FCC Boss Takes Aim At Efforts To Bring Broadband To The Poor

from the with-friends-like-these... dept

So we’ve noted how new FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly claimed that closing the digital divide will be the top priority for his commission. But we’ve also noted how his actions as FCC boss have run in stark, dramatic contrast to that stated goal. Whether it’s making it easier for prison phone monopolies to rip off inmate families, his decision to kill a plan to bring much-needed competition to the cable box, or his attacks on net neutrality, so far Pai has made it painfully clear that protecting AT&T, Comcast and Verizon is actually where his priorities lie.

In the last week Pai took his “love for the poor” to soaring new heights by falsely taking credit for year-old job plans at Charter Communications, and cheering as Congress dismantled consumer privacy protections at large ISP behest. But Pai also took what most analysts believe will be the opening salvo in a war against subsidized broadband service for the poor.

Last year the Wheeler-lead FCC voted to expand the Lifeline program, first created by the Reagan administration and expanded by the Bush administration. Originally, low-income homes received a $9.25 monthly credit that could be used toward wireless or traditional phone service. The 2015 changes not only gave these homes the option to use this money for broadband in an attempt to modernize the fund, but also placed the lion’s share of ISP eligibility administration in the hands of the FCC in an attempt, in part, to better police fraud.

A number of states sued over the move, in part because large ISPs (which enjoy even greater regulatory capture on the state level) didn’t want the federal government spending money on anything that might improve regional competition. This week, Pai issued a statement saying (pdf) that he would be killing the FCC’s legal defense of the 2015 changes, and freezing all federal approval of federal provider eligibility. Why? This power belongs in the hands of the states, not the FCC, claims Pai:

“Congress established our universal service programs as a joint federal-state partnership. And through the years, many states have helped consumers and protected taxpayers by enforcing the rules of the road. As Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) recently observed in introducing bipartisan Lifeline legislation with Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), we need to ?return the role of state utility commissions in determining Lifeline eligibility. State utility commissions are key to policing against fraud and harmonizing federal and state initiatives that will help us close the digital divide.? By letting states take the lead on certification as envisioned by Congress, we will strengthen the Lifeline program and put the implementation of last year?s order on a solid legal footing. This will benefit all Americans, including those participating in the program.”

On a superficial level Pai does a wonderful job making this all sound perfectly reasonable, obfuscating much of the motivation for the shift as a noble quest to restore states rights (which is what most news coverage will focus on). The problem, again, is that companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon (a former Pai employer) have an absolutely incredible amount of control over state legislatures and regulators. It’s a primary reason why more than twenty states have passed laws banning your town or city from upgrading its broadband networks — even if nobody else will.

Pay-to-play state-level politics is also responsible for the kind of utter shitshows we’ve seen in states like West Virginia, where state leaders threw millions of dollars in subsidies at companies like Frontier and Verizon, then tried to bury the fact that these companies spent this money on over-priced, un-used hardware and redundant consultants, while doing little to nothing for the benefit of state residents. Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn is another perfect example of what state “oversight” of broadband providers looks like.

So yes, there’s a reason large ISPs prefer regulatory oversight of these kinds of programs in the hands of the states, and it has absolutely nothing to do with state rights. It has everything to do with ensuring that these funds aren’t used in a way that might increase competition, and decrease their bottom lines. It’s simply easier, and by proxy cheaper, to accomplish via lobbying on the state level. Especially after Wheeler’s FCC did an arguably-good job finally cracking down on fraud in the E-Rate and Lifeline programs (I’ll note here that Pai voted against holding AT&T accountable for ripping off the program in 2015).

Granted while this reconfiguration takes place, carriers waiting to learn if they can actually service the poor will be prohibited from doing so. Those growing familiar with the arguably-massive chasm between Pai’s words and his actions were quick to cry foul, stating that this is just an attempt to begin applying the death by a thousand cuts “solution” to the program. Others, like consumer advocate and former FCC staffer Gigi Sohn (who, unlike Pai, actually has a reputation for caring about low-income communities) issued fairly clear warnings:

“The Chairman is masterful in using the argument “the FCC lacks legal power” to undercut just about every pro-consumer and pro-competition policy he doesn?t like. He used this excuse recently in declining to defend the FCC rules that lowered prison phone rates, and he will certainly do the same when addressing the FCC?s privacy rules for broadband and, ultimately, its network neutrality rules.

I won?t get into the details about how Chairman Pai committed his own process foul by having his Wireline Bureau, in the order revoking the nine Lifeline designations, undercut a legal determination voted on by the full Commission in the Lifeline Modernization Order. Instead, I?ll repeat what should now be obvious ? the new FCC majority fundamentally dislikes the Lifeline Program and will seek to weaken it by any means possible.”

While Pai’s approach is certainly eloquent and clever, the folks that have actually spent years fighting for the poor are quick to note that the claims about state rights are little more than a hollow show pony. Meanwhile, somebody might want to tell Ajit Pai that to be considered a champion of the poor, you need to start by, you know, actually being a champion for the poor.

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Comments on “FCC Boss Takes Aim At Efforts To Bring Broadband To The Poor”

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22 Comments
Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

That would be becaaaaauuuuuse…

ANARCHY DOESN’T SCALE!

Flip me, why have the Trump voters not worked that out yet? One presumes it’s because the word “anarchist” is never actually used. That’s what an anarcho-capitalist is, people. Just common or garden no-govt. free-for-all plus capitalism with no restraints. Caveat emptor, and all that.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: I pad your wallet, you pad mine

No seriously, the moron is advocating against his own current job. Tragically comic.

He may be a disaster in his current job(so long as you believe that said job involves serving the public, rather that corporations anyway) but he’s working overtime to showcase his future employers that when it comes to the telecom industry he’s always had their back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why is the Federal government more responsive

Why is the Federal government more responsive to the people than the state governemnt? I general prefer power to be given to be at the lowest level possible. A few votes or a few hundred dollars can make a big difference in state races. Power at the federal level is much further removed from the people. Many states have part time legislatures, so your representatives are lawyers, business owners, professors from the community. They spend most of their time in their district since the legislature is only part time. I would spend time influence state leaders rather than consolidating power in the hands of the federal government.

freedomfan (profile) says:

Federal Government No Less Immune to Regulatory Capture than State Governments

Even if one agrees that this new federal appointee is an asshat who isn’t doing his job (and perhaps thinks that his job shouldn’t exist), what’s going on here is not a big surprise. Regulatory capture isn’t solely an affliction of state or local governments and it never has been. Regulatory capture is an affliction that affects whichever body is doing the regulating, at any level of government.

One can justifiably bemoan examples of telecom regulatory capture at the state level. But, let’s not pretend that putting the feds in charge of more things will mitigate the issue. Despite the fact that Pai’s actual intention may be to undermine this telecom welfare program by kicking regulation down to the states, there is actually a better chance for states to respond to voters than the feds. To be clear, many states have slipped sweetheart legislation through for the telecoms. But, with some public attention, the states can fix that and I suspect the fact that they haven’t is largely due to the fact that the public remains largely unaware that their politicians have been bought off in this way. If it became a campaign issue, then the practice would stop and could potentially be reversed.

If this hasn’t become a campaign issue in state elections, I would be betting it’s because both incumbent and challenging candidates are happy to take donations from AT&T, Comcast, etc. and let them "contribute" to the legislative process while they are in office. If this issue gets enough sunlight, that is less likely to be the case. In other words, when a politician thinks, "I can run an ad accusing my opponent of taking money from Comcast and then sponsoring legislation written by Comcast that raised voters’ Internet bills!" then there is a chance to roll back some of this nonsense.

But, rest assured that this is far less likely to become a campaign issue at the federal level. For one thing, no senator or representative is going to be held accountable for what Pai does. And, the same is true of the president. Among the vast majority of voters, no one knows who the FCC chairman is or what he does and no one is going to vote for or not vote for the president based on what his FCC chair did regarding some program that most people haven’t heard of and don’t care about.

Expecting politicians to be more responsive to voters at the federal level than at state or local levels is a mistake.

slowgreenturtle (profile) says:

Another Perspective

Could the FCC stop all subsidies, please?

If you’d like to support giving broadband to the poor (I’m all for it), do it through a private charity; stop using the government to take money from one group of people and give it to another in the form of goods and services.

Charity should be private, not mandated by the government.

Isma'il says:

Re: Another Perspective

According to that logic, we might as well dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and our public educational system.

Oh and why not eliminate police departments, fire departments, and infrastructure projects that are also paid for by the public…….because the charities are sooooo much better equipped to handle all that stuff, too!

freedomfan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Another Perspective

I think slowgreenturtle’s point is that telecom service is among the types of goods and services that charities could effectively subsidize for the truly needy. (Many would say that federal courts or a national military organization are examples of things that would be difficult to effectively fund by charity.)

Whether or not you agree with his point, taking that to imply that all taxpayer-funded government services should be funded charitably is a stretch. Not that I have any idea where slowgreenturtle stands on that, but that isn’t what he said. There are certainly plenty of people who look at SS, Medicaid, and other federal systems funded by taxpayers and conclude that they are bad ideas in the long-term. There are certainly economists who don’t think that the funding for those things can continue the way it has, since projected outlays outpace projected revenue by tens of trillions of dollars over the next few decades.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Another Perspective

Whether or not you agree with his point, taking that to imply that all taxpayer-funded government services should be funded charitably is a stretch.

Yes, where could anybody have possibly gotten the idea that he was advocating not using the government to take money from one group of people and give it to another in the form of goods and services?

There are certainly plenty of people who look at SS, Medicaid, and other federal systems funded by taxpayers and conclude that they are bad ideas in the long-term. There are certainly economists who don’t think that the funding for those things can continue the way it has, since projected outlays outpace projected revenue by tens of trillions of dollars over the next few decades.

I suppose there are certainly plenty of people who say those things, because you can find all sorts of people who say all sorts of things on every conceivable subject. But your failure to cite any examples of who, specifically, is saying those things kinda suggests to me that you don’t think it would make your argument any stronger if you did.

Anonymous Coward says:

“So we’ve noted how new FCC boss Ajit Pai has breathlessly claimed that closing the digital divide will be the top priority for his commission. “

Give him some credit, he IS closing the digital divide. Eliminating the have-not’s is not the way most of us will think of, but it does close the gap when you hack the bottom away.

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