Where is the Gipper?

by Deborah Taylor Tate on January 8, 2012

Capitol Hill - wallygSometimes government reform is actually something else in disguise. I am wondering if that is the case with the recent criticism of Lifeline-Linkup, a program established by Congress and started under the Reagan administration to provide access to communications services for the poorest Americans.

Congress and the FCC have long acknowledged the societal and economic importance of communications: networks actually increase in value as more people connect. So does income, employability, access to healthcare, and access to emergency services. With technological change, Congress updated Lifeline-Linkup to include cellular service, and now provide persons below the poverty level a choice—just as higher income individuals have—regarding their devices and services.

Interestingly, most of the recent research applauds and focuses on the successful and exponential impact that cell phones are having on the developing world. US officials and multinational corporations tout their assistance regarding deployment to rural Chinese rice farmers or to African villages without safe water or to secluded tribes in the Andes. The outcomes and opportunities have truly been dramatic and transformational; for individuals, for families, and for developing economies. We cheer that the poorest citizens in developing nations are now being connected—often wirelessly—with the rest of the world. The unbanked for the first time ever have access to the global commercial marketplace. Yet some in Washington want to deny our own citizens, the very poorest, in communities comprised predominantly of people of color, the disabled and uneducated, access to these same opportunities.

No one disputes that the program can be streamlined and improved; specifically, duplicate subsidies should be disallowed, eligibility enforced, and overall administration improved. Two industry leaders, Nexus and Tracfone, have come forward with self-regulatory and creative ways to solve many issues related to Lifeline-Linkup. One of these is a data-driven solution, paid for by the industry, to ensure only one subsidy per household. The FCC has an opportunity to adopt an industry-led, voluntary resolution which will be cost-saving because it is paid for by the companies themselves. It can certainly be implemented much more quickly than a burdensome bureaucratic government scheme. And most importantly, will it resolve the program’s problems.

In fact, this is not just the right thing for the wealthiest country in the world to do, it is actually good for the bottom line, the bottom line for individual families as well as for the U.S. economy. One recent survey showed people responded that their phone had enabled them to increase their income level. By applying that increase to every American eligible, the potential income gains for the poor and near poor could reach $3.7 billion. While most people recognize that it takes a phone to get a job in this day and age, one provider noted that 42 percent of their subscribers have never even had access to a phone before. What an incredible “jobs program” Lifeline-Linkup could be.

44 million people continue to live in poverty, the highest number in over 50 years. And yet, we have one of the world’s best and cheapest tools to link up our poorest to the global commercial ecosystem. Congress recognized that Lifeline-Linkup could be a short term solution resulting in productive, taxpaying citizens who would no longer need or be eligible for this assistance.

While I would hope our policymakers govern with compassion, perhaps they should just look at the bottom line and realize that Lifeline/Linkup could actually assist in raising incomes and improving the economy. As President Reagan so eloquently stated: “(W)elfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.” Lifeline-Linkup is one of the few government programs which does precisely that.

  • Deborah Taylor Tate, former FCC Commissioner, served as Federal Chairman of the Joint Universal Service Board as well as the Joint Board on Advanced Services and remains active in the reform of the USF program, serves on the Board of the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, as an Adjunct Scholar at the Free State Foundation and Executive in Residence at Lipscomb University.

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  • JCraigDC

    Though not a huge fan of the Gipper :-), I think the point is well made that use of Lifeline/Linkup will (hopefully) eliminate the need for the program.  However, I hear that those who are eligible don’t take advantage of it.  Maybe as we look for ways to reform the program, we can look for better outreach to those eligible, and look for ways to make it more accessible, like through cell phone service.

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