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WASHINGTON — What follows is the spoken text of Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González’s testimony today before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

González is testifying on behalf of current and potential Lifeline users and in favor of protecting the Federal Communications Commission program while implementing reforms passed by the agency in 2016.

González’s full written testimony is available here (PDF).

Addressing the Risk of Waste, Fraud and Abuse in the FCC’s Lifeline Program

Jessica J. González

Before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, members of the committee, thank you for having me.

Thirty years ago, a bipartisan group of visionary leaders came together to create Lifeline, to connect poor people to the essential communications service of the day — the telephone. This program has created opportunity for millions of Americans, including me. I was on Lifeline for a short while, after being laid off from my teaching job. My Lifeline connection ensured that I had a reliable number on my resume, and let me communicate with the admissions and financial aid offices at the law school that I ultimately attended.

Last year, the FCC modernized Lifeline for the digital age, recognizing that broadband helps people to meet their basic needs. Its 2016 order adopted reforms, building on those it enacted in 2012 to curb waste, fraud and abuse.

Modernizing Lifeline for broadband is critical for poor people and people of color, who are more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide and who cite cost as a major barrier to adoption. Lifeline is the only federal program poised to increase broadband adoption and provide a pathway out of poverty for millions of people.

In May, the Voices for Internet Freedom Coalition — of which Free Press is a founding member — hosted a public forum in Skid Row to hear from Los Angelenos about why communications access matters. I promised to bring their stories to Washington.

Susan explained that she had to track down an internet connection even to find a homeless shelter.

Marco shared that the internet allows him to access mental health services.

Lourdes, a senior citizen and caregiver, told us that she struggles to afford a mobile connection, but needs it to find work.

Takouie said that without Lifeline she wouldn’t be able to afford phone service, which she has used to access emergency medical assistance and other healthcare services.

Fifth-grade teacher Melissa said: “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between internet access and food for their families.”

L.A. residents are not alone in needing these supports. I can’t help but wonder how many in Houston have used their Lifeline connections to call for help and access vital emergency information in the face of Hurricane Harvey, and how many more Puerto Ricans and Floridians may do the same with Hurricane Irma. We must protect Lifeline to ensure that everyone has access to information and emergency services in times like these.

When talking about Lifeline, we hear a lot about waste, fraud and abuse. But this narrative is overblown and frankly offensive. I have long been troubled by the tenor of the Lifeline debate: There’s a tendency to wage war on the poor, to demonize and assume the worst about Lifeline recipients. And I cannot sit here today, especially as white supremacy is on the rise around the country and in the White House, without directly confronting the racist undertones of these assumptions. We should avoid inflated stories of waste, fraud and abuse at the expense of poor people and people of color, who rely on Lifeline to meet basic needs.

We should not allow this narrative to excuse the FCC’s new leadership, which is stalling implementation of the agency’s 2016 Order. The FCC’s foot-dragging is stranding over 17,000 recipients who had already started receiving service, and denying potential service to countless others.

Nor should we tolerate the sensationalized narrative surrounding the 2017 GAO Report. The outdated report’s findings are an old snapshot of a program already modernized and improved several times over. The investigation period predates implementation of much of the FCC’s 2012 reforms and nearly all of its 2016 reforms to address waste, fraud and abuse.

Indeed, as GAO states, the “FCC’s planned National Verifier may address many of the issues we identified … if it is fully implemented by the current planned date of 2019.” According to the FCC, it’s on track to do just that.

The first priority should be expedient implementation of the 2016 Order. We should reject radical measures such as moving Universal Service funds to the U.S. Treasury “to offset other national debts,” as the FCC Chair’s office evidently suggested to the GAO. This could undermine all USF programs, including Lifeline and others designed to connect rural Americans, schools and libraries.

As I read about how people stranded by hurricanes are using their cellphones as literal lifelines, I am reminded that yes, we should strive towards a prudent program, but we must also commit to ensure that everyone has access.

Thank you.

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