Witnesses and lawmakers gathered at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday to debate improvements to the FCC’s Universal Service Fund Lifeline program, which provides eligible low-income customers with monthly subsidies to offset the cost of fixed and wireless telephone services.
In an April 2016 order which extended Lifeline support to fixed and wireless broadband services, the FCC approved various reforms intended to combat waste, fraud and abuse of the Lifeline program, which has been in place since 1985. Included among these reforms was the establishment of a third-party “national verifier” that would confirm consumer eligibility for Lifeline assistance and thus remove that function from the hands of carriers. Over the objections of then-FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and his Republican colleague, Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the FCC—controlled at the time by a threemember Democratic majority led by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler—also shifted primary responsibility for determining carrier Lifeline eligibility from the states to the FCC. Earlier this year, legislation was introduced in both chambers of Congress that would restore the primary authority of the states to decide carrier eligibility to participate in Lifeline. Agreeing that “Congress gave state governments, not the FCC, the primary responsibility for approving which companies can participate in the Lifeline program,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced in March that the FCC would take steps to eliminate the Lifeline eligibility designation process from the FCC’s rules and would also drop its opposition to legal challenges filed by twelve states against the 2016 Lifeline order.
As South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson urged committee members at Wednesday’s hearing to support a strong state role in deciding the eligibility of telecommunications carriers to participate in Lifeline, Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) questioned whether Lifeline remains “an effective means of increasing telephone subscribership among low-income consumers.” While stressing his commitment to the idea “that consumers in all parts of the country should have access to communications services that are comparable . . . to those services provided in urban areas,” Thune pointed to the results of a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study showing that the FCC “has not prioritized the development of performance goals and measures for Lifeline.” Because the FCC, according to Thune, “has limited insight on what the program is actually accomplishing,” Thune proclaimed: “FCC action in this regard is long overdue, and I call upon the Commission to undertake this fundamental analysis.” Echoing Thune’s sentiments, Senate Communications subcommittee member Brian Schatz (D-HI) declared “more work needs to be done” and thus called on lawmakers of both parties to “work together to improve this program.”