FCC's Assault On Low-Income Broadband Program Is Making The COVID-19 Crisis Worse

from the pretending-to-care dept

While FCC boss Ajit Pai is best known for ignoring the public and making shit up to dismantle FCC authority over telecom monopolies, 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 handouts to the industry's biggest players, most of the administration's policies are driving up costs for the rural Americans and small entrepreneurs he so breathlessly pledges fealty to.

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 Trumpism 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.

Despite endless lip service to the "digital divide," Pai's tenure as boss has included a notable number of efforts to scuttle the Lifeline program that weren't paid much attention to -- until a pandemic came to town. COVID-19 has shone a bright spotlight on the fact that 42 million Americans still can't access broadband (double official FCC estimates), and millions more can't afford service because regulatory capture has helped protect natural monopolies and the resulting lack of competition.

The FCC Lifeline is literally the bare minimum we could be doing to help make broadband more affordable for the poor. Yet despite a pandemic, new data indicates the program has shrunk (by design) notably, and now serves around one fifth of the people it could be helping thanks in part to Pai's cuts:

"Less than a fifth of the 38 million households that qualify for the program are actually enrolled. And despite a recent uptick, enrollment remains down sharply from the Obama era. Starks and other critics lay the low participation rate at the feet of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Trump in 2017 to lead the commission."

Pai is, as you might have noticed, a big fan of the idea that if you pull back government oversight of telecom, magic happens (investment spikes, product improves, coverage expands, dogs and cats snuggle up). Except that kind of magical thinking has always been nonsensical in US telecom, given that when you scale back on regulatory oversight, giants like AT&T and Comcast, natural monopolies that they are, simply continue to double down on problematic behavior. That's best exemplified by Pai's promise that killing net neutrality would result in amazing investment, only for us to see investment cuts and mass layoffs.

This kind of ideology is a little harder to push when you're talking about gutting programs intended to help the poor (usually such efforts have to be disguised as "efficiency" and "reform"). Still, Under Chairman Ajit Pai's "leadership," the FCC voted 3-2 in late 2017 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 stood to benefit.

Pai's attempt to neuter Lifeline in Tribal areas didn't go so well. The courts ultimately rejected the plan, politely implying in a ruling (pdf) that Pai and his staff not only pulled their justifications completely out of their asses, but failed to do any meaningful research whatsoever into how the cuts would impact poor and tribal communities:

"The Commission's adoption of these two limitations was arbitrary and capricious by not providing a reasoned explanation for its change of policy that is supported by record evidence. In adopting the Tribal Facilities Requirement, the Commission's decision evinces no consideration of the exodus of facilities-based providers from the Tribal Lifeline program. Neither does it point to evidence that banning resellers from the Tribal Lifeline program would promote network buildout.

Nor does it analyze the impact of the facilities requirement on Tribal residents who currently rely on wireless resellers. Further, the Commission ignored that its decision is a fundamental change that adversely affects the access and affordability of service for residents of Tribal lands. Similarly, in adopting the Tribal Rural Limitation, the Commission's decision evinces no consideration of the impact on service access and affordability. Its decision does not examine wireless deployment data related to services to which most Tribal Lifeline recipients subscribe."

Pai's rigid ideology doesn't leave much room for compromise or real-world data. And keep in mind: we're simply talking about a $9.25 subsidy that was created by Ronald Reagan that barely covers even the bullshit fees tacked on to your broadband bill. That should make it abundantly clear why more serious low-income aid programs (or efforts to simply improve broadband competition) are never seriously considered. To folks like Pai, turning the FCC into an AT&T ass kissing bobblehead doll is guaranteed to result in near miraculous outcomes, and any evidence to the contrary is simply ignored.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, covid-19, fcc, lifeline, pandemic


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  1. icon
    bhull242 (profile), 13 Jul 2020 @ 2:58pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    I’m sorry, but you never said how any of what you said had anything to do with those with low income.

    As for “critiquing the ‘cancel culture’ on display here”, a) people have the right to critique that critique; b) nothing you said actually criticized “cancel culture” at all by any definition; and c) what is the “cancel culture” that is “on display here” which you’re referring to?

    Also, isn’t it hypocritical for you criticize others merely for criticizing something—anything, really—especially while you also profess to be criticizing “cancel culture”?


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