A draft FCC rulemaking notice (NPRM) that envisions an extension of Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline subsidies to broadband and proposes other reforms to the $1.7 billion Lifeline program emerged as a hot topic of debate at a Senate Communications & Technology Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. While lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle agreed that Lifeline modifications are needed to combat fraud, inefficiency and waste, subcommittee chairman Robert Wicker (R-MS) and other Republicans warned against expanding Lifeline before further reforms to the program are adopted.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, circulated the draft NPRM among his fellow commissioners last Thursday with the goal of conducting a vote at the FCC’s next open meeting on June 18. The Lifeline program provides low income households that meet certain eligibility requirements with a monthly subsidy of $9.25 to offset the cost of fixed or wireless phone service. In a blog post, Wheeler explained that the draft NPRM seeks to “reboot Lifeline for the Internet age” by “establishing minimum standards of service for voice and broadband, so both beneficiaries and those who pay into the fund can know they are getting the best value.” To combat abuses that include multiple subsidies to the same household, the FCC enacted Lifeline reforms in 2012 that reduced total spending by 24% and that, in the words of an FCC fact sheet, “put the program on a more stable footing.” According to Wheeler, the draft NPRM solicits comment on additional reforms that, among other things, would (1) require carriers that offer Lifeline assistance to retain documentation on eligible customers, (2) establish a national Lifeline accountability database, and (3) increase transparency “by making key performance data easily available to the public.”