New FCC Boss Ajit Pai Insists He's All About Helping The Poor, Gets Right To Work Harming Them Instead
from the watch-what-I-do,-not-what-I-say dept
Just last week, new FCC boss Ajit Pai made a speech in front of FCC staffers breathlessly professing his dedication (pdf) to consumers, innovation, and closing the digital divide. In a post over at Medium, the former Verizon lawyer again insisted that closing the digital divide would be the defining theme of his tenure as FCC Boss:
"I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners on this aggressive agenda to connect Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide, to allow broadcasters to innovate and better serve viewers, and to reduce unnecessary regulations. And Groundhog Day or not, you can expect that I will return to these themes over and over and over again."
So, how is Pai doing on his promise after just a few weeks in office? Let's see. In just the last few weeks, Pai:
Began undermining FCC attempts to prevent prison phone monopolies from dramatically overcharging inmate families for phone calls.
Dropped all FCC investigations into whether or not zero rating violates net neutrality and drives up rates for streaming video consumers -- the opening salvo of what's believed to be the rollback of all net neutrality protections.
Killed an attempt by the FCC to bring competition to the cable box market, which would have threatened $20 billion in cable industry rental fee revenues.
Not to be outdone, Pai also actually made it harder for poor people to get discounted broadband by unnecessarily disqualifiying nine, already approved small ISPs (Spot On, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, FreedomPop, AR Designs, Kajeet, Liberty, Northland Cable, and Wabash Independent Networks) from participating in the FCC's Lifeline program. That program, founded by Reagan and expanded by Bush, doles out $9.25 per low-income household for them to use on phone or broadband service. Last year the FCC expanded it marginally so low-income homes could use that money to pay for stand-alone broadband, cellular, or fixed-line phone service (Pai, digital divide closer extraordinaire, voted down that effort).
The FCC's rushed-through late Friday order makes a big deal out of the amount of fraud occurring in the Lifeline program, ignoring that under Wheeler's watch, the agency managed to finally get a handle on much of it. Like that time AT&T was caught falsely inflating its Lifeline subscriber rolls to keep getting subsidies it didn't deserve (punishment for which, again, Pai himself voted down). But there's no evidence the nine ISPs targeted by Pai were involved in any fraudulent behavior whatsoever. And when Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica tried several times to get the FCC to clarify why these ISPs were singled out, the agency refused:
"Pai's FCC says the commission wants to implement new measures to combat fraud and waste in the Lifeline program and that revoking the Lifeline designations will provide additional time to achieve that. But none of the nine providers was accused of fraud, and the FCC already has the power to investigate and punish any provider that defrauds the program. Pai could have let these companies continue selling subsidized broadband to poor people as long as they committed no fraud, but he chose not to."
Unsurprisingly, the people out in the field actually trying to get broadband to the poor were greatly annoyed by Pai's "help." Kajeet's founder Daniel Neal finds Pai's particular version of assistance a little bit curious when asked about it by the Los Angeles Times:
"I’m most concerned about the children we serve,” Kajeet founder Daniel Neal said. “We partner with school districts — 41 states and the District of Columbia — to provide educational broadband so that poor kids can do their homework."
Consumer advocacy groups like Public Knowledge were also quick to point out how Pai broke the sound barrier in rushing to immediately undermine his own agency's promises:
"The most obvious fact in our society is that high-speed Internet is astronomically expensive for the middle class and down,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “So in any way limiting the Lifeline program, at this moment in time, exacerbates the digital divide. It doesn’t address it in any positive way."
So yes, 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.