Ajit Pai's Cure For The 'Digital Divide' Looks Suspiciously Like A Giant Middle Finger
from the ill-communication dept
FCC boss Ajit Pai likes to repeatedly proclaim that one of his top priorities while chair of the FCC is to “close the digital divide.” Pai, who clearly harbors post-FCC political aspirations, can often be found touring the nation’s least-connected states proclaiming that he’s working tirelessly to shore up broadband connectivity and competition nationwide. More often than not, Pai can be found somewhere in flyover country “highlighting how expanding high-speed internet access and closing the digital divide can create jobs and increase digital opportunity.”
And that would be great… if he was doing anything to actually accomplish that goal.
While Pai’s best known for ignoring the public and making shit up to dismantle net neutrality, his other policies have proven to be less sexy but just as terrible. From neutering plans to improve cable box competition to a wide variety of what are often senseless attacks on smaller competitors, most of Pai’s policies are driving up costs for the rural Americans he so breathlessly pledges fealty to.
For example, a guy that’s actually trying to improve competition wouldn’t be taking steps to hide that lack of competition by weakening broadband availability standards. Similarly, a politician actually focused on improving broadband connectivity to rural areas wouldn’t be actively dismantling programs specifically designed to accomplish that goal.
One of Pai’s biggest targets has been the FCC’s Lifeline program, an effort started by Reagan and expanded by Bush that 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.
Some of the most-frequently ignored in the battle for better connectivity are native populations and tribal areas. Under Chairman Ajit Pai’s “leadership,” the FCC voted 3-2 last November to eliminate a $25 additional Lifeline subsidy for low-income native populations on tribal land. As part of Pai’s effort he also banned smaller mobile carriers from participating in the Lifeline program, a move opposed by even the larger companies (Verizon, AT&T) that stand to benefit.
Small wireless carriers and several tribal organizations subsequently sued the FCC (pdf) in the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, noting the FCC “failed to engage affected tribal governments” ahead of the rule changes. Tribal leaders also filed a petition (pdf) claiming Pai’s multi-pronged attack on Lifeline would only make it harder to connect tribal lands to the internet:
“The Order on review adopted new restrictions on the provision of enhanced support that threaten the fundamental viability of the Lifeline program in many tribal areas. As relevant to Crow Creek?s petition, the Order would limit the availability of enhanced support to facilities-based carriers only, thereby excluding MVNOs from the tribal Lifeline program. Once the rule takes effect, MVNOs will be eligible to receive only $9.25 in support for service provided on tribal lands, an amount that the Commission already determined is woefully insufficient to ensure that low-income American Indians have access to telecommunications.”
And while tribal leaders had petitioned the FCC to stay its decision pending the appeal, the FCC last week unsurprisingly rejected that request. Much like opponents of Pai’s net neutrality repeal, tribal leaders say the FCC violated laws like the Administrative Procedures Act by reversing existing policy without truly consulting those impacted and without basing the decision on, you know, hard, substantive data:
“The Commission failed to engage affected tribal governments prior to adopting the MVNO exclusion as required by its own policies, the Administrative Procedure Act (?APA?), and laws governing the relationship between the federal government and federally recognized American Indian tribes.”
That’s curious for a guy that tries so hard to portray himself as a bosom buddy to marginalized communities trying to obtain affordable internet in the Comcast era. But again, it’s not surprising if you watched Pai ignore the fact that a massive, bipartisan coalition of Americans telling him his net neutrality repeal was a terrible, counter-productive policy.
While the telecom industry is certainly no stranger to subsidy fraud and waste, the Lifeline program — which you generally only qualify for if you’re living near the poverty line — has generally been agreed upon as the very least we can do to help the downtrodden get connected to the internet. Pai prattles on ad nauseum about his dedication to closing the digital divide, and so far has faced few repercussions for the fact his policies will actively make the problem worse. Especially since it couldn’t be any clearer that Pai intends to do absolutely nothing about the lack of competition that sits at the heart of this dysfunction.