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Lifeline and Link-Up Programs: Stay Connected!

by: Joel Gurin

October 12, 2010

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No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can't afford it.

Using the telephone has become such a routine part of our lives that many of us take for granted that we can pick up a phone and be in contact with family, schools, friends, employers, doctors, emergency services – that we have the ability to stay connected with the rest of the world. But it is critical that we not leave behind those who are struggling to get basic telephone service and need help to get and stay connected. Some vulnerable consumers can't even dial 911 in an emergency.

No one should be without access to vital emergency services and community resources because they can't afford it.

The Lifeline and Link-Up programs of the Universal Service Fund ensure that all Americans can get basic telephone service by providing limited discounts to consumers who might not otherwise be able to afford service. Lifeline involves discounts on the monthly charges, and Link-Up involves a discount on the cost of initiating telephone service. The discounts are available for the primary residential telephone, even if it's a wireless phone. Many eligible consumers including senior citizens, people with disabilities, veterans and their families, non-English speaking and those living in rural areas and Tribal lands are facing hard economic times, long and short-term. There are eligible consumers for the Lifeline and Link-Up programs in every state. But only one-third of eligible Americans participate. To find out how the Lifeline and Link-Up programs work in your state go to LifelineSupport.org.

At the FCC, we're constantly looking for ways to improve what have already been two very valuable programs. Teaming up with our partners, the National Association of Regulatory tility Commissioners (NARUC) and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA), we began a stepped up nation-wide Lifeline outreach effort to reach out to educate and raise public awareness of and participation in the Lifeline and Link-Up programs, beginning with the second annual "National Telephone Discount Lifeline Awareness Week."

We kicked off Awareness Week 2010 on September 13 with a congressional staff briefing on Capitol Hill. The take away I got was that everyone has a part to play in spreading the word to those who need and qualify for these important programs. I was particularly struck by the remarks of one of my fellow speakers, Mark Andersen, Director of the "We are Family Senior Outreach Network" in Washington DC. Talking about the vulnerable low income seniors he and his volunteers help serve, he cautioned everyone in the audience to consider that the word "Lifeline" is "not hyperbole." He reminded that for many, the telephone is their lifeline - that the senior citizens with whom he and his volunteers work generally live on about $800 a month and struggle with being able to stay connected.

The Lifeline and Link-Up programs offer the 43 million Americans now living at or below the poverty line a means to get connected and pay for basic telephone service immediately. Our goal in the coming year is to promote awareness nation-wide through education and outreach to assure that the message reaches those that need it. For more, including outreach tools on getting out the word, go to www.lifeline.gov.

On September 14, Representative Doris Matsui for herself and Representative Edward Markey submitted House Resolution 1616 which expressed the support of Congress for Awareness Week and commended the FCC, NARUC, and NASUCA for their initiative creating Awareness Week to promote Lifeline and Link-Up subscribership. NARUC President David Coen of Vermont issued a statement in support of the resolution.

In an accompanying guest blog post, New York State Public Service Commissioner, Patricia Acampora, makes clear what is at stake: "Telephone service provides a vital link to family, friends, employment, commercial opportunity and emergency services".

At the FCC, we're also looking at ways to improve these programs from the consumer's perspective. Consumers have filed complaints about billing, enrollment, equipment, customer service and more. We'll be taking a closer look at all these issues over the coming year.

Finally, we're looking at ways to use Lifeline and Link-Up to help close the digital divide. A national survey done for the Broadband Plan showed that only 40% of Americans with annual household incomes below $20,000 have adopted broadband, and that cost is a major barrier to getting broadband service.

The National Broadband Plan, which the FCC released in March, recommended increasing broadband adoption among low-income Americans through reforms of the Lifeline and Link-Up programs to help support broadband service. It recommended that the FCC integrate the expanded Lifeline and Link-Up programs with other state and local e-government efforts. It also recommended that state social service agencies should take a more active role in consumer outreach and in qualifying eligible consumers. The FCC is looking into facilitating pilot programs to help make these changes happen.

We have some real opportunities to make Lifeline and Link-Up even more efficient, effective, and helpful to consumers. We are asking for everyone's help to get out the word to assure that eligible low-income households know about the assistance they can get to "stay connected."

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