Celebrating National Lifeline Awareness Week in Washington and California

This week, civil rights groups joined with public interest and media reform organizations to highlight the importance of Lifeline – the Universal Service Fund program that supports telephone service for low-income consumers. To celebrate National Lifeline Awareness Week (September 9-15, 2013), Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, California Public Utility Commissioner Catherine Sandoval and low-income consumer advocates made the case for strengthening and modernizing Lifeline. The week is designed to both raise awareness of and participation in Lifeline a federal/State program that helps make telephone service more affordable for qualified customers. The program became the focus of partisan gamesmanship during the 2012 election cycle and detractors often refer to as “Obama Phones.” At a New America Foundation event, Chairman Clyburn said she aimed to “set the record straight.”

"Here’s the truth. The Lifeline program long predates the current Administration," Chairwoman Clyburn said her speech. "It was actually created during the Reagan administration, so let's give credit where credit is due. The Lifeline program is a legacy President Reagan could be proud of."

"Most of us take for granted that we can call 911 in a crisis and reach family, friends and employers when necessary," Chairman Clyburn also said this week. "But for many low-income Americans, this basic necessity -- phone service remains a luxury few can afford. Ensuring access to communications for all Americans, regardless of income, is why Lifeline was launched in 1985 during the Reagan Administration, and why this commitment was codified by Congress in 1996. And that's why the FCC has modernized and reformed Lifeline for today's world of mobile communications while looking forward to the next challenge: providing affordable access to broadband. Lifeline Awareness Week is a time for us to appreciate what a lifeline the program has been for the neediest Americans and to share our vision of a lifeline to jobs, education, health and opportunity through affordable broadband access for all."

In California, the state's Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) began addressing administrative problems with its LifeLine Program in 2006 and now serves as a potential model as the FCC designs a national eligibility data base to further guard against waste, fraud and abuse.

Back in July 2013, the Benton Foundation's Director of Policy, Amina Fazlullah, joined CPUC Commissioner Sandoval for a panel discussion in Eureka, California, on the importance of Lifeline and some of the challenges facing the program. The discussion helped to highlight some of the hurdles to telecommunications access in both rural and urban low-income communities:

Lifeline Awareness/Resource Awareness: A quick look at the number of Lifeline participants nationally compared to those eligible reveals a drastic difference. Participant numbers are consistently lower, largely due to lack of effective outreach. California has taken a "community by community" approach. Commissioner Sandoval highlighted the CAPUC's efforts to translate all outreach materials in all relevant languages, finding and using trusted community partners to spread the word on Lifeline and setting aside funding for outreach efforts. The CAPUC relies on communities to present the Lifeline program through trusted speakers at well-attended gatherings. This differs from the typical top down approach that includes generic public service announcements, generic print advertising or translated brochures. The "community by community" approach has worked well for California's Lifeline program which serves a highly diverse constituency.

Infrastructure: Low-income communities in both urban and rural areas are rarely the first in line when critical infrastructure is built. For example, in Eureka, California, there are communities that have, just in the past year, gained access to electricity. It is challenging to find telecommunications solutions for these communities with limited financial and technological resources. The CAPUC public hearings gathered input and information on the various communities where Lifeline is critical and looked at what steps must to be taken to ensure that the program is flexible enough to serve the changing and unique needs of the state’s Lifeline-eligible residents.

The Benton Foundation posed a few questions about Lifeline to Commissioner Sandoval.

What does access to telecommunications service mean for low income consumers?

  1. Access to employment opportunities.
  2. Access to information about the Affordable Care Act and other medical services.
  3. Contact with schools and educational institutions, including for themselves and their children.
  4. Access to emergency services, including reverse 911.
  5. The general value of connectedness, which has been the point of universal service for decades.

What’s Lifeline doing for low income consumers in California?

  1. Lifeline makes available to eligible users the network(s) and connectedness upon which modern life has come to depend.
  2. It is the necessary supplement to, if not sine quo non, of the “safety net” programs for low income consumers.

How is California's LifeLine program a model for other states?

  1. Generosity: California provides $11.84 of support, soon to rise to over $12.00, an amount well in excess of the Federal support level of $9.25.
  2. California uses a third party administrator to verify eligibility.
  3. California contracts with an outreach vendor.
  4. California requires carriers offering basic residential service to notify consumers of the availability of Lifeline/LifeLine.
  5. California provides unlimited access to 800 numbers, a critical way for low income customers to connect to employment and other services.

What shape is Lifeline reform taking in California?

  1. The inclusion of wireless in California LifeLine to supplement and expand upon the availability of Federal ETC offerings.
  2. Development of an automated pre-registration process that is timely for eligible consumers, for carriers, and for the third party administrator.
  3. To mesh with revised FCC requirements while retaining California’s unique LifeLine offerings.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Lifeline program?

  1. In California, expansion of the program to encompass alternative providers, including wireless.
  2. Assuring accountability and clear paths of jurisdictional authority to assure the integrity of the program and its contribution to universal service.

Industry observers are keeping a close eye on California's LifeLine program. Although currently stalled, a bill at the statehouse would turn the state's LifeLine program into a voucher system, providing discounts on phone services and getting rid of most oversight by the CPUC. The CPUC is wrapping up plans to expand Lifeline so that participants, say a couple making $25,000 a year, can get affordable cellphone service along with features currently available from the landline program, such as free access to toll-free numbers and unlimited incoming calls. Instead, AT&T — a lobbying powerhouse — and other telecommunications companies want to offer participants $11.85 worth of discounts a month, but leave the monthly phone charge to be set by the phone companies, not the PUC.

The PUC, which has been working on the LifeLine transition to wireless phones for two years, says it's on schedule to unveil the new program in January.

By Amina Fazlullah.