On April 25, 2013, the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing, The Lifeline Fund: Money Well Spent?, to examine the Universal Service Fund’s Lifeline program which provides discounts on starting and maintaining telecommunications service for eligible consumers in need. The Lifeline Program is designed to ensure that quality telecommunications services are available to eligible consumers at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.
The following statement can be attributed to Charles Benton, Chairman of the Benton Foundation.
For the past several years, the Benton Foundation has committed significant staff resources to help inform the reform and modernization of the Lifeline program, which provides discounts on monthly telephone service for eligible low-income consumers to help ensure they have the opportunities and security that telephone service affords, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and 911 services. Our aim is to engage organizations whose constituencies can and should benefit most from programs like Lifeline, and whose voices are not often heard. We are gratified, therefore, by the strong show of support demonstrated through letters submitted for today’s House Communications and Technology subcommittee hearing on Lifeline.
The Lifeline program provides modest, affordable, essential phone service to low-income households and is literally a “lifeline” to jobs, emergency service, medical care, childcare, the school system, social services, family and community. Benton joined a number of public interest advocates in reminding Congress about the facts of Lifeline.
Lifeline Provides Affordable No-Frills Voice Service: The Lifeline program has been in existence since 1985 and evolved to include wireless service in 2005. The current Lifeline program provides a discount on voice service via traditional landline local service or wireless service. Carriers are approved by states or the FCC to participate in the Lifeline program. The wireline Lifeline phone service provides a discounted rate on traditional phone service to the home. Wireless Lifeline is an evolving product in terms of number of minutes covered by the $9.25 per month covered by the Lifeline program. Typically it is a modest prepaid service requiring no deposit, often including a free handset and 250 minutes a month (a little over 4 hours of phone service a month for incoming and outgoing calls). Lifeline households can purchase additional minutes to add to their plan. The current Lifeline program does not cover data, but there is a small Lifeline broadband pilot that was part of the recent reform decision and is rolling out now.
Lifeline Enhances the Network Effect: The communications network has more value the more people are connected to it and access is increasingly important. Expectation of instantaneous connection has become the societal norm for those who can readily afford smart phones and broadband connectivity via multiple devices. It is increasingly an expectation of employers to readily reach employees or perspective employees. Yet, having reliable access to a wireline and wireless connection is not readily affordable for households of modest means and the Lifeline program only covers one phone service per household. Even with its limitations, Lifeline plays an important and unique role in the provision of basic essential voice connectivity for low-income households.
The Importance of the Lifeline Program: The Lifeline program provides no-frills basic phone service to households at or below 135% of poverty (around $26,400 a year for a family of 3) and households participating in needs-based assistance programs such as Medicaid, SNAP SSI, Public Housing Assistance, LIHEAP, TANF or the National School Lunch Free Lunch Program. Recent surveys of wireless Lifeline customers show:
- Around half are over 45 to 50 years of age, with a substantial percent over sixty.
- Veterans participate.
- Consumers with disabilities participate.
- A large percent are unemployed or underemployed and use their Lifeline service to find work.
- Lifeline service provides access to healthcare.
- Lifeline service provides an introduction to wireless service.
Low-Income households move more often than non-low–income households: It is vital that Lifeline remain technology neutral and include wireless service, particularly because of the high levels of geographic mobility. Certain populations move more frequently than others. According to the US Census, over half of households below poverty moved and almost two-thirds of renters moved within a 5-year period. African-American, Asian and Hispanic or Latino households move more often than white households. The unemployed move more often than the employed. Over half of separated households and 40% of divorced households move within a 5-year period compared to 18% for married households.
Low-income households resort to doubling-up and using shelters for housing: Scenarios where more than one eligible household can live at the same postal address: A sad reality for households with limited means is an inability to afford housing. The bleak economic effects of the recession resulted in an 11.4% increase in the number of people doubling up between 2007 and 2010 (affecting 22 million households). There are also group housing situations, such as single-room occupancies (SROs), nursing homes, group homes for those with disabilities, and domestic violence shelters, where the dwelling units may not have their own US Postal service address although the occupants are separate households. These are among the most fragile of low-income households and a group most in need of wireless Lifeline service to achieve self-sufficiency or independence.
Lifeline service is a lifeline for the working poor and the unemployed: A substantial number of Lifeline participants are unemployed or underemployed. A stable phone number is essential for a low-wage worker to pick up extra shifts or jobs. Phone service is also important to coordinate transportation to and from work and to notify an employer if work will be missed due to an emergency, thus helping to maintain employment. If the worker has young children, the phone is important for coordinating childcare logistics and to remain in contact in case the child is sick or in an emergency.
Lifeline enhances the efficient operation of other assistance programs: Increasingly social services supports are accessed electronically, through centralized call centers and internet sites. While the Lifeline program is limited to voice service, this provides access to critical programs, allowing checking on the status of benefits, re-certification of program eligibility, obtaining notice of trainings, interviews, work assignments, etc. It is worthy of investigation to determine whether the currently offered 250 minutes (a little over 4 hours a month) is adequate, given this trend in program delivery, especially where wait times can be long and call backs are common. Other agencies see the value of the Lifeline program in their administration of services.
Lifeline also helps the medical community provide care: Health care providers treating low-income patients can find it difficult to follow-up with their patients without reliable phone service. A pediatrician who practices in the inner-city and whose patients are very young and fragile described why the Lifeline service is so important. When she treats a 2-year old with a congenital heart condition, developmental delay and a failure to thrive, she needs to be able to reach the parents to arrange for medical transport and delivery of special formula, and ensure that medications are taken as prescribed to avoid serious complications. The ability of parents of medically fragile young children to reach her immediately when there is a problem can mean the difference between treating a developing pneumonia with medication or treating the child in the pediatric intensive care unit with severe respiratory distress.
Lifeline is essential in emergency situations: The no-frills Lifeline voice service is important for protecting public health and safety. This includes the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency as well as the ability to be contacted (e.g., the ability of the school to contact a parent or guardian when a child is sick or injured). Increasingly communities are relying on reverse 911 to warn residents in emergencies.
The Lifeline Program has Undergone Serious Reforms That Should be Allowed to Play Out: The recent Lifeline reform has put the program on more secure footing and made it more uniform between states. The FCC eliminated the Link Up program and ramped down toll limitation service. The Link Up program was created to help cover the cost of establishing a wireline connection in a home and toll limitation was designed to avoid expensive long distance charges that could make the phone bill unaffordable. The FCC tightened enrollment procedures for consumers. Obtaining and retaining Lifeline service has become more burdensome for consumers which may well account for enrollment drop-off. Lifeline applicants must provide documentation of eligibility (e.g., proof of SNAP participation) before being approved for Lifeline service. Consumers must also re-certify eligibility annually or they will be de-enrolled from the program. Applicants must also provide their date of birth, partial social security number in addition to their address for a duplicates check. If the address has other Lifeline households, then the applicant must fill out a Household worksheet to determine eligibility. There are a number of certifications made under penalty of perjury under these new reforms.
Benton believes that the Federal Communications Commission has taken very important steps in addressing waste, fraud and abuse, and should continue to do so. But we stand with our colleagues in the civil rights, social justice and aging networks in urging that Lifeline continue to provide low-income consumers connections to vital telecommunications services.
The Benton Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting communication in the public interest. These comments reflect the institutional view of the Foundation and, unless obvious from the text, are not intended to reflect the views of individual Foundation officers, directors, or advisors.