October 21, 2013 4:02 PM

Lifeline Series, Part 2: the Sound and the Fury

In the last post we mentioned the letter from the 44 House Republicans, who with no sense of self-awareness, sent the FCC a letter during the shutdown where they referred to the Lifeline program as representing "everything wrong with Washington."  Sure, it was wildly hyperbolic, but--admittedly--not completely baseless.  

But before we get started in discussing the "state of the debate," it helps to know some history--because understanding the real facts--is necessary to fully appreciate the bedlam that characterizes the current state of the "conversation."  The best piece I can recommend--which keeps with the theme of "why are we here?"--is this entertaining and informative blog by Harold Feld, explaining the ironies of Lifeline.

Where We Are:  The "Uncivil" War

If you've paid any attention to Lifeline over the past few years, you'll also recognize that the House Republican letter is hardly the first time that the Lifeline program has been portrayed as some kind of political litmus test, implying that if you support Lifeline you are na├»ve at best, and grossly irresponsible at worst.  For a debate in which few, if any, of the program's opponents have any experience with the Lifeline program, the level of rancor in this "debate" is truly without equal.

Even worse, some "political activists" on the "anti-Lifeline" side try to generate opposition/hostility toward the program by associating the Lifeline program with the most appalling, frequently racial, stereotypes of poor people.  For example, who can forget the "Obamaphone lady?"  More recently, there was this deceptive video that circulated over the Summer from political activist (and pseudo-journalist) James O'Keefe.   

What's notable about O'Keefe's video is that it features actors, acting out the worst stereotypes of low income people.  People viewing the videos aren't reacting to anything that is actually being depicted in the video, rather they are being manipulated by a storyline created by the narratives of actors with a political agenda.

But there wouldn't be a rancorous debate unless both sides were participating.  So, as dishonest and deplorable as the "kill Lifeline" side is, the advocacy of the "save Lifeline" side is as insipid as it is unpersuasive.  The "save Lifeline" crowd has a website called Lifelineconnects.org.  On the website, you can look through their news clippings on their advocacy activities.  The group has done some advocacy at the Commission, and they have had advocates for the program testify before Congress.  Do you know what their message is?  Lifeline is good.  Beyond anecdotes of how Lifeline is helping a few deserving people, there is very little of substance on the web site.  

How We Got Here

The one uncontroverted fact about the state of the Lifeline program is that it has become wildly controversial over the last several years.  But, how did it get to this?  It didn't start that way; Lifeline started as a reasonable, bipartisan program to ensure that all Americans had access to basic communications services.  The addition of wireless service to the program in 2005 was merely an evolution of the program's founding principle.

So, when it became necessary to update the program--only a few years ago--it was clear that the program needed changes.  Starting in 2009--which, it should be noted, was a very bad year for the U.S. economy--the USF's low income fund began to grow dramatically.  

In early March of 2011, the FCC released its Lifeline/Link Up NPRM to discuss changes to the Lifeline program that would help modernize the program and put it on a more stable foundation for the future.  The NPRM identified the dramatic growth in the low income fund as the primary factor leading to the conclusion that the Lifeline rules needed to be revised.  

While the growth in the fund was the real issue that needed to be addressed, rather than to try to understand the basis of this phenomenon and to deal with the larger implications of the growing low-income fund in a holistic way--addressing USF contribution reform along with reforms to the Lifeline program--the Commission took a short cut and assumed that most of the problem was the result of the influx of prepaid wireless "Lifeline-only" service providers, who must have been running amok. New rules on service providers, the Commission said, would surely solve the problem.

This one lazy assumption is what set the table for all of the successive, unproductive, rancorous debate over Lifeline's future.  Because, after all, when you limit the possible explanations for fund growth to one--waste--then every service provider and every consumer participating in the program becomes part of the problem. Thus, the eventual result of the Commission's approach--that the future of the Lifeline program would be the victim of an unproductive war of political values--was hardly unforeseeable at the time, as I explained in this blog.

Given where we are, in terms of the level of the conversation about the future of Lifeline, does anyone honestly think that a solution to Lifeline's real problems is going to come out of this protracted "Sumo match" of opposing political values?  Neither do I.  But, if the Commission is to rescue Lifeline, they'll have to start understanding the relevant facts.  

In the next installment in this series, we'll look at how the wireless Lifeline business works, and how the Lifeline Reform Rules are working.  Finally, in our last installment, we'll talk about realities that the Commission must recognize, and the changes that must be made in order to stabilize the Lifeline fund.  

Leave a comment