But Board balks because big, basic broadband questions left unasked

Acting in response to a request by the Commission, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service (Joint Board) has adopted a Recommended Decision concerning implementation of the Low Income component of the Universal Service Fund (USF).   Not stopping there, the Joint Board took the time to vent a bit about some broader issues about which the FCC didn’t ask it to comment.

(The Joint Board is composed of representatives from the FCC, state public utility commissions, and one consumer advocate. It was established in 1996 to provide recommendations on the implementation of the universal service provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Back in May 2010, the Commission asked the Joint Board to take a look at the Link Up and Lifeline components of the USF’s Low Income Program. The Link Up Program helps low income consumers defray the initial hook-up costs for telephone service; the Lifeline Program helps them defray the monthly costs of such service. Both programs are funded through the USF, which in turn is funded by telecom companies paying in a percentage of their interstate end-user revenues, which is in turn paid for by consumers.

In its May Order, the Commission asked the Joint Board to address three particular administrative aspects of the Link Up/Lifeline Programs: eligibility (who should get the money), verification (how to make sure the money is in fact going to the right people), and outreach (telling people the money is available).

In response, the Joint Board offered the following:

Eligibility. Eligibility requirements for the Link Up and Lifeline Programs are currently set either by (a) individual states that have their own mandatory Link Up/Lifeline programs or (b) the federal government. Federal eligibility is based on participation in certain means-tested programs (e.g., Medicaid, Food Stamps) or income at 135% of the federal poverty guideline (FPG) level. Because of the dual state/federal approach, eligibility can vary from state-to-state. The Commission asked the Joint Board to examine whether changes in the current eligibility arrangements might be in order in the interest of uniformity.

Without offering any specifics, the Joint Board suggested in response that the Commission might want to explore the establishment of uniform minimum eligibility requirements (both income and program-based) to apply to all states. Such uniformity might simplify some administrative aspects of the program and might increase program participation. However, the Joint Board cautioned that taking that approach might impose undue impact on the states, and it advised that uniformity be pursued only if that impact would not be unreasonable.

With respect to federal minimum income level, the Joint Board recommended that the FCC seek comment on raising that level from 135% of the FPG level (where it currently sits) to 150%.

The Commission also asked the Joint Board whether states should be required to adopt automatic enrollment programs. Such programs electronically link one or another state agency with the carrier, providing an interface that allows low-income individuals to automatically enroll in Lifeline/Link Up once they have enrolled in a qualifying public assistance program. Such systems are already in place in some, but not all, states. The Commission considered making such systems mandatory several years ago, but ultimately decided not to because of various burdens such a requirement might impose on states and carriers. But it held open the possibility of revisiting the issue down the line – and that time has now come.

In response, the Joint Board has again recommended that the FCC hold off on mandating automatic enrollment. The Joint Board believes the record needs to be more fully developed with respect to certain issues, such as the potential cost of implementation and any needed changes to state law. (While some commenters argued that the increased number of participants would increase fund size, the Joint Board pointed out that increased Lifeline and Link Up participation is a stated program goal.) The Joint Board did recommend that the FCC encourage automatic enrollment as a best practice for states.

Verification. Currently, a variety of approaches – state, federal, or some combination of the two – are used across the nation to ensure that Lifeline recipients continue to meet eligibility requirements. While the verification methods are set by the government, they are implemented by carriers. The Joint Board has recommended that the FCC adopt a “floor” of minimum verification requirements, with carriers providing the data from their verification efforts to both federal (i.e., the FCC and the Universal Service Administrative Company) and state authorities. Those data would also be publicly available. The hope is to prevent and combat fraud, waste, and abuse in the Low Income programs. States would still be free to impose additional requirements if they wish. Again, the FCC will need to seek comments on what these minimum requirements will be and who will be responsible for carrying them out.

Given cost, agency coordination, and privacy concerns, the Joint Board recommended that the FCC seek further comment before implementing a national database for certification and verification of Lifeline consumers’ eligibility.

Outreach. The Joint Board observed that outreach and penetration remain a problem: in 2009, the nationwide Lifeline participation rate among eligible consumers was only 36%, and in some states less than 10%. “Lifeline participation rates have not significantly improved” since 2004, when the FCC last established outreach guidelines. Therefore, the Joint Board has recommended that the Commission establish specific mandatory outreach requirements for all participating carriers.  The FCC requirements would be a minimum, upon which states could impose additional outreach requirements.  As with the other areas addressed by the Joint Board, on this point the Joint Board recommended that the FCC seek comment on these mandatory outreach requirements, including potential measures such as requiring Lifeline and Link Up information on carrier’s home page, other media requirements, and use of multiple languages.

The Commission will doubtless be seeking comment on these and, probably, a host of related issues.  This is to be expected in view of the dramatic changes which have occurred in the telephone industry in just a few short years. But, as the Joint Board was quick to note, the Commission did not ask the Joint Board to consider a number of other issues that (in the view of the Joint Board, and probably many others) can and should be addressed now as well. The FCC, presumably with the advice of the Joint Board, may have to take the lead on USF reform as, with Boucher gone and the change in the House, Congress is unlikely to take action this year (As we previously reported, Representative Lee Terry (R-NE) does plan to reintroduce a USF reform bill next year.)

The primary issue here is Broadband. The FCC did ask the Joint Board about applying Lifeline and Link Up to broadband – but only to the extent that it might relates to the narrower issues of eligibility, verification and outreach. That left open a broad range of Big Questions such as “the definition of the broadband services or functionalities to be supported, sources of funding, the funding and contribution rules, and the overall approach to using low-income support to achieve universal broadband service”.

The Commission’s failure to put such important questions on the table for Joint Board consideration provoked a testy response from the Joint Board, which rattled off the top of its head seven examples of big practical issues relating to broadband and USF that it was not asked. The Joint Board also reproached the Commission for recently extending Lifeline funding to prepaid wireless Lifeline-only carriers without advice or consultation from the Joint Board. As the Joint Board griped, “given the lack of a definition for the term ‘broadband’ as a supported service, and how such service would be calculated and distributed, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to comply with even the Commission’s de minimis broadband-related requests that were included in the Referral Order.”