Amidst the public outcry over the Federal Communication Commission’s recent decision to repeal net neutrality laws, another problematic, yet lower profile decision has gone largely under the radar. Last month, in another 3 to 2 vote, also along party lines, the commission ruled to reduce subsidies for broadband internet subscriptions for low-income Americans. Jonathan Sieber reported on the ruling in TechCrunch.
The 2.25 billion-dollar program, called Lifeline, offers a $9.25 cent subsidy each month for low-income families to help them afford broadband internet. According to the Brookings institute, it is the only government program geared towards making phone and internet access more accessible for American families in poverty.
Internet access is now more essential than ever for low-income families to work their way out of poverty. Such basic building blocks as employment and education increasingly rely on internet access and an aptitude with basic digital skills. The move comes hand in hand with a GOP tax plan that disproportionately favors the wealthiest Americans, repeated attempts to roll back health care assistance, and various other threats to dismantle the social safety net.
Despite some incremental improvement in the last few years, poverty and income inequality is rampant in America. The mean household income of the 20 percent of the wealthiest Americans increased $13,749 in the last decade, while the income of the bottom 20 percent decreased by $571 in the same years. The upper 20 percent earn 51.5 percent of all income earned last year, while the bottom 20 percent earned only 3.5 percent.
Now is not the time to interfere with a program that helps improve access to an essential stepping stone to finding a job, building a resume, and learning the skills that many modern employers consider essential.
While stopping short of eliminating the program entirely, the FCC decision is likely to weaken the Lifeline in several ways.
First, it will prevent resellers, which provide internet without running their own infrastructure, from offering the benefits of the Lifeline program. These companies most often offer services in areas where bigger network providers do not operate, meaning this provision will affect people receiving Lifeline on tribal lands, who receive extra subsidies for broadband internet. The new changes would also eliminate that additional 25 per month for those who reside on tribal lands.
Secondly, the new ruling could put in place a national spending cap for the program, and lastly, revoke national approvals for Lifeline providers that have already qualified. The suggested spending cap, according to Democrat commissioner Mignon Clyburn, is 820 million dollars, just over half the current budget.
On top of all this, the FCC is weighing the idea of handing the power back to states to approve companies for the program. When Lifeline was modified to include broadband internet two years ago, the FCC took on that responsibility to encourage expansion of the program, preventing states from delaying or rejecting companies. The commission may soon reverse that policy.
Ostensibly, the move comes in response to an investigation that found that over 1 million dollars of the 2.5 billion budget was going to fake identities and deceased individuals. In an effort to eliminate waste, the commission now risks preventing the program from what it was meant to accomplish in the first place. According to chairman Ajit Pai, the changes will reduce “waste, fraud, and abuse that continue to plague the Lifeline program.”
However, according to a statement from commissioner Clyburn, “Over 70% of wireless Lifeline consumers will be told they cannot use their preferred carrier and preferred plan, and on top of that, they may not have a carrier to turn to after that happens.”
Massachusets Senator Ed Markey said Lifeline is “the Medicaid of the telecommunications universe” and that the move “could exacerbate the digital divide and deprive disadvantaged communities the opportunity to access key educational, employment, and emergency services.”
A joint letter to the commission, sent by 56 House Democrats, denounced the FCC decision. One of the leaders of that effort, New York Democrat Gregory Meeks, speaking to The Hill, said:
“It is very much in line with their thinking that you need to pull yourself up by some kind of bootstraps when you’re poor, and not have the [government] help you no matter how poor you are. This fits into the narrative where we vilify the poor.”
The program originally goes back to the Reagan era, when it was established to provide phone services to poor Americans in the 80s. The Obama administration expanded the program to include broadband services just two years ago, in response to the increasing importance of the internet in American society. This is no less important now than it was two years ago. Surely, there are ways of reducing waste that would allow the program to continue fulfilling its mandate. It is important to stop this money from going to fake identities, if that’s the FCC’s real objective. But the current plan seems geared toward broadly downsizing the program, in line with the Republican agenda of eliminating the social safety net.