Nearly $1 million in federal funding is going unused each year because Virgin Islanders aren’t taking advantage of the Lifeline program’s phone and broadband subsidies, according to a consultant for the V.I. Public Services Commission.
Lifeline, which provides free or reduced-cost phone or broadband service to low-income families, has the same eligibility requirements as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as “food stamps,” and “there are likely more than 11,000 U.S. Virgin Islands households eligible for both SNAP and Lifeline,” Marc Hellman of Georgetown Consulting Group told the PSC during a special meeting Nov. 9. But “while there are 10,670 households participating in SNAP, only 535 households are taking advantage of Lifeline, which is a relative share of 5%. A similar statistic for Puerto Rico is 65%, and the U.S. average is almost 34%,” Hellman said.
Hellman said he calculated that about $1 million is being left on the table each year, and that money goes back to the federal government if it’s not used for its intended purpose of helping low-income families pay for their phone or internet service.
“This is close to $1 million of benefit a year that you’re looking at that’s not being used right now in the Virgin Islands, so it’s a benefit that’s not being taken advantage of that’s being made available,” Hellman said.
Lifeline provides subsidies for one landline, cell phone, or broadband service per household through certified Eligible Telecommunications Carriers. But of the six ETCs certified in the Virgin Islands, “only two have Lifeline subscribers,” Hellman said.
Hellman recommended the PSC open an inquiry into why Lifeline funding is so disproportionately underutilized in the Virgin Islands — but commissioners said the problem is nothing new, and staff said they’ve been trying and failing for years to stimulate more interest and access to the program.
“We have been dealing with these Lifeline participation issues for a very long time,” said Commissioner Andrew Rutnik.
Another Georgetown consultant, Walter Schweikert, presented a similar report eight years ago in 2012 and said that of the more than 14,000 households likely to qualify, only 800 people territory-wide were taking advantage of Lifeline.
“Money is one of the main reasons that Lifeline hasn’t been pushed too much in this territory right now,” said PSC Communications Coordinator Lorna Nichols.
Funding for public awareness drives has dried up, and “the Human Services Department is at their wits’ end, they’re too busy to push those programs,” Nichols said. “We used to have employees on both islands to push Lifeline, and we no longer have those employees. We could no longer afford to keep those employees.”
Radio and TV stations “are in a decline here in the territory,” and not running free public service announcements, Nichols said, so “one of the main reasons is just money.”
Jennifer Matarangas-King, vice president of public relations and governmental affairs for Viya, said there were employees posted at Human Services to help people register for Lifeline, but “to be very honest, the program was not very successful.”
Lifeline staff were pulled away to do other tasks for the department, so “we were essentially paying for employees to not really push Lifeline,” Matarangas-King said.
And, in-person promotions at events like the Ag Fair are not happening due to COVID-19, she said. But “we encourage our reps to let people know.”
“If we could have Lifeline brochures in every government agency that would be fantastic,” she said.
In addition, “the process can be a bit challenging,” and after initially registering and filling out paperwork at Viya, customers must recertify online after six months to a year, and “here’s where we find the numbers tend to fall off,” Matarangas-King said. “Many people don’t, because they’re required to do it in a virtual way, and not everyone is comfortable or may have the means to do so.”
Nichols said that in addition to the technical challenges, “a lot of people are a little proud and sometimes don’t want to sign up or ask for help.”
Rutnik asked how much it costs companies to provide the subsidized service.
“It’s money given to the companies” by the Federal Communications Commission, and “under the FCC they have to give this money to the territory, and if it’s not used, it’s sent back,” Nichols said. “There are a lot of companies that come in, fly-by-nights that come in and take this money, and we don’t know what happens to it.”
“This is a million dollars that’s on the table,” Rutnik said. “A substantial piece of money.”
“We live in a community where information, though it’s available, it doesn’t reach to impacted persons. And I think part of that is why those numbers are also as low as they are,” said Commissioner Raymond Williams.
For more information about Lifeline, visit dhs.gov.vi/financial_programs/telephone_assistance.html.