FCC Votes To Expand Lifeline To Broadband; Plans To Reduce Waste, Enhance Scrutiny

The FCC voted 3-2 today to expand the Lifeline program for low-income consumers to include an optional credit for broadband access.

As we explained yesterday, the proposal would allow eligible participants to opt to use the credit on broadband services instead of only on phone plans. The proposal also lays out strategies the FCC can use to continue to curb waste and reduce fraud related to the program.

In their remarks about the proposal, many of the commissioners — from both parties — spoke repeatedly of a lack of willingness to compromise in the FCC, which we have seen reflected in several other major 3-2 votes this year. In that sense, today’s proceeding was no different.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called for the commission to adopt the proposal, saying that technology is “literally transforming lives,” but adding, “the sad reality is that millions of our citizens are foreclosed from opportunities, trapped in digital darkness, and stranded on the wrong side of the affordability divide.”

“The safe course would be one of inaction,” Clyburn continued, “but the oath I took requires that I try and use all of the tools in my regulatory arsenal to close divides … We must not wait, remain idle, or play it safe when it comes to this program, for we know broadband is the greatest technology equalizer of our time.”

“The time is now to shed that 20th century Lifeline voice-only product and adopt a 21st century model,” Clyburn concluded, while also calling for low-income consumers to receive true competitive, equal-quality access to that which higher-income consumers can receive.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed the sentiment. “For three decades,” she said, “this program has helped the neediest among us connect: connect to family, jobs, health care, and help, when emergency strikes.”

Rosenworcel particularly focused her attention on the homework gap, drawing attention to the fact that the majority of teachers assign homework that requires an internet connection, but that five million of the 29 million households in the US with school-age kids don’t have broadband at home.

“School-aged kids without broadband access at home are not only unable to complete their homework,” Rosenworcel pointed out, “but they enter the job market with a serious handicap.” That distance, Rosenworcel said, not only adversely affects individuals but also the U.S. work force and economy writ large.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who spoke against the proposal, began his remarks by calling on remarks from President Ronald Reagan, during whose administration Lifeline began. And that was about the nicest thing he had to say about the program.

Pai instead called out high spending and fraud reports, playing back a 2014 local news story from Colorado about dealers rampantly handing out fraudulent, free prepaid phones in direct violation of the existing law. He also targeted high spending on Lifeline on tribal lands — whether or not the recipients are Native American.

Instead of expanding the program Pai stood by cost reform. “We must implement meaningful reforms to restore fiscal responsibility,” he said. “We must root out waste, fraud, and abuse. We must target lifeline funding on the people who actually need it and we must ensure the dollars coming from hard-working Americans’ phone bills each and every month are wisely spent.”

Pai called for a set, fixed cap on the budget for Lifeline to contain spending.

“Unfortunately,” Pai concluded, “this document does not reflect these priorities and that is disappointing.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also dissented from the proposal, connecting it to an opportunity for the FCC in some way to start taxing the internet.

O’Rielly, like Pai, focused primarily on the lack of a clearly defined, limited budget on the proposal. About the back-and-forth on proposed budget numbers, O’Rielly compared it “to my wife setting a budget and excluding food, shoes, and entertainment. That,” he added, “is not a budget.”

O’Rielly’s personal household expenditures aside, he referred repeatedly to frustrations with the FCC’s procedures and processes — a common theme with the commissioner, who has expressed similar frustrations with many other procedural votes, including an item this morning for which he voted in favor.

Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke last, beginning, “You know, it’s a shame.”

“It’s a shame the way [Lifeline] seems to have become politicized. … One of the reasons that it is surprising that we have this kind of dissention up here is that both political parties, now engaged in serious campaigning as to who is going to be responsible for the country and the commission in a few years, but both political parties are in violent agreement that our nation is challenged by income equality, that there is a need for job growth, that there is a need for educational opportunities for our youth and the realization of the American dream needs to be manifest in an ever-changing digital economy.”

Also returning to a theme he has frequently referenced in the past year, Wheeler called for the FCC and the United States not just to cleave to a status quo but to reach farther and be better.

“Why shouldn’t we expect better for those that contribute to this program?” he asked. “Why shouldn’t we expect that their money will be going to solve modern problems? Why shouldn’t rate-payers, those hard-working Americans, know that their support is going to go help students learn, veterans to apply for benefits, job seekers to apply for employment, and a myriad of other modern challenges that increasingly can only be met online?”

“Today begins a proceeding to spend rate-payer money more wisely, to deliver 21st century benefits to deservicing recipients, and to get to the heart of the historic issues that have haunted this program’s efficiency,” Wheeler concluded.

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