Dumb reasons don’t make mobile lifeline plans smart

by Steve Blum • , ,

Sorry, only one per household.

Lifeline broadband and telephone subsidies can be used to buy either mobile or wireline service. But that could end. Nineteen republican members of the U.S. house of representatives signed onto a draft bill that would scrap that option.

The lifeline program run by the Federal Communications Commission is routinely slammed by republicans – including those on the FCC itself – as a swamp of fraud and abuse, with wireless options frequently singled out as particularly problematic. On the other hand, democrats, on and off the commission, rush to its defence waving the battle flag of social justice just as quickly and reflexively.

The fraud and abuse mantra is chanted by republicans whenever income-based government subsidies are on the table, and need not be given any particular weight regarding telecoms lifeline programs.

The social justice argument cuts both ways, though. Despite the nonsense offered by telecoms lobbyists – and ignorantly parroted by members of both the FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission – mobile service is not a substitute for wireline broadband, now or in the foreseeable future.

For proof, look no further than the lifeline program rules, which allow far lower minimum speeds and stingier (and potentially very costly) data caps for subsidised mobile service. If the aim is social justice, mobile companies completely miss the target. The income gap between mobile-only and wireline-enabled homes is growing in California, and the lifeline program is perversely designed to make it worse.

The problem is compounded by the fact that lifeline subsidies are given out on a per-household basis. As a practical matter, that means that one person – typically an adult – gets the cell phone and everyone else, including kids vainly trying to do homework, have to beg or borrow Internet access as they can.

Hyped up claims of con jobs and complicit bureaucrats are the wrong reasons to clamp down on mobile lifeline subsidies. But it’s the right idea.