Dallas Morning News
By Melissa Repko
AT&T is getting criticism from some consumer and public advocacy groups after it said it won’t participate in a government subsidy program that cut the cost of broadband internet for low-income families.
The Dallas-based telecom company is one of 86 providers that have sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission to opt out of the broadband part of the Lifeline program. The program helps to cover the cost of landline and mobile phone services that poor families use to connect with jobs, family or emergency services. It was recently expanded to include broadband internet as a way to close the digital divide. The change took effect Dec. 1.
But AT&T said its own low-cost broadband program — called Access from AT&T — is a better way to achieve universal internet access. In a post on its public policy blog, the company said broadband should be a part of Lifeline, but said the program’s current structure puts the administrative burden on providers.
AT&T declined to comment for this story. It would not say how many people participate in the Access program.
AT&T started Access from AT&T in April, a program that connects poor Americans to low-speed internet for $10 or less per month. The FCC required the program as a condition of last year’s AT&T-DirecTV merger.
To qualify for Access, households must have at least one resident who participates in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and must live in the 21-state area where AT&T provides home internet service.
But AT&T’s decision to opt out of Lifeline’s broadband program has frustrated consumer advocates like Jessica Gonzalez, executive vice president and general counsel of California-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, She said AT&T and other large broadband providers should participate because “it’s the right thing to do and it demonstrates corporate responsibility.”
She said corporate programs like Access by AT&T often require credit checks or have much narrower criteria for eligibility. And she said programs often disappear as soon as FCC merger conditions expire.
Other public advocacy groups have also criticized AT&T’s filing, including the Greenlining Institute, The United Church of Christ, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Benton Foundation, according to a report by Fortune.
Lifeline began in 1985 as a way to make telephone service more affordable for poor Americans to connect to jobs, family and emergency services. It was expanded to cover wireless service, such as prepaid cell phones and texting, under President George W. Bush and this year, the FCC announced an expansion to cover broadband internet service.
About 13.4 million Americans — including 720,000 Texans — receive subsidized phone service through the program, according to 2014 data from the FCC. AT&T is the third largest Lifeline carrier in the country, after America Movil (which includes the brands TracFone and Straight Talk) and Softbank Group (the majority owner of Sprint), according to the FCC.
Each eligible household gets a $9.25 per month subsidy for phone or internet services. The government pays the subsidy to the carrier, who then sends a lower bill.
When it announced the broadband expansion, the FCC said it would also modernize the Lifeline program by creating the National Eligibility Verifier, a third-party electronic system that would check a customer’s qualifications and help fight abuse and fraud.
The verification system won’t be rolled out to every state until 2019. That’s one of the reasons why AT&T said it would not participate.
“It makes little sense to spend resources on implementation of soon-to-be-replaced administrative rules for a new service when we are already offering low-income consumers a better deal through our Access from AT&T program,” wrote Joan Marsh, senior vice president of AT&T’s Washington, D.C. lobbying team on AT&T’s public policy blog.
Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition said she’s skeptical that’s the reason why the company is opting out. “If that’s truly the barrier, AT&T should commit that when that [the verification system] is up and running, they will provide broadband throughout their footprint,” she said. “But they haven’t.”