All consumers should receive service that meets their daily needs at a reasonable price. The rates for these services should be fair, reasonable, and affordable. And no one should have to choose between necessities—such as medicine and food—and needed telecommunications and utility services. Providing essential and affordable telecommunications and utility services for all consumers is also referred to as universal service. Sometimes the government provides service to ensure access for all. Municipal utilities and community broadband are two examples.
Federal, state, and some local utility assistance programs help qualified customers afford telecommunications and utility services. These programs aid households with lower incomes with bill payment and weatherization (see also Low-Income Assistance Programs—General).
Telecommunications: Federal law established universal service as a goal more than 80 years ago. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 updated that goal. It included advanced telecommunications and information services. The act attempted to ensure access to those services through fair, reasonable, and affordable pricing. Since then, high-speed internet has become more essential to society and the economy. In 2011, ubiquitous high-speed internet service became a universal service goal (see also High-Speed Internet Services). The federal Universal Services Fund subsidizes telecommunications service. It helps extend service to high-cost areas, consumers with low incomes, schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities. The fund is supported by a surcharge to telecommunications companies. That cost is then passed on to consumers. The size of the fund and the resulting surcharge on bills have grown dramatically in recent years. Most states also have their own funds.
In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission overhauled the universal service program. This included the Lifeline program, which provides discounted service for consumers with low incomes. The ruling expanded the Universal Services Fund’s support mechanism to include voice and high-speed internet service in the Lifeline program.
Energy: An explicit universal service policy for household energy services is needed. It is particularly clear during difficult economic times. When energy prices are high or volatile, the size of home energy bills can increase dramatically. Households can accrue past-due penalties, which place them at risk of disconnection. Public health, safety, and welfare are compromised when customers are unable to pay energy bills, and utilities respond by disconnecting service. In states that have opened retail energy markets to competition, consumers are more at risk. However, in most of these states, regulation ensures the option of standard offer service at stable rates. This is also known as “provider of last resort service” or “default service.”
Water: Similar to energy, there is no explicit universal service policy for access to clean, potable water (see also Water and Sewer).
Telecommunications: The federal Lifeline program provides discounts on eligible services to households with low incomes. These discounts apply to certain wireless, voice, and data bundles and to fixed and mobile high-speed internet services. Some states supplement the Lifeline program, increasing the amount of the overall discount.
Energy: There are two primary federal energy assistance programs. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps households with low incomes pay for their heating and cooling costs. The program is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services in coordination with the states.
The Weatherization Assistance Program helps households with low incomes make their homes more energy-efficient. It also helps these households reduce energy expenditures and improve health and safety. Funds are provided to states and distributed through local organizations. Grants are allocated to states and territories. In turn, they provide funds to community-based nonprofits or local government agencies with expertise in delivering program services. Preference is given to people over age 60.
Some states and municipal utilities also sponsor assistance and weatherization programs, often funded through utility rates.
Water: Affordable access to clean water sources is essential. However, the federal government has not established a rate-assistance program for water. Several states and municipalities have adopted water rate-assistance programs for customers with low incomes (see also Low-Income Assistance Programs—General).