On Tuesday, members of the House Communications & Technology Subcommittee approved by voice vote the CURB Lifeline Act (H.R. 4884) which would maintain the current cap on Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline subsidies at $1.5 billion per year. The 17-11 party line vote follows the FCC’s March 31 decision to extend Lifeline support to broadband with an annual program budget of $2.25 billion, which could be increased upon completion of an analysis by the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, if and when spending reaches 90% of the yearly budget. Earlier this month, the FCC also announced plans to hold Total Call Mobile (TCM) liable for a record $51 million in fines for alleged Lifeline program abuses that include the enrollment of “tens of thousands of duplicate and ineligible consumers into the Lifeline program,” which provides eligible low income households with a monthly allowance of $9.25 to offset the cost of fixed and mobile telephone services, as well as broadband. In addition to capping the annual Lifeline budget at its current level of $1.5 billion, the legislation would prevent Lifeline subsidies from being applied toward the purchase or lease of mobile phones and other wireless devices. The bill would also prohibit usage of program subsidies for standalone wireless voice services. (Recent FCC rules would phase out eligibility for voice-only mobile services over several years.)
Although ranking subcommittee member Anna Eshoo (D-CA) lamented the subcommittee vote as a “sad” and “hurtful” exercise that would cut off broadband services to poor and disadvantaged members of the population, subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) reminded Eshoo and other bill opponents that Lifeline “is intended to be a discount” and is not intended to pay the monthly cost of broadband and other services in their entirety. Citing the FCC’s enforcement action against TCM, Walden also pointed to waste, fraud and abuse of the Lifeline program as factors that necessitate a firm cap on spending. In a nod to Democrats who favor raising the cap or eliminating it altogether, however, subcommittee members approved an amendment to the bill that directs the FCC Comptroller General to study whether a cap on the Lifeline fund discourages such waste, fraud and abuse.