Federal Communications Commission

Updating a Critical Lifeline

May 10th, 2010 by Irene Flannery - Acting Associate Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau

Support for low-income consumers to enable access to telecommunications has long been a priority for states as well as the federal government, and the FCC has worked in tandem with the states to ensure that support is available to all those who are eligible.  So it is appropriate that we ask our partners in the states for their input now, given the tremendous changes to telecommunications that are shaping the way we assist low-income consumers through our Lifeline and Link Up programs.  By way of background, since 1984, Lifeline has helped offset the cost of a monthly phone bill, and Link Up has helped offset telephone installation costs, for low-income consumers.  The concept behind these programs, which are part of the FCC’s universal service programs, is that all Americans need access to telecommunications – a concept that the National Broadband Plan recently recommended be updated to include broadband.

One change to the telecommunications marketplace is the increasing availability of alternatives to traditional wireline phone service, including wireless and cable services.  This change has lead to a rapidly expanding universe of carriers participating in the Lifeline and Link Up programs, with the result being that low-income consumers have more options to meet their communications needs.  With greater participation in the low-income programs, it is a good time to revisit the programs with our state partners to ensure that the programs are effectively reaching eligible consumers, and that our oversight continues to be appropriately structured to minimize waste, fraud, and abuse.

Another change is that broadband has become an essential mode of communication for many Americans in the last decade – it is an essential tool for jobs, education, information, and entertainment. The National Broadband Plan recommended that we expand the Lifeline and Link Up programs to make broadband more affordable for low-income households.  We are asking our state partners for their input so that we can benefit from their experience and viewpoints.

In the FCC world, the mechanism for seeking state input is to seek guidance through an entity called the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, otherwise known as the Joint Board, which we did through the order hyperlinked above.  We look forward to the Joint Board’s input in helping our universal service programs keep pace with technology.

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