A comprehensive review of the state's Lifeline program for low-income telephone service should be conducted, regulators at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission said Thursday.
Staff for the commission's public utility division filed an application for a notice of inquiry covering several parts of the phone subsidy program, including higher reimbursements available for serving customers on tribal land. That includes 71 of the 77 counties in Oklahoma.
Money for the Lifeline reimbursements comes from state and federal Universal Service Fund surcharges, which are added to telephone customer bills.
The state's Lifeline program paid $3.8 million in reimbursements to phone companies in fiscal year 2013. A federal version of the program paid $121.5 million to Oklahoma phone companies in 2011, up from $79 million in 2010, according to Federal Communications Commission reports.
Oklahoma companies received almost 7 percent of the $1.7 billion in federal Lifeline reimbursements in 2011, according to data from the fund's administrator.
The Lifeline program has come under attack by lawmakers and consumer watchdog groups who said it has been ripe for abuse by both customers and phone companies receiving reimbursements. The Federal Communications Commission put new rules in place last year for customer verification. It is also developing a national database to make sure Lifeline service is not provided more than once to any eligible household.
Corporation Commission Chairwoman Patrice Douglas said Thursday she welcomed the Lifeline review in Oklahoma.
“I think this is long past due,” Douglas said. “We absolutely have to get Lifeline issues under control. We have to figure out ways to stop fraud and abuse in this program. I think it's rampant. We have found out in Oklahoma it's rampant and we have to get a handle on it.”
Douglas said it appears Oklahoma is getting a disproportionate share of the funding under the federal program. She asked staff to gather numbers on the number of Lifeline subscribers in the state and how that compares to other states.
Commissioner Bob Anthony said some of that information is available in telecom company annual reports, which are not public documents and treated as confidential under commission rules.
16 areas of concern
The notice of inquiry lists 16 areas of study. Among them is how telephone companies enroll and verify low-income customers in the program. It also asks if there might be a better way to determine Lifeline assistance for tribal customers.
Federal Lifeline typically offers reimbursements of $9 per eligible household. Companies serving customers on tribal land can get another $25 in reimbursements under the enhanced version of Lifeline.
The federal Lifeline program started in 1985 for landlines and expanded in 2008 to include wireless service. The state's Lifeline program dates to 1997. State lawmakers tightened the customer verification requirements this year under House Bill 2165.
Corporation commissioners approved a schedule with two technical conferences on Oct. 14 and Nov. 7 in Oklahoma City. A hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Nov. 21.
I think this is long past due. We absolutely have to get Lifeline issues under control. We have to figure out ways to stop fraud and abuse in this program. I think it's rampant. We have found out in Oklahoma it's rampant and we have to get a handle on it.”
Corporation Commission Chairwoman