The Truth About Lifeline

It's past time to set the record straight on Lifeline, the essential service to low-income families that has recently suffered fallacious attacks and been mislabeled as the "Obama Phone" program.

Recently, political talking heads have falsely and irresponsibly excoriated the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline telephone program as a product of the Obama administration, saying it is focused on giving free cell phones to poor people as a method of garnering their votes.

Here are the real facts about this important program.

The Lifeline program has been around for 27 years and it has nothing to do with President Obama. It was established in 1985 -- under the Reagan Administration -- as a means of helping low-income households gain access to a "lifeline" of communication and emergency services through home telephone service. And in 2005 -- under the Bush II Administration -- the FCC recognized changing technology and usage patterns and expanded the program to provide cell phones to qualified low-income households. Contrary to the false statements that have been thrown out by pundits, there are no "unlimited" cell phone plans; the Lifeline program provides poor households with 250 minutes per month of cell phone access.

The Lifeline program is an essential service to our neighbors who are trying to subsist on less than 135 percent of the federal Poverty Guidelines. Thanks to the Lifeline program, over 15 million low-income families have access to emergency service, jobs, health care, social services, and other basic staples of society that many of us take for granted. Lifeline is a valuable tool to help low-income get back on their feet and become self-sufficient.

What is the argument against Lifeline?

As a result of all the misinformation surrounding Lifeline, some members of Congress have vocally attacked the program. Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR), along with twenty cosponsors, went so far as to introduce a bill in 2011 that would ban the Commission from providing mobile service through the program. The original bill, H.R. 3481, died soon after it was introduced, but Rep. Griffin reintroduced the bill in January as H.R. 176 amid the recent controversy surrounding the program -- this time with 45 cosponsors.

If the legislation passes, millions of low-income Americans will no longer have an avenue of affordable access to basic cell phone service.

Much of the criticism of the program has centered on waste, fraud, and abuse. In support of the bill, Rep. Griffin has an entire webpage titled "Uncle Sam's Unlimited Plan." Much of the language on the page is misleading, including the title of the page itself -- Lifeline does not provide unlimited mobile phone service, but only 250 minutes per month. A section of the site labeled "The Facts" falsely asserts that the Lifeline program was expanded to include cell phone service in 2008 (the year President Obama was elected), when the program was actually expanded in 2005. The site also inaccurately states that "taxpayers are footing the bill." In truth, the program does not involve any tax dollars, and if the Commission were banned from providing mobile service through the program, not one dollar in taxes would be saved.

The page goes on to criticize advertising for the program, with images of ads stating, "Times are tough -- Protect loved ones!" and "You may qualify if you participate in programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid." Highlighting these ads, most of which feature minorities, serves only to perpetuate the belief that Lifeline is something taken advantage of by uneducated freeloaders.

Improvements to Lifeline

The current FCC has taken
to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse from Lifeline. Just over a year ago, the Commission implemented sweeping reforms to the program for the first time since 2005, which include:
  • Creating national eligibility databases to track consumers' Lifeline eligibility;
  • Establishing a one-per-household rule that allows separate low-income families living in the same unit to benefit from the program;
  • Establishing goals and metrics to measure program performance and effectiveness;
  • Phasing out obsolete services.
After implementing these changes, the Commission shaved $200 million from the program last year and projects a total savings of up to $3 billion in three years.

Improving Lifeline can help to bridge the digital divide

Recognizing that millions of low-income Americans still do not have access to broadband in their homes, several members of Congress have recently introduced a new bill that would expand Lifeline service for universal broadband adoption. H.R. 1685, co-sponsored by Reps. Doris Matsui, Henry Waxman, Anna Eshoo, and four other Democrats, hopes to help bridge the digital divide by subsidizing in-home broadband services for low-income households. This bill would also require the FCC to implement additional reforms to the program, magnifying the gains from the Commission's most recent reforms.

A Lifeline for millions

The level of inaccuracy in the discourse against Lifeline is disappointing. The program provides a vital connection to fundamental human rights in the 21st century. Eliminating all or part of the program would disconnect millions from access to tools that enable access to emergency services and that are essential to their efforts to improve their standard of living.

Simply put, the millions of low-income families that rely on Lifeline cannot afford to lose it. And all Americans ultimately benefit when every American is connected. This is the principle upon which the entire Universal Service Fund has always been based, and it continues to be sound.