Fundamental reforms should include expanding the Lifeline Program to cover broadband and completely overhauling program administration
WASHINGTON, D.C. – August 31, 2015 – Today, the Internet Innovation Alliance (“IIA”) urged the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to embrace fundamental and sweeping reform as the agency moves forward in its effort to modernize the existing federal Lifeline Program. Only a “sea change” in the program’s current design will advance the goal of creating a 21st Century program capable of efficiently and effectively delivering broadband Internet technologies and meaningful opportunities to America’s low-income consumers, according to IIA.
IIA’s comments filed today in response to the FCC’s Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) on Lifeline Program modernization emphasize the core need to include broadband as a new eligible service under Lifeline. IIA contends that the failure to update the program to include high-speed Internet would potentially jeopardize Lifeline’s future existence.
“The time for bold action is now. As Commissioner Clyburn aptly noted, Lifeline reform gives us a unique opportunity to ‘rid us of antiquated constructs’ and ‘design a future-proof program that enables low-income consumers to have access to broadband services comparable to everyone else,’” commented Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman who chaired the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet and now serves as honorary chairman of the IIA.
Beyond making broadband an eligible Lifeline service, IIA’s filing urges the FCC to squarely address existing structural flaws that today hamstring the program and the Lifeline marketplace. IIA proposes that the Commission move swiftly to adopt the following essential reforms:
1. Safeguard the Lifeline Program by taking eligibility determinations away from self-interested service providers.
In its comments, IIA enthusiastically supports the FCC’s proposal to remove the responsibility of consumer eligibility determination from Lifeline providers. IIA points out that determining eligibility for receiving benefits from a government program is an inherently governmental function; as such, eligibility determinations should not be left to service providers that may have improper economic incentives to increase enrollment.
2. Simplify and protect the Lifeline Program by vesting administration in a state agency using a “coordinated enrollment” and de-enrollment process.
IIA supports relying on state governmental agencies as the neutral entities charged with using a coordinated enrollment process to verify consumer eligibility and administer the enrollment and de-enrollment processes. Under this process, consumers determined eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) by the State would automatically be deemed eligible to receive Lifeline assistance. IIA believes that a reformed federal Lifeline program should link eligibility determination to a single, mature assistance program – SNAP – which would increase administrative efficiency, promote participation by both consumers and service providers, and reduce the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse.
3. Empower consumers and promote dignity with a “Lifeline Benefit Card” – a direct-to-consumer benefit.
To preserve and advance the personal dignity of Lifeline beneficiaries, IIA believes that Lifeline Program benefits should be transferred directly to the consumer using a “Lifeline Benefit Card” or similar approach (e.g., coordinated enrollment taking advantage of existing SNAP EBT cards and adding the Lifeline benefit to that EBT card). Eligible consumers could use the “Lifeline Benefit Card” as a voucher to buy whichever communications service meets their needs from authorized and registered providers, whether broadband, wireline, or wireless voice service (on a stand-alone or bundled basis).
4. Incentivize voluntary participation in the Lifeline Program by cutting red tape.
IIA recommends delinking the ETC designation from the Lifeline Program so subsidy recipients receive the complete benefits of robust competition that full service provider participation could offer. Removing existing regulatory roadblocks will make it easier for service providers to participate in Lifeline and incentivize them to compete for the purchasing power of Lifeline consumers.
Boucher added, “IIA stands with Commissioner Clyburn and her fellow Commissioners in the belief that the time for comprehensive Lifeline reform is now to ensure the relevance and fiscal integrity of the program so that all Americans may participate fully in the broadband century.”