Nobody (Even His Industry BFFs) Likes Ajit Pai's Latest Attack On Low Income Broadband Programs

from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts dept

So we’ve noted a few times how Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai enjoys wandering the country informing everyone he’s a massive champion of closing the digital divide. But those claims have been repeatedly and consistently undermined by Pai’s own actions, whether that involves rolling back net neutrality (a move that will make life harder and more expensive for countless consumers, non-profits, minority communities and startups alike), or his slow but steady dismantling of programs intended to make life a little bit easier for the poor.

One of Pai’s biggest targets has been the FCC’s Lifeline program. It’s an arguably modest program that was started by Reagan and expanded by Bush, and it long enjoyed bipartisan support until the post-truth era rolled into town. Lifeline doles out a measly $9.25 per month subsidy that low-income homes can use to help pay a tiny fraction of their wireless, phone, or broadband bills (enrolled participants have to chose one). The FCC under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler had voted to expand the service to cover broadband connections, something Pai (ever a champion to the poor) voted down.

Now Pai is back with a new proposal that would prevent anybody but the nation’s biggest carriers from helping provide service to the poor via the Lifeline program. According to Pai’s new proposal, only “facilities-based broadband” providers (companies that own and operate their own networks) could participate in the program, forcing millions of the nations’ poor off of existing MVNOs and other resellers, and forcing them onto the networks of incumbent wireless carriers.

If you’ve followed Pai’s ideological rhetoric, it’s pretty clear he sees government as a pesky impediment to the miracles of the broadband free market, which, in Pai’s head, will always do the right thing if left in an accountability vacuum. But if you’ve also followed the broadband industry, you’ll know it’s not a free market. It’s a mish-mash of regional monopolies that enjoy regulatory capture on the state and federal level, resulting in limited competition, high prices, and awful service. In telecom, history shows us that mindlessly gutting regulatory oversight instead of reforming it doesn’t magically fix this problem, it makes it worse.

Still, it’s clear that Pai believes that slowly dismantling the FCC as both an agent of altruism (empathy is painfully unfashionable) and oversight is the path to nirvana. And he’s justifying his latest efforts to scale back Lifeline by insisting that booting resellers off the program somehow will magically boost broadband deployment:

“[W]e believe Lifeline support will best promote access to advanced communications services if it is focused to encourage investment in broadband-capable networks…We believe this proposal would do more than the current reimbursement structure to encourage access to quality, affordable broadband service for low-income Americans. In particular, Lifeline support can serve to increase the ability to pay for services of low-income households. Such an increase can thereby improve the business case for deploying facilities to serve low-income households.”

Consumer advocates argue in their own filings with the FCC (pdf) that the effort is a pointless attempt to help drive additional revenue to incumbent carriers. And former FCC staffer Gigi Sohn recently noted in Wired how this is part of a broader effort that will make life more difficult for low-income Americans to actually get broadband:

“One of Pai?s first acts as chair was to chill competition and innovation in the Lifeline program. Pai reversed a decision made by former FCC chair Tom Wheeler that allowed nine new Lifeline providers into the program. In the process Pai got rid of new competitors who could drive down prices and improve services.

Now, Pai proposes to limit Lifeline even further. Eliminating a Wheeler-era designation that welcomed new broadband providers into the program, the FCC said in December, will ?better reflect the structure, operation, and goals of the Lifeline program.? But if the goal of the program is to ensure that low-income Americans have affordable access to broadband, reducing competition in the program will do the exact opposite.

The problem is only compounded by Pai’s failure to do anything about a lack of competition in general in the telecom market. And while incumbent ISPs (like Pai’s former employer Verizon) routinely applaud Pai’s efforts on these fronts, even they doubt the effectiveness of Pai’s proposal. For example Verizon was quick to point out <a href=”””>in its own filing (pdf) that Pai’s plan wouldn’t do what he claims and would actually be harmful:

“The proposed exclusion of resellers from the Lifeline program would be highly disruptive to existing Lifeline beneficiaries and is at odds with the Commission’s goal of supporting affordable voice telephony and high-speed broadband for low-income households.”

Even all of the dollar per hollar think tankers, academics, and others the industry uses to parrot anti-consumer policies aren’t impressed by Pai’s proposal. US Telecom, a lobbying group spearheaded by AT&T, also panned Pai’s plan for Lifeline, saying it wouldn’t accomplish what Pai says it would (pdf):

“[T]he proposed elimination of resellers from the Lifeline program would not materially further the deployment of broadband infrastructure, because revenue from resellers already contributes to facilities-based carriers’ deployment of broadband facilities.”

Again, you’ve got industry and consumer advocates agreeing here that Pai is wrong and his plan will actually harm the poor.

But as his attack on net neutrality made pretty clear, Pai’s blinded by an ideological vision of the telecom market that may or may not be supported by actual reality. And whereas a good leader would listen to opposition to his plans and reconsider positions that run in contrast to the will of the public, the insight of experts, and the facts — Pai’s default tendency is almost always to double down on bad ideas. And it this case Pai’s bad idea is pretty clear: dismantling telecom programs that help the poor via death by a thousand cuts, no matter how counterproductive it is.

There’s still time for Pai to back off his plan, given the FCC isn’t expected to vote on the proposal until sometime after the public comment period ends on March 23. Still, when your definition of “helping the poor” includes ensuring cable boxes stay expensive and closed, allowing duopolies to abuse net neutrality and drive up service costs, protecting prison monopoly telcos that have price-gouged families for years, and preventing smaller ISPs from actually helping the poor you profess to love — you have to wonder what it looks like when Pai actively wants to harm something.

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Comments on “Nobody (Even His Industry BFFs) Likes Ajit Pai's Latest Attack On Low Income Broadband Programs”

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Anonymous Coward says:

wont matter. he’s such an arrogant asshole, he’s just gonna do whatever he’s been told to do by whoever is pulling his strings! this is typical of the attacks going on worldwide on ordinary people be the elite and powerful few who are in charge of the world’s wealth, and want to basically enslave everyone, hence the orchestrated ‘financial crisis’ of 2006-7 after which all this crap started as it is the best opportunity to date for this to happen!

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You are correct except you forgot..
The biggest part of it is Food/Money..Without either, without ENOUGH, we can not pay or feed ourselves, and HAVE TO DO WHAT IS NEEDED..
Crime goes up..
There is no such thing as competition in this country..It was Wiped out as soon as the Conglomerates Bought out EVERYTHING.,.And then the banks got ahold of the corps..

Then lets ask, how many STILL use money/Cash/Physical denominations over CC#.. This started about 1980…where have you been.

A person asked me how to Solve Poverty..
I told him..Give every one a house/property..NO TAX ON IT..
He had to stop and think..

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not surprised to see Verizon is leery of this idea. The value proposition for the ‘facilities-based’ carriers to resell to the MVNOs is to send more expensive, ‘high-maintenance’ customers off of their call-center queues into the MVNO’s. Lower-income people, (rightly or wrongly) are seen as high-maintenance, (don’t pay on time, go into collection more often, less technically sophisticated so they call tech support more often.) I think Verizon would much rather make that someone else’s problem and just collect the wholesale rates for access to their towers.

Anonymous Coward says:

easy solution

… just end the Lifeline Program — problem solved

Lifeline has been riddled with fraud and corruption since its 1985 inception. Major reforms were attempted in 2012, but Senate investigation in 2017 still showed millions lost in fraud and waste.

Subsidizing personal communications is not a legitimate function of the Federal government nor FCC. It is unjust to force normal communications users to subsidize allegedly poor users. All those here who think such subsidies are a great idea — are free to generously donate their own money to that purpose.

Federal government operates over 116 various welfare programs for low income and disadvantaged people — thst safety net is plenty big enough without this Lifeline mess.

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re: easy solution

Thank you Jupiter. I am a Libertarian, and I do want to end the welfare state…. the corporate welfare state. When we repeal all these crony, protectionist, competition stifling laws that only serve the incumbent big businesses and serve no actual consumer or environmental purposes, then we can begin to roll back programs for low income citizens. Right now, we have too many rules and laws and over-criminalization that destroy family stability, distort price and supply, and prevent decent and able people from being able to fully support themselves.
The fraud that AC is complaining about is only minimally attributable to consumer abuse- Techdirt has plenty of articles about 411 billing scams, AT&T billing obfuscation, ect, ect….
For now, $9.95 covers a decent portion of communication access for low-income or unemployed people, and is just as necessary as every other utility. I know access to phone or internet doesn’t seem as necessary as heat, water, electricity, but there is no getting a job, let alone maintaining necessary medical care, or being reached in the event of a child’s emergency without a line of communication.

Whoever says:

Moral bankruptcy of Pai

This clearly shows Pai isn’t actually interested in free markets. He want to implement restrictions on who can sell these plans, which is clearly the opposite of a free market.

He wants to reduce competition.

All he supports is crony capitalism.

If anyone ever thought that his belief that we don’t need net neutrality was based on free-market thinking, here is the clear, unequivocal rebuttal for that.

Even his supporters realize that he has become too brazen in his unbounded support for a few large companies at the expense of most people in the USA.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Moral bankruptcy of Pai

No one is interested in a free market.

The left has bashed the idea of a free market so much that the right has zero reason to even pretend except in words that they want a free market.

If you want NN you are an idiot, if you hate NN you are an idiot. If you voted for either an R or a D in the past few elections you need to stop fucking bitching about shit you asked for stupid shit like this.

What is going to be even better is the counter stroke from the left when they are voted back into power after everyone has finally grown tired of Trump and his cronies, like Pai, bullshit.

dcfusor (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Moral bankruptcy of Pai

You are unfortunately correct, Orbital.

I live in conservative-land, and I observe that not even the most right-wing nutjobs or alt-rightest I know support Pai.

Not one, zero.

Maybe it’s because long ago I stopped hanging with monopoly billionaires – who tend to simply buy what they want from either fake party – but I haven’t heard one peep of support from any actual person (AC’s not counted, could be telcos) for ANYTHING Pai has done.

It’s kind of embarrassing when I talk to people overseas who assume, till you convince them, that Americans don’t support most of what our MIC/Elite/State does. They’re like, “why don’t you take your country back, then?”.

I’m not trying to be partisan here, more like the opposite – there’s plenty of blame for dead innocents and bought law to go around.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Moral bankruptcy of Pai

You want to talk about a no win situation…

If you voted for the people in power, it’s all your fault the country is going to shit and you have no right to complain. If you didn’t vote for the people in power, you don’t agree with my political beliefs and therefore are wrong and have no right to complain. If you voted third party, you threw away your vote rather than supported someone with a chance, and therefore have no right to complain. If you didn’t vote because you think all available options are crap, you aren’t participating in trying to fix things and thus you have no right to complain.

I have literally been in every one of those positions. Literally ANYTHING I do ends with people telling me I have no right to complain about the way the country is being run. It really pisses me off TBH.

Mononymous Tim (profile) says:

you have to wonder what it looks like when Pai actively wants to harm something.

What it looks like to me is that prick knows exactly what he’s doing, which is selling out everyone he can to the incumbents in every way he can.

I’m inclined to believe that this "opposition" is fake because they know he’ll ignore it and hand them the increased control they really want, just like he has ignored every other bit of opposition and common sense so far.

There are no guilty consciences anywhere.

cattress (profile) says:

Re: Re:

First, there’s nothing wrong with using SEO, that’s how you get eyes on your article.

Second, the FCC is and was referred to as Obama’s FCC. It’s simply a way of indicating the different priorities of each administration. It was also called the Bush FCC and Clinton FCC.

Third, this article is critical of Ajit Pai specifically, doesn’t use Trump in the title or repeatedly in the body. If you don’t like or disagree with Techdirt’s viewpoint, you don’t have to read it. Nobody would mind if you brought up a substantial point for consideration, but your complaint isn’t even accurate.

Mason says:

too many words

What a retarded article about a rather straightforward issue. Here are the words, or phrases, in order, that simply need not to be in this screed. Don’t you f*ckers have an editor?

Trump wandering massive champion post-truth rolled tiny fraction (ever a champion to the poor) pesky miracles (in Pai’s head) vacuum mish-mash mindlessly gutting magically (empathy is painfully unfashionable) nirvana magically
(dollar per hollar think tankers) blinded (actual reality) (double down) (death by a thousand cuts)

There are technical issues and then there are political issues. Your excessive use of cute words and clearly biased thinking show that the word “tech” needs to be taken out of the title of your online magazine. There really was nothing technical in this piece of opinion.

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