NCL Technology Issues
Lifeline and Link-Up awareness begins with you! Lifeline, and its sister program Link-Up are the two major subsidy programs that help low-income consumers gain and maintain telephone service. Unfortunately, only a fraction of eligible consumers are taking advantage of these programs.
Lifeline provides a discount of up to $10 per month (and up to $35 on tribal lands) on basic monthly telephone service. Link-Up covers one-half of the cost of telephone installation (up to $30) in a consumer’s primary residence.
At a time when the economic recession is making it increasingly harder for consumers to make ends meet, these discounts can make having a telephone in the home possible for many households. Unfortunately, current data suggests that only 32 percent of eligible consumers take advantage of these programs. There are few technologies as critical to low-income consumers as telephone service. Having a telephone enables low-income consumers to have a connection to educational resources, job opportunities, government and emergency services, and their social support network.
Lifeline and Link-Up are available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories. Eligibility requirements vary by state, but generally consumers qualify if their income is at or below 135 percent of the federal Poverty Guidelines (currently equal to $29,768 annually for a family of four residing in the lower 48 states) or if they participate for one of the following low-income assistance programs:
- Food Stamps
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8)
- Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
- The National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
The low-income wireless marketplace is evolving.
In recent years, there has been much discussion about reform of the Lifeline and Link Up programs in light of consumers’ migration away from wired phones to alternative communications platforms, primarily wireless devices. For low-income consumers in particular, wireless phones provide many advantages over traditional wired phones.
First, low-income consumers often do not remain in one residential location for extended periods of time. Due to eviction, homelessness or the need to change residency to find employment, frequent relocation is an all-too-often fact of life for low-income consumers.
Second, low-income consumers may not have sufficient credit histories to qualify for traditional residential landline phone service should their personal financial situation improve to such an extent that they no longer qualify for Lifeline. Such wireless consumers could easily maintain uninterrupted service with wireless providers as they transition out of the Lifeline program.
Third, because low-income consumers often must work multiple jobs to make ends meet, they may be unable to take advantage of a Lifeline-enabled home phone line. A wireless device helps such consumers to remain connected with essential government services, current and potential employers and family and social support networks regardless of their geographic location.
The benefits of helping low-income consumers gain access to wireless phones are significant. For example, a recent report concluded that providing cell phones to the 38 percent of America's 45 million poorest households now without them -- including millions of seniors, Hispanics and African Americans -- could help them get work or earn income at levels approaching $2.9 billion-$11 billion.
For all these reasons, NCL supports programs that allow low-income consumers to apply their Lifeline subsidies to wireless devices.
In recent years, some private wireless companies have recognized low-income consumers as a potentially untapped market and have been working with the FCC and states to allow consumers to use their Lifeline subsidies to obtain wireless telephone service. There are two market leaders in this segment: TracFone Wireless’ Safelink Wireless and Virgin Mobile’s Assurance Wireless programs. As of September 2010 Safelink is currently available in 25 states and the District of Columbia and Assurance is available in 10 states.
The next step: broadband
There is a growing consensus among policy-makers in Washington and beyond that Lifeline and Link-Up should evolve to allow low-income consumers to apply their subsidies to broadband service. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan recommends such a change as part of its efforts to encourage universal broadband adoption. The FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee (which NCL chairs) recently recommended that the FCC work to ensure that this occurs by easing enrollment requirements and improving its outreach and education efforts to boost enrollment in the program. In the coming months and years, it is likely that federal and state governments will begin to draw up plans to allow Lifeline and Link-Up participants to use their subsidies to purchase broadband service.
National Telephone Lifeline Discount Awareness Week is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of telecommunications to low-income consumers. While many Americans take 24/7 multi-device connectedness for granted, we should not forget that millions of consumers struggle to maintain a basic phone line, much less a multi-megabit fiber optic broadband connection. The 21st century has brought with it stunning technological advancement. As an organization dedicated to promoting social and economic justice for consumers and workers, NCL will continue to play a leading role in ensuring the benefits of technology accrue to all consumers, not just those with the means to embrace it.