Continue Lifeline Reform!

by Deborah Taylor Tate on June 30, 2013

Telephone off the HookAs a former FCC Commissioner – and a strong supporter of a healthy Lifeline program – I was pleased to see the comments that FSF President Randolph May’s recently filed in support of TracFone’s request that the FCC revise its rules regarding the in-person distribution of handsets.

There are providers (Nexus and others) who utilize mobile vans and other “in-person” distribution processes that are not only successful in reaching qualified recipients but also provide trained staff to insure that recipients meet stringent income qualifications and do not “double dip.” These “good guys” should be applauded for helping police the program. However, there are unscrupulous “fly by night” operators whose practices need to be addressed in this further revision of the Lifeline rules and regulations.

In my capacity as a Distinguished Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Free State Foundation, I have supported reform measures intended to reduce fraud and waste in the Lifeline program, while at the same time recognizing its importance as “A Vital Lifeline.” That’s why I support both private and public efforts to reduce fraudulent or abusive practices.

Commendably, the FCC already has adopted some politically charged and often unpopular but much-needed reforms to the Lifeline program. Most of these are being implemented apace, and, according to an FCC press release, have already produced over $300 million dollars in savings.

One of the biggest challenges to implementing further reforms has been the lack of a “national database,” and just this week the FCC held a database webinar regarding this issue. It is too bad that the FCC didn’t follow the suggestion made by me and others to work with other departments of government (HHS, Agriculture, WIC, RUS, etc.) to insure a subsidy recipient is qualified by virtue of some existing program for low-income eligible persons, (for example, free and reduced lunch, AFDC, etc.) and then to check each Lifeline recipient against a national database populated by every Lifeline provider.

Or, the suggestion of requiring a “bond” similar to the construction bonds all road builders pay, in order to be a Lifeline provider and reduce the possibility of these “fly by night” or “tent cities” issuing “Obama-phones.”

The FCC should give these and other suggestions, including the one offered by TracFone in its rulemaking petition, serious consideration so that Lifeline can continue to be just that – “A Vital Lifeline” to those Americans most in need.

How in the world in this day and age would any of us apply for a job, respond to a job offer, get a phone call from school about a sick child, or even know to pick up a prescription at the drug store without our mobile device? So if we throw out the baby with the bathwater, we increase the likelihood a digital divide continues and diminish the possibility that our citizens most in need will “graduate” from the Lifeline program to become gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens.

This article originally appeared on The Free State Foundation.

  • Deborah TateHon. Deborah Taylor Tate is a member of the MMTC Board of Directors, co-chair of Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positives Images of Women and Girls, and a former FCC commissioner.
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