FCC Stops Authorizing New Providers Of Low-Cost Broadband

Image courtesy of Ben Roffelsen Photography

New FCC Chair Ajit Pai has made no effort to hide his intention to roll back many of the rules and policies put in place by his predecessor, Tom Wheeler. Now that Congress has effectively undone Wheeler’s internet privacy rules, Pai has set his sights on low-cost internet access.

The Lifeline program dates to the Reagan administration and provides low-income Americans with a small monthly subsidy to use for phone service. Some years back, the program expanded to include not only landlines but also mobile phones. Then in 2016, the FCC expanded it so that low-income families can buy broadband service with it if they want.

Chairman Pai announced this week that the FCC will no longer be directly authorizing Lifeline providers to sell subsidized broadband services to consumers, instead deferring the program to the states to manage.

“As we implement the Lifeline program – as with any program we administer – we must follow the law,” Pai said in a statement. “And the law here is clear: Congress gave state governments, not the FCC, the primary responsibility for approving which companies can participate in the Lifeline program.”

That sounds like an arcane procedural thing, and to an extent it is, but it’s one with a big impact.

When the FCC decided last year to expand Lifeline, it also gave itself the ability to review and approve partners to sell the service. That significantly sped up the process: The FCC is one entity, which even at its most bureaucratic is still going to be easier to navigate than 50 different states, a District, and a handful of territories.

Both new entrants to Lifeline, as well as existing voice service providers that want to expand to broadband (including mobile broadband) now have to go through every state’s approval process separately.

The Commission approved nine companies’ participation in Lifeline last year, but chairman Pai rescinded those authorizations barely a week after he took the helm. Now, he adds, all the other pending applications to the FCC are pretty much toast.

“I do not believe that the Bureau should approve these applications,” Pai said in his statement, explaining why he prefers to defer to the states over an “unlawful federal authorization process that will soon be withdrawn.

Pai also added that the FCC won’t defend itself in court when it comes to the lawsuits against Lifeline — not surprising, considering Pai has ordered the FCC to stop defending rules he doesn’t like in the past, but still a disappointment.

Pai’s actions don’t exactly reverse the FCC’s ruling on Lifeline, but they do make the broadband subsidy harder for low-income Americans to access.

Even while praising the program, the chair is still clearly holding on to some kind of feeling from last year’s dramatic and contentious vote to expand Lifeline to allow the subsidy to be used on broadband services.

“I support including broadband in the Lifeline program to help provide affordable, high-speed Internet access for our nation’s poorest families,” Pai said. “Indeed, I worked hard to get a bipartisan agreement in place last year that would have expanded Lifeline to include broadband, but the agreement was undone by those who preferred a party-line vote.”

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