stronger, More Effective

by Ava L. Parker on December 27, 2011

Have you ever thought about life without a phone? For most Americans—the 96 percent who have telephone service—it’s a crazy notion. They are unaware of the handicap of doing without. For families who can’t afford a phone, however, the handicap is real. They are isolated from each other in times of need, vulnerable when things go wrong and cut off from economic opportunities.

Lifeline, a program established by the Federal Communications Commission and administered by the states, provides small but critical assistance to our nation’s poorest families to help them establish this most basic of communications—telephone service—that the rest of America takes for granted.

The assistance is modest—$10 a month to help with the phone bill for landline or cellular service. A related program can contribute $30 to help cover any one-time connection fees.

Lifeline’s help is available only to families of limited incomes. In most states, families qualify if they receive food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, or public housing.  Families may also qualify based upon household incomes or if they have children in the free and reduced lunch program at school.

In all cases, families must provide documentation to show they qualify before receiving help from Lifeline. This system works well—as long as providers of phone service do their part by requiring documentation before signing up customers. Some cell-phone service companies, however, have neglected to do so. And it appears a few are actively abandoning these rules in order to boost their customer base.

This abuse must stop. Lifeline’s assistance is vital to the poor, and every time a cell-phone provider extends Lifeline assistance to an unqualified family, that company steals the opportunity from another family truly in need.

Lifeline’s resources are limited. The need far exceeds the level of support the FCC provides the program. Every dollar matters, and every dollar must be used to help only those truly in need.

How to reform the program? State public utility commissions need to crack down on abusive companies. They must be diligent in deciding which service providers they approve for participation in Lifeline, and they need to weed out companies that won’t follow the rules.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had it right in a December 12 letter to state regulators. “I encourage all of you to join the FCC in our efforts to reform the Lifeline program by closely scrutinizing the requests for [Lifeline] designation pending before you, to be on guard for abuse … in your states, and to take swift and strong action when necessary to protect the program,” he wrote.

The FCC is taking action on its own to investigate allegations of abuse and to strengthen its oversight as well. These are all good and needed actions, because Lifeline’s help is important to so many of modest incomes.

In the digital age, it’s difficult for anyone to secure employment, health care, or personal safety without access to a telephone. Families who must spend every dollar for food and rent can’t afford a phone without this modest subsidy.

For these families, Lifeline means the difference between isolation and opportunity. It is a strong program that, with active oversight by state regulators, can do an even better job of bridging the communications gap for families in need.

  • Ava L. Parker of Jacksonville, Florida, is the president of Linking Solutions Inc., a business-development and community-outreach firm, and a partner in the law firm of Lawrence & Parker, PA., and the voice of The AvaView, a blog on digital action and consumer protection.

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  • Budda N Gandhi

    USF Reform now!  Save LifeLine Linkup.

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