Though the ink is barely dry on the landmark 2011 Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier Compensation Transformation Order to modernize these programs for a broadband world, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced on Monday, January 9, 2012 that a new order to renovate the Lifeline program will be circulated to commissioners this week. Genachowski’s speech at the Third Way think tank brought an overwhelming sensation of déjà vu—it was quite similar to a speech he made on February 7, 2011, at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation when he announced the infamous USF/ICC Reform NPRM (and another in October when he announced the inevitable release of the Order). Both speeches emphasized the rampant waste, fraud and abuse in the respective USF programs; and both speeches insisted the programs be modernized for the broadband age, made more efficient and accountable.
Genachowski commented today that the FCC “inherited a series of programs that needed to be updated for the Internet age, and most also needed careful scrubbing to ensure that they were carrying out their missions effectively and efficiently.” Genachowski identified common problems with the Lifeline program, like duplicative support, the lack of a database, and “unscrupulous carriers… obtaining support for customers who did not sign up for Lifeline… or signing people up for Lifeline who aren’t eligible for the program.” Genachowski calls these abuses “flat-out wrong and simply unacceptable.”
The reforms in the order include standardizing eligibility requirements, constraining growth, increasing flexibility, establishing a budget, and ensuring broadband availability and digital literacy for low-income Americans. A statement that could easily be interchanged with comments by commissioners about ICC reform explained: “In some cases, old rules may have invited end-runs and created loophols some carriers are exploiting. This order would close those loopholes.”
At least the FCC has a solid template for reforming wide-reaching USF programs… Reforming Lifeline could be a cakewalk compared to ICC and the high-cost fund. Once the Lifeline Reform Order is released for public inspection, Cassandra Heyne will analyze the details and discuss the impacts on RLECs.