FCC Boss Under Fire For Facts-Optional Attack On Low-Income Broadband Programs

from the science-schmience dept

For a while now, we've noted how FCC boss Ajit Pai professes to be some kind of a hero to the poor, despite the fact that his policies are quickly making broadband and TV services more expensive for Americans. His extremely unpopular net neutrality repeal, for example, will only wind up driving up costs for consumers as entrenched ISPs jack up costs for competitors and consumers alike. And when Pai wasn't busy killing net neutrality, he was busy killing efforts to make cable boxes more competitive and affordable, or making it easier for prison phone monopolies to rip off inmate families via absurdly over-priced services.

Pai has also been taking aim at a government program dubbed Lifeline, which makes expensive American telecom services slightly less expensive for poor families. The program, started under Reagan and expanded under Bush Jr., simply gives low-income homes a $9.25 credit they can use for home phone, broadband, or wireless service (they have to pick one). Traditionally, this program has had pretty broad, bipartisan support, and is uniformly seen as pretty much the least the government can do to help those struggling to make ends meet.

But Pai's attack on Lifeline has come via death by a thousand cuts, and is starting to alarm folks that actually try to help poor people for a living. Most recently, Pai tabled a proposal that would declare that smaller wireless MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators, like Boost or Virgin Mobile) could no longer participate in Lifeline. While Pai has claimed that these changes will somehow magically boost broadband deployment, he hasn't been able to offer the slightest shred of data to support that contention.

Even Pai allies like Verizon, who didn't even ask for this deregulation favor, have stated that Pai's changes won't do what he claims and will harm the poor. It's pretty strange to see an instance of deregulation pushed through that the industry itself didn't push for, just as it's strange to see Verizon and consumer advocates agreeing on something.

That said, a group of 10 Senators including Ron Wyden wrote Pai last week expressing concern that Pai's actions are in stark contrast to his breathless support of closing the digital divide:

"Your proposal impacts over 70 percent of current Lifeline-recipient households by eliminating their wireless providers from the program, leaving less affordable and fewer Lifeline options, while making it more difficult for the companies trying to serve Lifeline customers," Senate Democrats wrote in the letter to Pai yesterday. "Instead of cutting the program, we should ensure Lifeline reaches more Americans in need of access to communication services."

The Senators were also quick to point out that the FCC offered no hard evidence to support its claim that reducing participation in the program will somehow expand broadband availability:

"The December 1, 2017, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) provides no evidence, analysis, or data to support its assumption that the FCC’s proposed changes to Lifeline will spur facilities-based broadband deployment and additional affordable services for low-income families. Provide any specific data, analysis, academic studies, economic reports, etc. that you relied on to support this assumption. Explain why the NPRM included no evidence or data to support this assumption."

The FCC has yet to vote on this proposal (the public comment period ended last week), but is likely to in the coming months. Hopefully Pai shows a little more flexibility than he did during his attack on net neutrality when he not only used debunked lobbyist data to justify his positions, but directed journalists to telecom lobbying organizations if they had questions. That said, if Pai has made anything clear, it's that he's on an ideological crusade that's not only viciously unpopular, but isn't likely to have its trajectory altered by pesky things like the welfare of the public, or, say... facts.

Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, fcc, lifeline, low income, ron wyden


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2018 @ 10:01am

    Re: Re:

    I see that the cuts to funding for mental health care have already started to take their calamitous toll...

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