"Obama-Phones" or "Gipper-Phones" -- What's in a Name?


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"Obama-Phones" or "Gipper-Phones" -- What's in a Name?

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our public discourse that clever misnaming of issues can totally recast what should be substantive policy discussions. The most obvious example: adding the suffix “gate” onto anything that smacks of real or alleged political wrong-doing in the wake of Richard Nixon’s Watergate is usually sufficient to muddy the waters beyond all reality; often it demolishes any chance for serious debate. Remember Billygate, NannyGate, CoinGate, CableGate and all the rest?

The latest example is the current Lifeline program that provides basic prepaid cell phone subsidies to low-income citizens. I knew its opponents were out to kill serious discussion (and the program, too) when they came up with the cute idea of calling the issue “Obama Phones.” As a supporter of the program, I think it would be more realistic to call them “Gipper Phones” since the program started in the Reagan years, or even “Bushie Phones” because that’s when the Lifeline program made room for wireless services. Tempted as I am, I think that would only further distract us from looking at the program on its merits.

Connecting low-income consumers is a central pillar of our telecommunications law. All our people need access to the wonders of communications—and I always underline that word “all.” America can no longer afford to have digital divides between haves and have-nots. Until each and every citizen of this great country is connected—be they urban or rural, rich or poor, living on tribal lands or in distressed inner cities, whether they be members of our disabilities communities—our work is unfinished.

Let’s be clear at the outset: Lifeline is a necessary and mandated program that has accomplished many good things. It has not been without problems and has come in for its share of criticism—some merited, some not. I believe the merited criticisms are being addressed. As for those critics who are just out to kill another program providing assistance to low-income consumers—well, there’s no satisfying them. It is also striking that so many of those critics out to eliminate Lifeline are the same people who continue to support tax subsidies and wheelbarrows full of other giveaways for the affluent even as they battle to shrink programs that are helping the rest of us. It’s not just Lifeline that these critics are going after—it’s dozens of other programs, too, like unemployment benefits and food stamps for the needy and down-on-their-luck.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing, “The Lifeline Fund: Money Well Spent?” It is impossible to read the testimony from that hearing and deny that the program is contributing importantly to the central goal of the Telecommunications Act: to bring affordable and advanced telecommunications services to every American. More than ever our success as individuals, and as a nation, depends upon everyone being connected to the communications infrastructure of the Twenty-first century. Indeed, it is not going too far to equate such access with a civil right, because the doors of opportunity are closed and locked for those without it.

Red-lining low-income citizens by denying them access to these necessary telecommunications services would constitute a clear-and-present public danger as well as a blatant denial of equal opportunity in the Internet Age.

Lifeline is providing no-frills telephone service (no smart phones funded here!) for $9.25 per month, per subscriber, one-to-a-household, to some 15 million low-income people. Given the current high jobless rate and a still-anemic economic recovery, the number of eligible participants should actually be higher. Outreach needs to be enhanced. Success is not pruning the rolls of legitimate subscribers—it is helping those who truly need help. And that’s millions of people.

Lifeline originally applied, back in the Reagan years, to plain old wireline telephone service—service that is rapidly losing customers as consumers turn to wireless and broadband technologies. Cell phones have become a part of our daily lives. Who among us can imagine a week or a day without it, let alone having no access to it ever? Pilot programs are beginning for the inclusion of broadband in Lifeline—an essential step forward. Most jobs today are found through online searches; public safety is enhanced through everyone being part of the grid; education cannot be done offline; and the list goes on.

I suggest that any Lifeline doubters among the readership take a look at some of the numerous testimonials that were presented during the Congressional hearing. Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic and Media Coalition made a fact-filled and particularly moving statement. Read that and you will understand how vital Lifeline is for millions of Americans who were caught, through no fault of their own, in the economy’s awful downward spiral. How does denial of no-frills Lifeline service help them, or the country? How does denial help the unemployed worker looking each morning for a job so she or he has a shot at putting some groceries on the family table that night? How does denial help the suddenly-ill or injured child whose parents don’t have the ability to call 911 for help? How does denial help the working parent trying to check in with their child after school to make sure she is safe and well? As Ms. Gonzalez said, Lifeline helps real people. While far from bringing the kind of services and applications most of those reading this page enjoy, Lifeline provides what can only be viewed as a bare necessity for those in need.

It’s no secret that the original program lacked the controls it needed. There was waste and almost certainly fraud on the part of a few at the expense of the many. But the increasing numbers using Lifeline came more from the deep recession we were plunged into than from overt abuse or wrong-doing. There is plenty of blame to go around, to be sure, and lax policy guidelines and enforcement at the Federal Communications Commission must shoulder a significant share of the burden. The opportunities for abuse clearly multiplied with the necessary inclusion of wireless by the previous FCC. The current Commission, to its credit, realized the need for corrective program reform and enforcement action. In 2011 it began a process to check for duplication and ineligible users. It went on to enact far-reaching new eligibility and certification requirements and other safeguards to cure the problems that had arisen. Internal controls, significantly-enhanced monitoring, and new data bases are in place and being improved as you read this. These reforms are already having a positive effect. Spending has dropped, and the FCC forecasts savings of $2 billion by the close of 2014. Over a million duplicate subscriptions have been identified and eliminated. Many additional subscribers have been declared ineligible for participation in the program because they have not responded to queries requesting certification of their eligibility.

Unfortunately, some of those who were decertified may indeed be entirely eligible. They may never have received the certification forms because they are transient, don’t have a regular mailing address, or lack the literacy required to fill out a detailed government form. There is a lesson here: regulatory vigilance should always be accompanied by the avoidance of unintended negative consequences. Mid-course corrections do not imply just tougher requirements; sometimes it is more a matter of smarter ones.

On balance, the new reforms seem to be working. We need to let these reforms do their work before rushing to judgment about further significant changes. If it develops—as indeed it might—that additional or different proofs of eligibility or other enforcement measures are needed, the Commission can, should, and must implement them. It will have the obligation to do so. Government programs need credibility to survive, and good implementation can mean the difference between public support and public opposition. Low-income citizens deserve a credible, well-run program just as much—I would say more—than those who rave and rant against every public assistance initiative. Let us also beware of robbing this needed program to pay for other programs, however meritorious those others may be. Lifeline stands on its own.

“Names will never hurt me,” the old saying goes. Unfortunately that adage doesn’t seem to apply in politics. After dollars, it’s often the name that determines the game. The more ridiculous the label or outlandish the charge, the more attention it attracts. But when the game is serious public policy, it’s time to expect more. We each have a role to play here, either by turning off our own labeling strategies or tuning out those who engage in them. And our media, about which I write so much in this space, has an obligation to discipline itself, too. It can do this by toning down sensation-seeking headlines, beefing up real reportage, and not looking for a “gate” in every issue.

Lifeline wins on the merits—it’s not even close. We’re on the way to making it better already, and I trust we are committed to doing whatever else may be necessary to fulfill the mandate of our telecommunications laws and our ongoing duty to serve the public interest. So let us rally ‘round a program that can boast millions of success stories. Let’s improve and expand it, fixing those things that may not be totally repaired yet and helping millions of fellow citizens who, thanks to Lifeline, have access to the communications ecosystem that every day performs a larger role in binding our country together.


Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

The Benton Foundation works to realize the social benefits made possible by the public interest use of communications. Bridging the worlds of philanthropy, public policy, and community action, Benton seeks to shape the emerging communications environment and to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems. Communications-related Headlines is a free online news summary service provided by the Benton Foundation. Posted Monday through Friday, this service provides updates on important industry developments, policy issues, and other related news events.

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