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Is the U.S. Government’s Lifeline Service Really a Lifeline?

Poorly marketed and under-resourced, it’s not always serving the poor

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As America’s financial distress deepens, with unemployment reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, the U.S. government has relaxed the requirements for a program called Lifeline

Lifeline is a Federal Communications Commission program that provides subsidized phone and internet services to low-income people and families. Those who use the program are provided with a landline phone, cellphone, or at-home broadband for free or at discounted rate.  

Telecommunication companies must provide Lifeline users with at least 1,000 minutes for their cellphone service and a few dozen hours of mobile data. At-home Lifeline broadband plans must have at least 1,024 gigabytes of data. 

Every year, Lifeline users must prove that they still qualify for the discount, but in March, the FCC waived that step for users who are renewing their status. And in April it said applicants who have lost their job no longer have to provide pay stubs to receive the service.

But many lawmakers say the government is not promoting the service aggressively enough. Last month, more than 140 senators and representatives wrote a letter to the FCC asking the agency to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services to notify people who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid that they can also receive discounted phone or broadband services. 

Legislators are also asking the FCC if it knows the number of individuals who are newly eligible for the program since the COVID-19 outbreak and if it knows how many of those potential users have actually enrolled. 

Advocates say not enough people know about the program, that there needs to be better outreach and marketing. Many say that the program must also evolve to meet today’s broadband demands. 

Jessica González, the co-CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group that focuses on equitable access to technology and media, said the barriers to staying on the program could be lowered.

“We have lost a lot of subscribers, probably who legitimately qualify for the program but didn’t keep up with the paperwork for one reason or another,” said González. “You’re looking to serve a population, many of whom don’t have a consistent residence where they can receive information, bills, and notices.”

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Who Qualifies for the Program? 

Applicants qualify for Lifeline if they are at or below the federal poverty line or if they are on other federal assistance programs, like Medicaid or SNAP benefits. However, even though applicants automatically qualify if they receive other federal assistance, they still need to enroll in the program on their own. 

“The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis,” the legislators wrote in their April letter to the FCC. “For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most—but only if they know about it.”

Because of the automatic qualification through other federal programs, Brandon Forester of MediaJustice said, Lifeline benefits more than just low-income households.

“Seniors, folks who are living on disability, it’s used a lot by folks who are unhoused; it’s a program that’s important for folks who are reentering citizens (formerly incarcerated) who might not have a way to get connected otherwise. It’s also an important resource for folks who are survivors of domestic violence,” Forester said. 

The program had almost 10 million subscribers as of 2018. But only about a quarter of those who qualify for the program are actually using it, according to data from the Universal Administrative Service Co., which oversees the program. 

Puerto Rico had the highest rate of Lifeline users—with almost 50,000 people on the program. Lifeline usage in New Mexico was also high, with 40,000 Lifeline subscribers for every 100,000 people in that state. Washington, D.C., had the highest rate of eligible subscribers, but its usage rate ranked in the bottom half.

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Restrictive Caps

One problem with Lifeline is that the amount of connectivity provided is low. At minimum, Lifeline users receive 3 GB of cellular data a month, which translates to streaming about four hours of low-quality videos, clicking through roughly 600 social media posts with photos, or 200 hours spent on the internet. 

Consider Leonard Williams, a 59-year-old Marine veteran who suffers from arthritis. He receives his phone service through Lifeline. He told Protocol that before the pandemic closed his office, he was rationing his phone usage by using the internet at work. Now he sometimes runs out of minutes and data.

Williams said balancing his minutes is especially tough when contacting medical providers.

“You have to pick between do I call the pharmacy today or do I call my primary care physician,” said Williams in a virtual town hall hosted by MediaJustice. “I only have minutes for one conversation…. You’re always put in these tough positions.”

Connie Freeman, a Philadelphia resident in her 70s, is a longtime Lifeline subscriber.

She went on disability in the early ’90s because of a series of health issues. That’s when she found out about Lifeline and began to use it to subsidize her phone service. “When I went on disability, it was like falling off of a cliff,” said Freeman. “I was looking for all kinds of assistance.” 

In 2012, Freeman shifted the federal subsidy to a cellphone. That phone allowed her to make long-distance calls to friends and family on the West Coast at a cheaper rate than her landline. But the tradeoff is that the cellphone’s connection is worse than her landline, which is why she has kept her landline.

“To folks who are on Lifeline, [the name] is befitting. Whether it is truly a national lifeline, I think that’s a fair point,” said González. “I walk this line all the time. I don’t think Lifeline is sufficient. Because it’s the only federal program that subsidizes communication for poor folks, I fought like hell to defend it.” 

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Cutting Back Lifeline

Since 2017, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai has worked to make changes in the Lifeline program in an attempt to curb “waste, abuse, and fraud.” Earlier in the same year, a 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office had found that $1.2 million of Lifeline benefits went to fake accounts or people who were dead.

Before that report, as one of his first moves as FCC commissioner, Pai told nine companies they would no longer be able to take part in the Lifeline program. The rescindment came only months after former president Obama’s FCC commissioner, Tom Wheeler, had given those nine companies the green light to provide federally subsidized broadband. 

The FCC later limited the discounts available to people on tribal lands and at the same time also considered implementing a cap on the program’s budget and limiting the companies that could participate in the program to only those that own and operate their own infrastructure and network. 

The proposed move would have excluded from the program smaller companies that provide cellphone and data services through the bigger telecommunications companies’ networks. According to González, the move would have barred a majority of Lifeline providers. 

That proposal didn’t move forward because, according to González, it was met with a lot of pushback. “This was so wildly unpopular,” said González. “I’ve never seen such outcry in an FCC docket, where public interest advocates, civil rights organizations, and corporations all came out and said, ‘Hell no, don’t do this.’ ”  

In mid-April, more than two dozen senators wrote to congressional leaders urging $1 billion of additional funding for the Lifeline program in order to increase the number of broadband providers participating in the program and provide more mobile hotspot coverage. 

When asked for its response to the letters calling for more support for Lifeline, the FCC said it will respond directly to legislators.

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