Disconnecting Lifeline Telephone Service for Millions

New Orleans   Lifeline programs are great services in our modern age and we need more of them.  In concept “lifeline” conceptually stands for the provision of a basic level of service, like electricity, gas, telephone, or even internet potentially, essential for the very survival of a low income family or senior citizen.

Telephone lifeline services have been around for decades since the mid-1980’s and arose from so many of the organizing campaigns that ACORN and others waged state by state beginning in the early 1970’s.  In the case of telephone services lifeline access is paid for through a monthly billing charging average around $2.50 for a host of subsidized communications services monitored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  For basic telephone the eligibility is based on the federal poverty guidelines or triggered by participation in federal benefit programs like food stamps, Medicaid, welfare, and other entitlements for the poor that are part of what is left of our safety net and citizen wealth apparatus.

The Wall Street Journal in a curious front page attack by innuendo on the poor ran an article written by Spencer Ante that seemed half-complementary and half a goosing of the FCC.  It reported that the FCC in 2012 began requiring verification of income for the Lifeline program rather than self-certification.  I could, and probably should, go on at length about why such a change is punitive not simply because of the presumption of fraud that motivates such moves, but because such policy shifts are always primarily about creating barriers for accessing the program, which not surprisingly is exactly what happened in this FCC “reform.”

In curious language the WSJ claimed “A review of the five top recipients of Lifeline support conducted by the FCC for the Journal…”  What does that mean?  Is Murdoch’s Journal saying the FCC conducted a review expressly for them?  How bizarre!  Later at the end of the article, Ante writes that, “Carriers were required by Jan. 31 to report the number of subscribers they had removed from Lifeline as of the end of the year.  The data reviewed by The Wall Street Journal came from those reports.”  Perhaps that is a more truthful description, though in the second telling it is hard to miss the fact that the FCC seems to be sending a message to service carriers encouraging people to eject the poor from Lifeline service, which is also bizarre.  Is this happening with Obama appointees in a Democratic administration?

Not surprisingly, the numbers dropped significantly for these top five users.  Virgin Mobile disqualified 44% meaning more than 1.5 million users, AT&T knocked off 47% adding another 600,000 of the poor who lost the service.  Verizon also booted 44% but that only involved about 10,000 users.

What are we to make of all of this?  Is it a front page scandal or what?  Mainly “or what.”  Information from the companies indicates that the vast majority of customers simply did not respond to the letters asking for verification.  Many undoubtedly moved.  Others might have moved off of unemployment or whatever.  Others may not have been able to take the time to stand in line to recertify or didn’t understand what was going on.  Others may simply have not been able to continue to afford the service.

Other than attacking the poor, what is the point of all of this?  None of this was a scam.  All Lifeline users had to pay for the service about $10.00 per month and the companies all made money by providing it, and in some cases if the minimum calls and texts were exceeded, the companies collected pretty pennies on the excess of course.  Additionally, many of the poor were automatically enrolled in states that did not require verification and in fact enrolled people as they qualified for other benefits.  This is clearly a situation of “no harm, no foul.”

How about the supposed nonprofit administrator of this program for the FCC, what was their role in signing people up, increasing the outreach, and making sure the poor were in the program?  The outfit turns out to be called the Universal Service Administrative Company.  The FCC might be pretending this is some kind of arms length operation serving the poor, but they know better.  The outfit is largely dominated by the company and the industry with a smattering of librarians in the mix because some part of the USAC operation provides communication to rural and other libraries.  The board says it all in many ways.  There are 19 members but only 15 of the seats are actually filled.  There are 3 women thanks to the librarian ranks largely.  There is one Latino who works for Cox Communication.  There is one African-American who is on the Florida Public Service Commission thanks to an appointment and reappointment by two Republican governors down there.  There was one lawyer who I would think is on there as the sole token low income representative, and you can bet I’ll be calling him.

Here’s the bottom line:  low income families need Lifeline telephone service.  The FCC once again seems like a poor steward for anything involving the poor, as we have seen in the Comcast mess and the problems with their lack of real effort in increasing internet access for the poor.  The FCC seems to see their role as industry lapdog more than watchdog, and enabler of suppressive rather than accessible policies.

What does it take for someone over at the White House or in Congress to bring this outfit back in line before they disconnect the lifelines that are critical for the poor in so many areas?

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