Broadcasting & Cable reports on decisions made by the FCC that will impact Lifeline programs (the programs that provide broadband/phone subsidies to low income households). Hereis what they decided last week…
The multipart item, which was circulated last month, includes an order, a proposed order and an inquiry. The FCC, in the order part, “clarifies” that premium WiFi and other similar services do not qualify as mobile broadband under the subsidy; increases the portability of Lifeline service among carriers; and targets support for rural areas on tribal lands only to those lands.
The FCC also issued an accompanying notice of proposed rulemaking (a proposed order) that seeks comment on, among other things, a self-enforcing budget mechanism, or cap (it suggests $820 million), which was the most contentious issue in the previous Lifeline revamp. It also proposes ending pre-emption of states’ role in eligible telecommunications carrier designations, targeting Lifeline to facilities-based broadband capable networks offering voice and broadband (the FCC has been migrating its telecom subsidies from voice to broadband over the past several years).
It also seeks comment on improving the Lifeline program’s eligibility verification and recertification process. One of the things FCC chair Ajit Pai did early on in his tenure was to revoke the most recent round of certifications until the FCC addresses the verification issue. Pai’s stated goal is to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, something he has long targeted in the program, though critics of the deal suggested it was a draconian hit on lower-income residents denied service.
Finally, the order includes a notice of inquiry — sort of a fact-finding prelude to a possible rulemaking proposal – -seeking comment on better targeting the funds to areas and people most in need of the money.
Back in June, the Government Accountability Office released a report that identified big problems with the Lifeline program. For example, GAO was unable to confirm whether 36% of the 3.5 million individuals it reviewed (or some 1.2 million) actually participated in any of the qualifying programs, like Medicaid, that they stated on their applications for the subsidy.
There were differing opinions on the decisions. Some felt id deepened the digital divide…
“This is not real reform,” Rosenworcel said. “This is cruelty. It is at odds with our statutory duty. It will do little more than consign too many communities to the wrong side of the digital divide.
“Instead of thinking about the future and doing something modern, today the FCC sets out to slash this program from front to back,” she added. “Instead of honoring our statutory duty to support low-income consumers, we cast them aside and cut them off.”
Some were concerned about taxpayers…
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the reforms were vital and “necessary fixes” to bring the program back in line with statute. He said the FCC had to do better to protect taxpayer money, including instituting a real budget, which would deter oversubscription and abuse. O’Rielly said all federal programs should be targeted, and that Lifeline fails miserably in that regard.
He said Lifeline was meant to be a discount program, not a free program. He said some portion of users are destitute and can’t afford to pay anything, but many others can and should pay. He said there should be some way of requiring a minimum contribution.