Today marks the beginning of Lifeline Awareness Week 2015, when agencies and organizations across the country conduct outreach to eligible low-income households about the Lifeline program. It’s also worth pausing today to recognize the work that our partners in public utilities commissions across the country do towards making Lifeline both beneficial to its subscribers and the best use of the ratepayer dollars that support it. While these efforts often take place behind-the-scenes, they are critical to ensuring that low-income Americans can access the vital communications technologies they need.

Since the program began in 1985, Lifeline has offered families of limited means discounted phone service so they can access the economic, personal, and public safety benefits of reliable telecommunications service – from calling a child’s school to reaching 911 in the event of an emergency.

But as we all know, the communications landscape has changed fundamentally over the past 30 years, and full participation in society now requires more than simple voice service.  In June, the Commission found in its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Lifeline program that “[t]oday, broadband is essential to participate in society.” With that in mind, the Commission sought comment on how to best include broadband and promote efficiency in the Lifeline program, among other important questions. 

As we promote awareness of the benefits that the Lifeline program provides today, we are mindful of the Commission’s recent findings about the promise that affordable broadband access holds for low-income households. Broadband can help families fully engage in civic life and meaningfully access health services, job opportunities, and educational resources. And ultimately, all network users benefit when everyone, regardless of income level, can communicate and innovate through broadband access. Among other important topics addressed, the public comments we’ve already received in response to the Further Notice reveal the remarkable variety of ways that broadband can enrich and transform lives.

The public has pointed to how broadband enables access to new communications technologies for people with disabilities.  With broadband service, children can complete their homework and prepare to be engaged citizens, state programs can share health care and nutrition information with parents and expectant parents, veterans can find much-needed support programs, and families can find gainful and fulfilling employment. For Tribal lands, we also have heard from commenters expressing how broadband can be especially useful in remote areas for maintaining important civic, economic, and social connections.

With the Commission’s oversight, the Lifeline program has evolved from a wireline-only program to one that embraces the benefits of mobile service. Now, the Commission is looking at ways to modernize and restructure the Lifeline program to keep pace with today’s technology.  In this vein, we continue to welcome public comment on all issues raised in the Commission’s Further Notice, bearing in mind the promise of broadband.