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Reforming and Improving Lifeline and Link Up

by: Sharon Gillett

January 13, 2011

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Last year was a busy one for Universal Service Fund (USF) reform at the FCC. We adopted a major order that modernized the E-rate program, which supports broadband for schools and libraries. We began the reform process for the High-Cost Fund, which supports phone service and broadband in rural and other high-cost areas, and the Rural Health Care program, which supports broadband for rural health facilities.

As part of our commitment to modernize all our USF programs and improve protections against waste, fraud, and abuse, we've also been working hard on improvements and reform proposals for Lifeline and Link Up, which provide telephone service discounts to low-income consumers. These discounts ensure that the financial hardships these customers face don't disconnect them from the societal and economic benefits of having phone service.

Here's what's been going on...

  • Last spring, in light of significant technological and marketplace changes since the current Lifeline and Link Up rules were adopted, we asked the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service to study and make recommendations to the Commission on our Lifeline and Link Up eligibility, verification, and outreach rules. The Joint Board completed its work and sent us its recommendations late last year, and we'll soon be addressing those recommendations in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (more on that below).
  • Recently we have increased our supervision of the program, focusing on a number of different ways to eliminate potential waste, fraud and abuse, and to address the program's growth. Under our oversight, the program's administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company (known as USAC), will conduct nearly fifty compliance audits in the coming months addressing a range of program requirements and covering multiple states and providers. These audits will test the compliance with our rules of carriers who serve low-income customers and provide us with the data we need to make necessary program reforms. More importantly, these audits will assist us in discovering and exposing any misconduct in the program, leading to recovery of any improperly distributed program funds and creating incentives for companies to strengthen their internal controls to prevent future problems.
  • We have also taken targeted actions that will continue to protect the program against waste, fraud, and abuse. We denied Tracfone's petition to eliminate our requirement that it contact all of its customers annually to ensure those customers are receiving only one Lifeline benefit per household. This action comes on the heels of our ordering Virgin Mobile just a few weeks ago to adopt several measures designed to safeguard against abuse and growth in the fund, such as requiring the company to remove customers from the program if they don't use their phones for 60 days, and taking other steps to prevent customers from receiving duplicate Lifeline-supported benefits. The benefits of Lifeline and Link Up can only be assured if we carefully monitor the program to ensure that program funds go only to households eligible for them.
  • As recommended by the National Broadband Plan, we've also been working on the development of pilot programs to determine if and how Lifeline and Link Up could be used to support broadband, including through discussions with outside stakeholders who are interested in launching such programs. More than any other reason, consumers point to cost as the main reason for not adopting broadband, but we know that cost is rarely the only reason. Pilot programs could help us understand these reasons and how best to use our limited resources to promote sustainable broadband adoption. The goal of the pilot program would be to collect actionable information to ensure we develop effective strategies for helping low-income families connect to broadband.
  • Finally, we are preparing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will tee up a number of improvements to Lifeline and Link Up, including a set of recommendations made in November by the Joint Board, as well as proposals to control the size of the program. The proposals will not only include improvements to the existing Lifeline program to reduce waste, fraud and abuse but also ways to modernize the program by evaluating whether it reflects the realities of current industry practices and communications technologies.
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