Monday, November 21, 2011

FCC Should Pursue Solutions to Make Lifeline an Effcient Job Line

Posted for Deborah Taylor Tate 

Over the years, I've written a lot about the Lifeline-Linkup program which -- thankfully and finally -- is part of the overall USF Reform being undertaken by the FCC.  As a former FCC Commissioner and Federal Joint Board Chair, I had really hoped to start the "reform" back in December 2009; however, better late than never. And sometimes I wish I were still at the FCC so I could put out a statement whenever companies step forward with creative, positive solutions to real problems.

This past weekend, two of the leading Lifeline providers -- Nexus and TracFone -- announced a plan to help resolve a "bumper sticker" issue of "waste, fraud and abuse," specifically as it relates to any duplication of Lifeline. By law, Lifeline is restricted to one subsidy per household. Nexus and TracFone "plan to engage a third party vendor to develop and implement a database which will enable all ETCs [eligible telecommunications carriers] to determine whether applicants for enrollment in their Lifeline programs are enrolled in other ETCs' Lifeline programs." The two providers intend to "reach out to other Lifeline providers to participate in this cooperative effort" to prevent and reduce incidences of duplicative enrollment in Lifeline.

The FCC has an opportunity to adopt an industry-led, voluntary, resolution that will be cost-saving -- i.e., paid for by the companies themselves. It can certainly be implemented much more quickly than a burdensome bureaucratic government scheme.  And, most importantly, it will resolve the problem.

With 44 million Americans in poverty -- not to mention that a recent report recognized those communities are "predominantly of people of color" -- I have never understood why Lifeline was not being championed as a "job line."  Even though the FCC and this Administration say they are intent upon getting broadband deployed to every American, how incredible that huge segments of our population still do not have access to a simple phone. (And how odd that we often applaud developing countries for connecting their poor to cell phones while we still can do more to help our own citizens to gain access to communications in the 21st Century!).

We all agree that any fraud should be investigated, waste reduced, and abuse stopped. And, in the abstract, more regulatory oversight, stiffer eligibility rules and additional hoops to get Lifeline make for a terrific sound bite. However, with unemployment continuing at an all time high and Americans facing ongoing tough times, we should utilize a program that could actually help solve larger societal problems: helping link up someone who is jobless to a job, or accessing necessary health care, or just finding out your child is sick.

Lifeline was created during the Reagan Administration. As President Reagan so eloquently put it: "Welfare'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 that does precisely that.

And by the way: Just try leaving your cell phone at home for a day and see what its like to be without your lifeline.