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.