FCC Approves Senator Lankford Proposal to Reform Tribal Lifeline Program

WASHINGTON, DC – The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) today took action to reform its Lifeline low-income subsidy program, a proposal that Senator James Lankford (R-OK) has urged for years and included in his Federal Fumbles government waste report. The Lifeline program helps low-income Americans, including Native Americans, obtain telephone, wireless, and broadband services. Today, the FCC voted 3 to 2 to redefine who is eligible for the additional tribal subsidy through the Lifeline program.  

“I applaud FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for pursuing real reform of the Tribal Lifeline subsidized cell phone program,” said Lankford. “This action will reduce fraud and waste in the program and make it more efficient for those who truly need it. The enhanced tribal support was originally intended to benefit American Indians living in underserved areas because they faced the greatest need. Unfortunately, the program became like many other federal programs, inefficient and fraudulently abused by those who do not qualify. There are American Indians in Oklahoma and across the nation who rely on this program to have access to telecommunications, however, it is right for the FCC to eliminate access for those who seek to defraud the federal government or abuse the program.”

For years, the Lifeline program gave subscribers a $9.25 monthly discount on phone service and an extra $25 monthly discount for subscribers on tribal lands. Today’s FCC action limits Tribal Lifeline support to facilities-based providers, effectively ending the free-standing pop-up tents that provide free cell phones to those who do not actually qualify. Today’s FCC action also reduces program waste by refining the tribal eligibility to rural areas where the additional $25amonth subsidy is needed to make service affordable.

This FCC Lifeline program began in 1985 to provide discounted telephone service to low-income families with little access to emergency landline telephone services. In 2005 the service was extended to encompass pre-paid cell phone plans in addition to landline service. FCC requirements for this program dictate that qualified individuals must meet income requirements at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or participate in specific federal assistance programs to qualify for the program. Lifeline is funded through the Universal Service Fund tax, which is on every American’s phone bill. The Tribal Lifeline subsidy was originally intended to provide an additional subsidy to low-income tribal members who live on tribal land who do not have access to an emergency telephone.

One of the largest areas of waste is in Oklahoma due to FCC’s broad parameters for tribal land boundaries. Historically, the FCC classified most of Oklahoma as tribal land, which means all but 451 of the state’s 265,961 Lifeline recipients qualify for more than $400 each in tribal subsidies annually, though most of the recipients are not tribal members. As a result, Oklahoma receives the second-largest allocation of Lifeline funds, which total more than $128 million. Oklahoma accounts for more than half of the 417,000 tribal subsidy recipients in the nation.