from the you're-really-not-helping dept
While recently departed FCC boss Ajit Pai was perhaps best known for ignoring the public and making shit up to dismantle FCC authority over telecom monopolies, many of his other policies have proven to be less sexy to talk about–but just as terrible.
One of the biggest targets throughout Pai’s four year tenure as boss was the FCC’s Lifeline program, an effort started by Reagan and expanded by Bush Jr. 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 constant pledges that one of his top priorities was fixing the “digital divide,” Pai’s tenure as boss 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 thanks to monopolization and limited competition.
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. Pai’s attempt to neuter Lifeline in tribal areas certainly hurt overall enrollment, but didn’t always fare well in the courts. One ruling (pdf), for example, noting 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.”
That’s a polite way of the court saying that Pai based his decisions on ideology, not evidence (kind of a theme throughout his tenure as reflected by other court rulings). On the other end of these decisions are real, struggling human beings. Human beings the Washington Post recently did an excellent piece on as it surveyed the real-world damage from Pai’s decisions to neuter a program that already did the bare minimum to help struggling Americans:
“The restrictions have been especially problematic during the pandemic, as Americans find themselves more dependent than ever on their mobile devices to stay connected. Many Lifeline subscribers say they have had to make unfair trade-offs ? talking either to family or to doctors, for example, or participating in their communities or saving precious minutes for emergencies ? that most Americans would find unfathomable.”
Lifeline as a program is no stranger to fraud, with companies from Sprint to AT&T being routinely busted for taking money for people that don’t technically exist. As the report notes, Pai hid his ideological assaults on the program under the guise that he was exclusively worried about said fraud, yet didn’t take the steps necessary to prevent said fraud from happening:
“Under Pai?s watch, for example, the U.S. government for years did not fully implement a national verification system ? a state-of-the art digital tool designed to determine eligibility and crack down on the fraud Republicans sought to prevent. The myriad missteps are laid bare in a report released by the Government Accountability Office in late January, which found that by summer 2020, most states still had not implemented the technology. Those that did found it even harder for Lifeline applicants to get approved, creating undue delays even in cases in which low-income Americans should have qualified easily for the program.”
Again, Pai’s tenure was largely pockmarked by doing huge favors for entrenched telecom monopolies, then using flimsy or nonexistent data to justify those policies. All while simply ignoring the fact that monopolization and a lack of competition creates most of the sector’s problems (note how he’d never discuss US broadband prices). Concern about fraud was never symmetrical; while Pai went out of his way often to highlight Lifeline fraud, he never once even mentioned the problem with throwing billions in tax cuts and regulatory favors at monopolies like AT&T in exchange for doing absolutely nothing. That’s before you even get to Pai’s most recent subsidization scandals, which doled out billions to companies that gamed the FCC process.
This kind of facts-optional ideology has, for years, been brushed aside as normal policymaking (former FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Mike Powell wasn’t all that different). Unfortunately while this stuff gets dismissed as boring policy wonkery or “partisan politics,” it’s good to remember this kind of behavior has very real costs that the purveyors of said policies try very hard not to think much about.