Wednesday, February 8, 2017

FCC is Dropping the "Lifeline" Program

FCC's Pai
The new government regulators appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump are telling nine companies they won't be allowed to participate in a federal program meant to help them provide affordable Internet access to low-income consumers — weeks after those companies were given the green light.

The move, announced last 3 February by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai, reverses a decision by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, and undercuts the companies' ability to provide low-cost Internet access to poorer Americans. In a statement, Pai called the initial decisions a form of "midnight regulation."

The program, known as Lifeline, provides registered households with a US$ 9.25-a-month credit, which can then be used to buy home Internet service. As many as 13 million Americans who do not have broadband service at home may be eligible for Lifeline, the FCC has found. Roughly 900 service providers participate in the Lifeline program.

Since becoming FCC chairman last month, Pai has made closing the digital divide a central axis of his policy agenda. Although the vast majority of Americans have access to Internet service, there remain distinct gaps in U.S. broadband penetration, particularly among seniors, minorities and the poor. In his first address to FCC staff, Pai singled out the digital divide as one of the signature issues he hoped to address.

But the latest move cuts against those remarks, according to some consumer advocates who argue the decision will make it harder for low-income Americans to access the Internet.

"The most obvious fact in our society is that high-speed Internet is astronomically expensive for the middle class and down," said Gene Kimmelman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. "So in any way limiting the Lifeline program, at this moment in time, exacerbates the digital divide. It doesn’t address it in any positive way."

Revoking the nine approvals "would promote program integrity by providing the [FCC] with additional time to consider measures that might be necessary to prevent further waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program," the decision said.

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