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Minority groups ask FCC for Lifeline extension

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 12:14pm
Andrew Berg, Wireless Week

Nine leading senior, consumer, disability and minority organizations are calling on FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to allow states seven additional months – until Jan. 1, 2013 – to modernize the Universal Service Fund’s (USF) Lifeline program.

The joint statement was signed by the Alliance for Generational Equity, California Alliance for Retired Americans, Community Action Partnership, Consumer Action, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, National Consumers League, National Grange, National Hispanic Media Coalition and the World Institute on Disability.

Lifeline is a government benefit program that provides discounts on monthly wireless and wireline telephone service for eligible low-income consumers to help ensure they have the opportunities and security that telephone service affords, including being able to connect to jobs, family and 911 services. Lifeline is supported by the federal USF.

The groups claim that absent the necessary lead time, many state agencies that determine the eligibility of wireless Lifeline applicants will effectively close the program to new applicants.

The FCC announced the new rules on Feb. 6 and allowed states until June 1 to have centralized databases in place for the coordinated handling of applicant eligibility. Signatories of the statement note that a number of states have no such computer systems set up and must make arrangements to do so, calling the deadline "unrealistic."

The joint statement contends that failing to extend the deadline to Jan. 1, 2013, would “send a signal that the FCC is willing to deliberately strand America’s most vulnerable consumers for no reason other than sticking with a purely arbitrary deadline that easily could be adjusted in a compassionate fashion.”

Linda Sherry, director of National Priorities for Consumer Action, said the FCC wanted the databases created as part of reforms aimed at eliminating fraud and waste. She explained that under the current Lifeline rules, people can only take discounts on wireless or wireline service, not both. The databases would help ensure that people weren’t doubling up on their discounts.

Sherry said most states simply can’t meet the six-month deadline.

“We just think a year would have been much more reasonable,” Sherry said, noting that she’s hopeful that the FCC will be flexible on the matter.

The FCC could not be reached for comment prior to press time.

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