Survey paid for by TracFone-funded group finds support among older Americans for maintaining Lifeline program

A survey paid for by a group that has financial ties to América Móvil's U.S. MVNO, TracFone Wireless, found that older Americans strongly support the federal government's Lifeline program. TracFone is one of the nation's largest providers of Lifeline phone service. The survey is being trumpeted as new questions are being raised about the Lifeline program's effectiveness.

Yesterday, two policy advocacy organizations issued a press release about a survey on older Americans' support for Lifeline. The two groups are the Alliance for Retired Americans, which is a nationwide policy advocacy organization that claims 4.3 million members, and the Keeping Americans Connected to Opportunity (KACO), which promotes use of the Lifeline program. Specifically, KACO is "dedicated to promoting and preserving Low Income Lifeline, particularly wireless Lifeline, in a time when this program and many others like it are being attacked."

The survey--conducted July 8-13, 2014, of 809 Americans aged 60 or older--was administered by ORC International and sponsored by KACO. The survey found 67 percent of those surveyed believe that retirees and other older Americans are entitled to wireless Lifeline and other programs for which they are qualified. The survey also found that 72 percent of older Americans say it would be "unfair" to start imposing a fee or tax on the wireless Lifeline program.

So why did KACO and the Alliance for Retired Americans issue a press release this week promoting a survey from July 2014? It's unclear, but last month the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that said the FCC should review the efficiency of the Lifeline program, according to The Hill. The GAO said data from telephone penetration rates suggests "the [Lifeline] program may be a rather inefficient and costly mechanism to increase telephone subscribers."

The GAO is the independent investigative arm of Congress.

A KACO spokesman denied a connection between the press release and the GAO report. "We are not aware of any developments in the last eight months that would have resulted in a shift in views by older Americans. These findings are consistent with earlier survey work on senior attitudes. No such concern was expressed by the Alliance for Retired Americans."

The topic can also be tracked back to TracFone Wireless, which currently has around 4 million Lifeline customers out of a total subscriber base of 25.688 million total customers, according to a KACO spokesman. TracFone provides Lifeline service through its SafeLink Wireless brand.

On its website, KACO notes it "is grateful for the support of TracFone Wireless, Inc., which has provided unrestricted support for this website. KACO is an independent organization that only accepts funding that is provided on an unrestricted basis."

"TracFone does provide support to KACO and that fact is clearly and publicly disclosed on the organization's website," A KACO spokesman told FierceWireless. "TracFone's support is general in nature and does not extend to involvement in KACO's specific activities, such as polling. As the KACO site indicates, outside support is only accepted on an 'unrestricted basis.' Again, all of these things are publicly disclosed."

The Lifeline program offers participating carriers a subsidy of up to $10 per month per subscriber, and the program is part of the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which the FCC is in the process of reforming. USF is paid for by wireless subscribers. Customers who qualify for Lifeline are often those who qualify for other federal benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).

In 2012 the FCC instituted new rules that required carriers that received Lifeline funds to certify that their Lifeline subscribers were eligible for the program, an effort to streamline the program and reduce waste. The FCC's rules prohibit Lifeline service providers from requesting and/or receiving support for consumers who already receive Lifeline service. 

Indeed, in its first quarter report last month, TracFone said that it engaged in a "clean-up of our subscriber base that led us to disconnect [318,000] subscribers mostly from our Lifeline program." 

Additionally, the FCC requires Lifeline carriers to carefully monitor their compliance with the Lifeline rules and recently cautioned that not following the rules would result in enforcement action.

For more:
- see this release

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