FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been pretty busy these past couple of weeks. He’s taking the lead on trying to dismantle net neutrality so that internet service providers can hijack your access to the internet by charging more for certain websites and content.
But it looks like he isn’t completely satisfied with un-leveling the playing field just yet—because there’s still poor people to fuck with! So, last week the FCC voted to dramatically scale back a federal program which provides discounted phone and internet service to low-income Americans.
And the cuts to this program will hit the elderly, students, and people living in rural areas and tribal reservations the hardest.
Those “Obamaphones” we kept hearing about back in 2012 were actually part of the Lifeline program, which was established in 1985 by the Reagan administration (that’s right) to help low-income Americans with phone service and expanded under the GW Bush administration (you heard me) to include wireless.
About 12.5 million households use Lifeline in one form or another—and in fact, the program was recently expanded in 2016 to include offering high-speed broadband at reduced costs.
Lifeline has several different programs but the general idea is you get a free cell phone, free minutes and texting, and only need to put down a small or modest deposit. Under the expanded broadband program, households get a subsidy of $9.95 per month to help pay for internet services.
By a 3-2 margin last week (split along party lines), the FCC voted to consider placing a spending cap on the program, which will make it harder for those who qualify for subsidies to actually receive them. They also are eliminating an extra monthly subsidy of $25 provided to tribal members.
And they also proposed implementing a reseller ban, which would mean households would have much more limited provider options.
"Over 70% of wireless Lifeline consumers will be told they cannot use their preferred carrier and preferred plan, and on top of that, they may not have a carrier to turn to after that happens," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn wrote in a statement.
Pai is convinced these moves will “curtail the waste, fraud, and abuse that continue to plague the Lifeline program.” And to be fair, a report by the Government Accountability Office came out in July detailing some of these abuses (mostly by private companies pretending to be Lifeline official Eligible Telecommunications Carriers, or ETCs, when they weren’t).
But some Dems say this is outdated information, and the fraud and waste problems can be addressed (and are being addressed) through accountability reforms, not by punishing those who benefit most from the program.
Democratic Senator Edward Markey has called the program “the Medicaid of the telecommunications universe” and said the cuts “could exacerbate the digital divide and deprive disadvantaged communities the opportunity to access key educational, employment, and emergency services.”
Commissioner Clyburn, who has tried lobbying against the cap, warned people about the potential consequences of it three weeks ago:
If the goal of the current FCC majority is to widen existing divides, and ensure that our nation's most vulnerable are less likely to be connected, this item sets us on that path. It will harm those less fortunate, those who need to dial 911, stay in touch with their children's educators, keep a job, and stay healthy. The day we head down such a path, is a sad one indeed.
Sad to see that day has come.