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Trump FCC Moves Forward Plans to Gut Lifeline Program and Strand Millions on the Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

WASHINGTON - The FCC voted along party lines on Thursday to move forward plans to eviscerate the Lifeline program, which provides a modest $9.25 monthly subsidy to most recipients so that millions of poor people can connect to communications services.

The agency’s Republican leadership voted to advance a proceeding to consider, among other things, implementing a budget cap, which would arbitrarily limit program participation or slash funding to fully eligible recipients.

Subsequent FCC proposals even float the possibility of a lifetime benefits cap that would arbitrarily cut off funding for the most vulnerable users, such as elderly people and people with disabilities, by limiting the amount of time an individual can use the program.

The proposal also eliminates program participation by “non-facilities-based providers,” including four of the top five Lifeline providers, accounting for more than half of the program’s current expenditures. This would likely eventually zero out participation by providers serving more than 70 percent of current Lifeline beneficiaries — and would have an immediate impact on Lifeline service to tribal territories as the FCC moves to eliminate resellers on tribal lands.

In some parts of the country, non-facilities-based carriers are the only ones offering service. They tend to serve the most vulnerable communities — whom large facilities-based carriers have long shunned — and they’ve provided a level of competition that’s led to better services at the same $9.25 subsidy.

The FCC majority gave no rationale for its attack — aside from vague rhetoric about program abuse and fraud. This assault on Lifeline comes in spite of the significant reforms the FCC has begun under prior administrations to streamline the program, efforts that are still underway  and already having a positive impact.

Lifeline was created during the Reagan administration to help the most vulnerable people in the United States gain access to communications services that meet their basic needs. It was updated under the George W. Bush administration to allow coverage for wireless phones, and then under the Obama administration to include explicit subsidies for internet service. On his first day as FCC chairman, Ajit Pai claimed that bridging the digital divide was a top priority of his administration.

Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González made the following statement:

“Let’s be crystal clear about what's happening here. Three privileged FCC officials — Chairman Ajit Pai, and Commissioners Mike O’Rielly and Brendan Carr — plan to eliminate affordable phone and internet-access options for millions of poor Americans.

“They’re doing this over the objections of Native American tribal leaders, poor people, single moms, unhoused people, people of color, elderly people, victims of natural disasters, veterans and people with disabilities, all of whom will be disproportionately harmed by this extreme FCC proposal.

“They’re racing ahead despite the bipartisan objections from Senate and House leaders, who have heard from concerned constituents that this will harm their ability to search for jobs, advance their education, meet their basic needs and stay informed.

“These three commissioners will claim that their action helps close the digital divide, but that’s a lie. What they’re actually doing is giving breaks to rich companies while taking from the poor — and in this case, even taking away business options for the smaller companies that serve the Lifeline population. As one housing advocate told me not long ago in Los Angeles, ‘The trickle down doesn’t trickle down to Skid Row.’

“Pai, O’Rielly and Carr allege that such action is necessary to quell waste, fraud and abuse in the program. This rhetoric about fraud is overblown and has racist undertones. The FCC has already moved in 2016 and earlier to address these issues. Chairman Pai should implement the reforms put in place by his predecessors, not starve the program.

“Tonight these three men will return home to their families, who have food, clothes, internet access and a place to rest their heads. They will kick off this holiday season in comfort and warmth while the less fortunate have to endure their cruel decision to rip a path to upward mobility out of their hands.”

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