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Reforming and Improving Lifeline and Link Up

Posted January 13th, 2011 by Sharon Gillett

 Last year was a busy one for Universal Service Fund (USF) reform at the FCC. We adopted a major order that modernized the E-rate program, which supports broadband for schools and libraries. We began the reform process for the High-Cost Fund, which supports phone service and broadband in rural and other high-cost areas, and the Rural Health Care program, which supports broadband for rural health facilities.

As part of our commitment to modernize all our USF programs and improve protections against waste, fraud, and abuse, we’ve also been working hard on improvements and reform proposals for Lifeline and Link Up, which provide telephone service discounts to low-income consumers. These discounts ensure that the financial hardships these customers face don’t disconnect them from the societal and economic benefits of having phone service. 

Here’s what’s been going on ...

Last spring, in light of significant technological and marketplace changes since the current Lifeline and Link Up rules were adopted, we asked the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service to study and make recommendations to the Commission on our Lifeline and Link Up eligibility, verification, and outreach rules.  The Joint Board completed its work and sent us its recommendations late last year, and we’ll soon be addressing those recommendations in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (more on that below).

Recently we have increased our supervision of the program, focusing on a number of different ways to eliminate potential waste, fraud and abuse, and to address the program’s growth.  Under our oversight, the program’s administrator, the Universal Service Administrative Company (known as USAC), will conduct nearly fifty compliance audits in the coming months addressing a range of program requirements and covering multiple states and providers.  These audits will test the compliance with our rules of carriers who serve low-income customers and provide us with the data we need to make necessary program reforms.  More importantly, these audits will assist us in discovering and exposing any misconduct in the program, leading to recovery of any improperly distributed program funds and creating incentives for companies to strengthen their internal controls to prevent future problems.

We have also taken targeted actions that will continue to protect the program against waste, fraud, and abuse.  We denied Tracfone’s petition to eliminate our requirement that it contact all of its customers annually to ensure those customers are receiving only one Lifeline benefit per household.  This action comes on the heels of our ordering Virgin Mobile just a few weeks ago to adopt several measures designed to safeguard against abuse and growth in the fund, such as requiring the company to remove customers from the program if they don’t use their phones for 60 days, and taking other steps to prevent customers from receiving duplicate Lifeline-supported benefits.  The benefits of Lifeline and Link Up can only be assured if we carefully monitor the program to ensure that program funds go only to households eligible for them.

As recommended by the National Broadband Plan, we’ve also been working on the development of pilot programs to determine if and how Lifeline and Link Up could be used to support broadband, including through discussions with outside stakeholders who are interested in launching such programs.  More than any other reason, consumers point to cost as the main reason for not adopting broadband, but we know that cost is rarely the only reason.  Pilot programs could help us understand these reasons and how best to use our limited resources to promote sustainable broadband adoption.  The goal of the pilot program would be to collect actionable information to ensure we develop effective strategies for helping low-income families connect to broadband.

Finally, we are preparing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will tee up a number of improvements to Lifeline and Link Up, including a set of recommendations made in November by the Joint Board, as well as proposals to control the size of the program.  The proposals will not only include improvements to the existing Lifeline program to reduce waste, fraud and abuse but also ways to modernize the program by evaluating whether it reflects the realities of current industry practices and communications technologies.

Posted in Wireline Competition Bureau
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Houston, We Have A Solution: HP E-rate Fraud Case Settled

Posted November 12th, 2010 by Sharon Gillett

This week the FCC notched another win for America’s taxpayers, and especially for America’s students.  Working with the Department of Justice, and acting on tips from whistleblowers, the FCC investigated allegations that a group of companies that included Hewlett Packard Company (HP) lavished gifts on Houston and Dallas Independent School District personnel to lure contracts that included some $17 million in HP equipment. These improper actions constitute E-rate fraud, threatening the integrity of a crucial educational program, and have resulted in a settlement. Since 1996 the E-rate program has brought Internet connectivity to millions of students and virtually every classroom across the nation.

The charges are as eye-opening as they are disappointing. Yachting trips and pricey meals; tickets to see Tom Brady and the Patriots as Houston hosted the 2004 Super Bowl; and other varied and alluring entertainment packages. These contractors pulled out all the stops. All to sway officials to skirt a competitive bidding process that is vital to ensure that government funds provided to schools and libraries for our kids’ education stretch as far as possible.

In the settlement ironed out between the Department of Justice, FCC and HP, HP agreed to pay the government $16.25 million, most of which will be returned to the E-rate program. Further, the FCC will oversee a compliance agreement to prevent future foul play. HP will undergo audits of its E-rate business and has agreed to train its employees thoroughly on FCC gift and E-rate rules.

Collaborating with other agencies and alert citizens, we’re keeping our eyes open for instances of waste, fraud and abuse in the E-rate program. Just this September we took  more steps toward ensuring a fair and competitive bidding process. These steps include more specific E-Rate Program gift rules that send a clear message that conduct like that found in the Dallas and Houston cases will not be tolerated. We’ll do all we can to ensure that E-rate funds continue to increase educational opportunities and are not misused. As Chairman Genachowski noted in the press release issued earlier this week, E-rate resources should “work to benefit schools and libraries.” We’ll continue to hold the line.

Visit the Department of Justice to learn more about the settlement.

Posted in Office of General Counsel Wireline Competition Bureau
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Getting It: the FCC's Role in Bringing Broadband to Health Care

Posted June 28th, 2010 by Thomas Buckley - Manager, Rural Health Care Pilot Program

It's nice to hear from someone in the public that the FCC "gets it."

I heard just such a remark in California last month, when I had the opportunity to travel to the California Emergency Technology Fund's Rural Connection Workshop in Redding, California.  CETF, if you are not aware, is a non-profit organization established by the California Public Utilities Commission, which provides leadership throughout the state to accelerate the deployment and adoption of broadband to unserved and underserved communities.

The Workshop provided a forum for community, state, local, and federal leaders to discuss broadband deployment progress made in California as well as obstacles still faced.  I was honored to provide an update on initiatives in the FCC's Rural Health Care Universal Service Program, including the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, and to hear the many helpful ideas and comments from attendees.

In case you haven't heard of the FCC's Pilot program, here's what it does in a nutshell: it helps build high-speed broadband connections that connect public and non-profit rural health clinics with medical centers in larger communities.  The Pilot is funding projects that will be able to provide rural America with real-time consultations with medical experts at research hospitals, using telemedicine to save lives and money, and bring other benefits that only robust broadband connections can bring in the information-intense world of health care.

I updated the attendees on the progress of the California Telehealth Network Pilot Project, which is eligible for $22 million under the Pilot Program to deploy a new state-wide network that plans to connect over 900 health care providers to facilitate mental illness counseling and improve patient-physician interaction for rural Californians.  Isolation makes treatment and preventive services a challenge.  The new network will address real problems for rural Californians who suffer disproportionately from depression, hypertension, asthma and cardiovascular disease. 

For this audience of rural health technologists, I held up the California project an excellent model of state-wide collaboration of healthcare, technology, government, and other stakeholders to bring the benefits of health IT throughout the state.  Example: some of the key groups of this project are the University of California Office of the President, and the UC Davis Health System, which serves as the legally and financially responsible partner for the project.  The project has also received a $3.3M pledge from the California Emerging Technology Fund and has been granted partial reimbursement for monthly network connection costs by the California Teleconnect Fund program of the California Public Utility Commission.  In April, AT&T won the bidding to deploy the network, and the project is now finalizing its funding commitment request.  Bottom line: the California Telehealth Network shows what states can accomplish when they combine resources to reach as many rural health care providers as possible so that health IT can improve health care delivery in rural areas.

It was when my presentation focused on the longer term goals for the Rural Health Care Program that the audience member chimed in.  I explained the lessons learned from the Pilot Program and the recommendations of the National Broadband Plan to create a permanent infrastructure program, transform our Internet Access Fund into a Broadband Access Fund, and fund data centers and administrative offices because they  are critical to delivering health IT.  It was this vision that prompted the audience member to say the FCC "gets it." 

We want to keep getting it.  So the Commission at its July 15 meeting will be voting on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which asks for public input on how best to improve, reform and expand the Rural Health Care program based on recommendations in the National Broadband Plan and on what we've learned from the Pilot. Meanwhile, you can post any ideas you have on using broadband to save lives and deliver health care efficiently on this blog.

Cross-posted from Blogband.

Posted in Wireline Competition Bureau
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“Zooming in” on the High-Speed Report maps . . .

Posted March 24th, 2010 by Ellen Burton

We are busy assisting filers of the next round of Form 477 broadband subscribership data – which were due Monday, March 1 – but want you to know about some December 2008 data we’ve recently posted.  If you’ve been zooming your browser to locate your census tract on the High-Speed Reports maps, help has arrived.  Join the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act broadband stimulus grant applicants – who’ve been calling to ask – in checking out our new postings.  Click here and scroll down to the “Census Tract Info” item. 

As in the past, we’ve posted the data needed to exactly replicate report maps.  But like the maps, the data is now much more granular than in the past because it is reported by census tract.  A Microsoft Excel version lists all the census tracts, by state and county.  A separate Excel file organizes them into counties.  Researchers and GIS specialists can check out the same information in CSV format or SAS dataset format.  Don’t ignore the data dictionary – it explains data-item names and the ranges into which data are coded.  And, if you don’t know your census tract, here’s a lookup tool that works for almost all areas (those with “E911” emergency phone service).

Also note our “Broadband Filers by State” postings – you would have scrolled past them on the way to “Census Tract Info.”  Recipients of Broadband Data Improvement Act (BDIA) State Broadband Data and Development grants – who are mapping broadband availability in individual states – have been particularly interested in these.  The December 2008 list is generally consistent with provider counts (by holding company, by state) in the latest High-Speed Report (with the exceptions primarily due to filer typographical errors).  The June 2009 list is substantially complete but preliminary as of the posting date. 

Now back to work . . .

Posted in Wireline Competition Bureau
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