Bitterly divided FCC severs the Lifeline broadband scheme

The changes will also mean that fewer ISPs will be allowed to offer subsidised broadband access. Under Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor as the Chairman of the FCC, the organisation a list of approved Lifeline broadband providers across the length and breadth of the US. The list was designed to put an end to the extant slow and bureaucratic process whereby ISP had to seek approval to be Lifeline service providers from every individual state where they intended to operate.

However, once Ajit Pai took over, nine ISPs that the FCC had previously authorised to provide Lifeline service nationwide had their approvals withdrawn because the new man in charge argued that the US Congress gave state governments precedence over the federal regulator in approving Lifeline service providers. Furthermore, Pai’s proposal will stop resellers offering Lifeline services. Henceforth only “facilities-based providers,” (i.e. those with their own networks) will be eligible to provide them.

The FCC states “We propose limiting Lifeline support to broadband service provided over facilities-based broadband networks that also support voice service.” The decision is made on the Alice Through the Looking Glass grounds that curtailing the Lifeline funds available to facilities-based providers will “improve the business case for deploying facilities to serve low-income households.” Mr. Pai also contends that Lifeline is “rife with waste, fraud and abuse” and claims that most of that is down to resellers – although little empiric evidence has so far been adduced to support his assertion. Critics of the FFC’s current tack (and there are many) point out that by limiting Lifeline and introducing the ban on resellers being involved in the programme, it will make it difficult for those already in receipt of the subsidy via a reseller to find an ISP or telco willing to take them on as subscribers if the reseller has to leave the market.

And then there’s the arcane way by which Lifeline itself is actually funded – by a surcharge levied on landline voice services. How antiquated and unsustainable is that in a world that is increasingly wireless? Voting and then commenting on the changes the FCC Commission followed the political agendas and interests of their own parties.

Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican from Virginia, said, “I am glad that we are now taking action to increase accountability while at the same time considering ways to target Lifeline support to consumers and communities that need it most.” His Republican colleague, Michael O’Reilly for New York, added that the changes are a “vital and necessary fix to bring the Lifeline program back in line with statute. All federal programs should be targeted and Lifeline fails miserably in this regard.

Lifeline is meant to be a discount program not a free program.” For the Democrat side, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel of Connecticut commented, “This is not real reform. This is cruelty.

It is at odds with our statutory duty. It will do little more than consign too many communities to the wrong side of the digital divide. Instead of thinking about tomorrow and doing something modern, today the FCC sets out to slash this program from front to back.

Instead of honoring our statutory duty to support low income consumers, we cast them aside and cut them off.” The other Democrat Commissioner, Mignon Clyburn from South Carolina, added, If it is the goal of the current FCC majority 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.”

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