Empowerment Through Connectivity: The Lifeline Phone Program’s Impact on Communities

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Landline Phones

As the nation implements social distancing to help contain the spread of COVID-19, affordable phone and internet access is critical. For many low-income consumers, that means the Federal Lifeline program.

They urge you to prioritize this vital program rather than creating barriers that inhibit provider participation and hinder its effectiveness.

Access to Information

Access to affordable phone and internet services allows low-income households to stay connected to their local communities, job opportunities, and public safety resources. In addition, a reliable connection can help these families improve their financial stability and better navigate the internet to research prices and savings opportunities.

Research consistently finds that cost is the primary barrier to subscription. This is why a lifeline program has been essential in addressing the digital divide for America’s poorest communities. Unfortunately, recent proposals by the FCC would make it harder for these households to participate in the program.

For example, the proposal to require carriers to verify subscribers’ data usage could be a significant burden for Lifeline participants, who might need more time or institutional knowledge to contact their service providers consistently. This deeply invasive proposal also raises serious privacy concerns. This proposal could negatively impact Lifeline participation and threaten the program’s economic benefits to millions of Americans. The FCC must keep its focus on promoting connectivity for all rather than targeting vulnerable communities with proposals that will push them further away from the Internet.

Job Opportunities

Most job searches, applications, and interviews are conducted over the phone. For millions of low-income households, a Lifeline subsidy — which covers the monthly cost of landline or wireless service – is critical for navigating the complexities of job searching and accessing social services.

But despite its proven benefits, Lifeline has been attacked by a growing chorus of critics. Many of these critics seek to change the program by proposing a budget cap and making it harder for eligible households to sign up.

Rather than creating barriers to accessing the program, the government should focus on expanding its reach and improving its administrative apparatus. In particular, community anchor institutions should be funded to conduct outreach that helps educate eligible consumers about the program and its benefits. Public libraries, for example, are an ideal platform for delivering this education to residents, as these institutions are trusted and accessible by low-income families.

Health Care

Many low-income families need help to afford communication services. These affordable communications options profoundly impact individuals’ and families’ financial stability, educational opportunities, job access, and health care services.

Lifeline subsidizes the cost of voice and broadband service for eligible consumers based on their participation in federal programs like SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, BIA General Assistance, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or their eligibility through tribal TANF programs. Many Lifeline recipients receive voice and broadband service bundled together to help reduce their monthly bills.

The recent attacks on the Lifeline Program and its funding must stop. Rather than focus on defunding the program or slashing its budget, Congress should prioritize outreach and addressing critical issues impeding participation in the program. First and foremost, they must address the need to streamline the process of confirming Lifeline eligibility. The rollout of the National Verifier has slowed and hindered enrollment, and it is critical to improve and simplify this process to eliminate barriers to program participation. In addition, they should prioritize funding for community anchor institutions to reach and educate households on Lifeline.

Education

For many low-income families, telecommunication services are essential for staying in touch with family, finding jobs, accessing emergency services, and participating in modern society. Yet, these communications services are only affordable for millions with Lifeline’s help.

Despite the frequent accusations of fraud and waste, Lifeline has made a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans. But, it is time to refocus efforts on improving the program and increasing participation.

The FCC’s proposed reforms to Lifeline threaten the ability of thousands of people across the country to stay connected and advance their communities. In particular, they would reduce the number of eligible service providers by limiting the types of services they can provide and may restrict the use of resellers to deliver subsidized broadband.

As a result, more families will be left behind. We must prioritize outreach and education to ensure that low-income households can continue benefiting from the Lifeline phone program. This should include funding community anchor institutions to educate their populations about the program, especially families enrolled in SNAP and other assistance programs.

Community Support

Access to phone and internet services can also help low-income households improve their financial stability. Lifeline-eligible subscribers can use the internet to shop for better deals on products and services, allowing them to stretch their limited budgets further. Additionally, phone and internet access can provide families with the tools to navigate disasters and emergencies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, some Lifeline-eligible families used their phones to stay in touch with loved ones and obtain crucial healthcare information.

Finally, phone and internet services can improve digital literacy among low-income communities. Lifeline-eligible subscribers can access online education resources and take advantage of opportunities for self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately, the program faces challenges. For one, some Lifeline-eligible subscribers report that the devices they receive are technologically outdated. Others say they need help navigating the system to manage their account and maximize their benefits. The FCC has made strides to streamline the verification process for Lifeline subscribers, but it remains a significant barrier to participation.