Lifeline cell service is a necessity in rural NH

Those of us who live in the rural areas and small towns of New Hampshire know that technology is key to full civic participation in modern life, including access to information, applying for jobs, relying on emergency services and even health care in the form of telemedicine. But not all of us have the same cellphone and broadband services that are taken for granted by residents of Concord, Manchester and Nashua.

Rural America has made great strides in recent decades, but one-third of our neighbors in rural New Hampshire still live in poverty, according to a 2014 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. And it is these residents who have the most to lose if Congress moves ahead with a plan to cap and then cut the federal Lifeline program that has provided free cellphone service to qualifying households and soon will offer access to broadband as well.

Fewer than 20,000 low-income homes in the Granite State currently benefit from the Lifeline program, just 16 percent of the estimated 122,000 eligible households in the state. That anemic level of participation is far below the 26 percent national participation rate for the program.

If Congress moves ahead to cap and cut the Lifeline program, it will force current Lifeline beneficiaries in New Hampshire out of the program and it will forever wall off access to it for the 100,000 in the state who already should be benefiting from the program.

Nowhere will this unfairness to New Hampshire residents be felt more acutely than in rural areas, particularly if the cuts to Lifeline are combined by Congress with a rapid termination of the cellphone side of the program. The catch for low-income residents of rural New Hampshire is not just the threat of reduced funding for Lifeline; it also is in the requirement that they can get the remaining broadband benefit only if they have access to service providing 10 megabytes per second (mbps) downloads or faster.

And that’s a big “if.” Nationwide, 53 percent of Americans in rural areas – 22 million people – do not have access to 25 mbps broadband and nearly a third (31 percent) are unable to tap into 10 mpbs broadband service.

A 2015 report by the Federal Communications Commission indicates the picture in rural New Hampshire is somewhat better – with 36 percent unable to access high-speed broadband. But that still leaves 191,000 people without high-speed broadband and tens of thousands of low-income households that would not qualify for Lifeline broadband help due to their lack of access to slower 10 mbps broadband.

If Congress caps and then cuts the current Lifeline funding level and also quickly kills the wireless portion of the program, the end result will be a raw deal for low-income people in rural New Hampshire.

Some of them will lose their cellphones and many more will be barred from Lifeline broadband support because the access they have (assuming they have any way to get broadband at all) will be too slow to qualify.

This is such a severe step that it is hard to imagine that any member of our congressional delegation who truly is in touch with and concerned about New Hampshire rural issues would even contemplate it, much less attempt to impose it on tens of thousands of vulnerable low-income people.

No one opposes fiscal responsibility in the Lifeline program and efforts to reduce fraud. But it is misleading and unfair to trade on anecdotal illustrations of past problems that have long since been addressed.

The most puzzling thing about the threat of congressional action is that this manhandling of the Lifeline program is a solution in search of a problem. Not only has the FCC enacted sweeping reforms dating back to 2012 to tackle concerns about the Lifeline program, but it also took additional steps in late March to make sure that cellphone and broadband services are going to be even more efficient. Rural New Hampshire residents should be asking themselves: Why in the world is Congress trying to break what the FCC just fixed?

Lifeline cell phone service is relied upon today by a diverse group of low-income seniors, veterans, the disabled and others in New Hampshire.

They use the program to stay in touch with doctors, get emergency assistance, get and keep jobs, and stay connected to families. In a nation that loses tens of billions of dollars every year to corporate tax loopholes, cutting off thousands of rural New Hampshire residents’ access to telecommunications is just not the place to start looking for spending cuts. Rural New Hampshire residents can only hope that the members of our congressional delegation will have the wisdom to leave well enough alone.

Christopher Heath is president of the New Hampshire Grange, the nation’s oldest general farm and rural public interest organization.

Categories: Opinion