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It's time to reboot the FCC Lifeline program

The reform and modernization plan would help narrow the digital divide

Published: September 04, 2015 04:00 PM

Broadband Internet service is critical to an ever-growing number of tasks in our daily lives, from job hunting to doing schoolwork to managing a family’s medical issues.

Yet millions of Americans don’t have access to affordable broadband. To help close this broadband gap, the Federal Communications Commission has a plan that we at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believe could be an important step in the right direction.

The plan focuses on the FCC’s Lifeline program for low-income consumers. Lifeline was created in 1985 during the Reagan administration to help people get access to phone service. Today, Lifeline provides an eligible household with a $9.25 monthly credit toward landline or wireless phone service.

The FCC plan would extend the Lifeline subsidy to include broadband service. This would be part of a larger effort to modernize and restructure the program.

We think this plan is vital to keeping pace with consumers’ evolving needs. To realize the true value of the Lifeline program, participants must have access to quality, competitive voice and broadband service.

In comments we recently filed at the FCC, we stressed that, as the Commission works to determine the appropriate funding levels, eligible consumers should be able to apply the credit to broadband and phone service, rather than having to choose one over the other. Both are important; it shouldn’t be “either or.”

Do you agree with the FCC's plan for the Lifeline program?

Tell us what you thing by adding a comment below.

We urged the Commission to consider increasing the amount of wireless minutes allotted for Lifeline users—the limit is currently at a low 250 minutes a month—as more consumers are depending on their mobile phone as a substitute for a landline.

The plan would also strengthen reforms aimed at waste and abuse of the system, as well as ensuring the program is being targeted to those who need it most, which we support.
Too many Americans are cut off from the many benefits—economic, entrepreneurial, and social—that flow directly from having broadband Internet. The problem cuts across a wide swath of low-income families across the country, from seniors to veterans to the disabled. Bringing the 30-year-old Lifeline program up to date is vital to helping more Americans access the communications and information services they need. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently wrote, this plan would "help 'reboot' Lifeline for the Internet age."

Learn more about Lifeline and the plan to modernize it.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read past installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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