Lifeline and Link Up Programs for the 21st Century

After years of consideration, the Federal Communications Commission is going to update its Lifeline and Link Up programs for the 21st century. Chairman Julius Genachowski, in a speech January 9, announced his plan to significantly reform the program to include broadband-focused elements and to streamline the legacy voice service program to ensure that it performs efficiently.

We at the Benton Foundation are extremely pleased that the Chairman has followed through with a solid Lifeline and Link Up proposal after years of work from the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, FCC staff, the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee, and public interest commentors.

Unlike most of the other Universal Service Fund (USF) programs, LifeLine and Link Up provide direct support to consumers. For decades the Lifeline and Link Up programs have served as the country’s only consistent source of telecommunication service support to low-income Americans. While the bulk of USF money focused on extending infrastructure through support to telecommunication companies, Lifeline and Link Up have focused on providing our most vulnerable neighbors with access to the most critical telecommunication mediums of our day.

Unfortunately, despite a clear need for broadband access in low-income communities, the government had not moved forward with the transition of program to reflect today’s communication landscape. Today, access to healthcare, educational resources, job training, potential employers, local/state/federal government services, and sources of news all depend on a combination of voice service and robust broadband access. Transitioning the program has been no easy feat: the FCC punted on major changes to the program, ignoring the broadband needs of the low-income community, until April of 2009 when the FCC began the development of the National Broadband Plan (NBP.)

The NBP set out clear goals for USF reform and highlighted the critical role Lifeline and Link Up would play in connecting the nation to broadband. Since the release of the NBP Chairman Genachowski has kept modernization and reform of the Lifeline and Link Up efficiently moving through the FCC’s multi-layered review processes.

As FCC Commissioners now review the draft of the Lifeline and Link Up reform order from FCC staff, the Benton Foundation urges them to vote out an order that will finally update the Lifeline Link Up programs to respond to the broadband needs of our low-income communities.

Amina Fazlullah, Benton Foundation Public Policy Counsel