Court Rejects Ajit Pai's Bid To Reduce Broadband Subsidies For Tribal Areas

from the unnecessary-fisticuffs dept

For a while now we've been noting that while Ajit Pai professes to be a huge proponent of "closing the digital divide," most of his policies are doing the exact opposite. Pai's attacks on net neutrality, for example, will likely only act to drive up broadband prices for everyone as ISPs enjoy their newfound ability to creatively abusive captive customers in uncompetitive markets. And Pai has repeatedly attempted to fiddle with FCC data collection methodology with an eye toward obfuscating the industry's competitive failures (be that skyrocketing prices or poor coverage).

That's of course when he hasn't been busy slowly-but-surely gutting programs designed to help bring broadband to the nation's less affluent areas.

One of Pai's core policies has been a relentless attack on the FCC's Lifeline program. Lifeline was created under the Reagan administration and expanded under the George W. Bush administration, and provides low-income households with 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.

Traditionally this program had broad, bipartisan support and was never deemed even remotely controversial. But ever since Trump and Pai stumbled into town, the current FCC has slowly waged war on the program. For example Pai's FCC voted 3-2 last November to eliminate a $25 additional Lifeline subsidy for low-income native populations on tribal land. Pai's FCC also banned smaller mobile carriers from participating in the Lifeline program, a move opposed by even the larger companies (Verizon, AT&T) Pai's FCC normally nuzzles up to.

But Pai's quest backfired late last week when a U.S. Appeals court issued a stay order (pdf) freezing Pai's efforts to kill Tribal broadband subsidies, the court arguing that Tribal organizations and smaller wireless carriers are likely to win their court challenge against the recent FCC changes.

Small wireless carriers and several tribal organizations had 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.

So far the courts seem to be agreeing with them, and tribal groups have been quick to applaud the ruling:

"Residents of Tribal lands, like many low-income consumers, rely on Lifeline service from wireless resellers, who are the primary, and sometimes only, providers of Lifeline service,” Gene DeJordy, an attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said in a statement. “The victory today is for the people -- Tribal members who cannot afford many of the basic necessities of life and rely on Lifeline service for their telephone and broadband needs."

Pai had taken aim at the program's use in tribal areas under purely ideological grounds (ie: government can never do good and should be gutted from all oversight of natural monopolies), insisting his agency was purely concerned about potential fraud in the program. But the court stated that it had "identified no evidence of fraud or misuse of funds in the aspects of the program at issue here." As we saw with net neutrality, Pai likes to bend reality to fit his ideological agenda (aka sophistry), instead of letting facts inform policy.

Also like net neutrality, it's yet another example of how Ajit Pai's self-professed dedication to "closing the digital divide" looks suspiciously like a giant middle finger aimed at the communities he professes to be "helping."

Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, competition, fcc, rural broadband, subsidies

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  1. icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 2:47pm

    Re: Questions to ask the FCC

    4) Has the FCC provided evidence of the harms caused by the 2015 order to the SEC to aide investigation of securities fraud related to statements to investors that the Net neutrality order did not affect investment? If not, why has the FCC turned a deaf ear to statements by ISPs to investors?

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