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FCC chair defends pulling nine companies from low-income internet plan

FCC chair defends pulling nine companies from low-income internet plan
© Greg Nash

New Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai defended himself on Tuesday following an uproar over the agency’s move last week to revoke the participation of nine service providers in a program that provides subsidized internet access to low-income households.

In a blog post on Medium, Pai criticized the media coverage of the action, which he believes unfairly portrayed him as an opponent of expanding internet access to low-income Americans. Pai instead characterized pulling the companies from the program as a way to provide time for review.

“Hyperbolic headlines always attract more attention than mundane truths,” Pai wrote. “For example, a story detailing how the FCC was undertaking further review of the eligibility of 1% of Lifeline providers wouldn’t generate too many clicks.”

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Lifeline is a program that provides low-income households with monthly credits originally to buy phone service and was expanded in 2016 to include internet access. Last week, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau announced that it was revoking nine companies’ status as service providers in the program.

Critics blasted the move as being unfair to those enrolled in Lifeline. 

Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat on the FCC, also criticized Pai for announcing the action amid a flurry of other agency moves late on a Friday afternoon.

“By eliminating the designations of nine entities to provide Lifeline broadband service, the Bureau has substantially undermined businesses who had begun relying on those designations,” Clyburn said in a statement on Friday. ”These providers include a minority-owned business, a provider enabling students to complete their homework online, and others serving Tribal lands.”

“Given the serious policy concerns at stake here, I asked to have this Order considered by the full Commission. But, clearly the goal was to include this in the ‘Friday News Dump’, as my request was flatly denied."

On Tuesday, Pai downplayed the significance of the move and insisted that he intended to work to expand internet access to underserved communities.

He wrote that the action only affected one percent of the more than 900 Lifeline providers, noting that the nine companies were allowed into the program just days before the new administration took over last month.

The blog post engendered an immediate reaction from pro-Lifeline advocates, who accused Pai of hamstringing the program and questioned his commitment to expanding digital access.

“Chairman Pai thinks he can set the record straight with more crooked words and made-up numbers," Matt Wood, policy director at the advocacy group Free Press, said in a statement. 

"Like his boss in the White House, Pai should spend less time worrying about his media coverage and more time on his job. And his job is not to cheerlead for more corporate welfare for the biggest internet access providers in the form of tax breaks for their existing deployment plans. His job is to bring the benefits of open networks to all, something he’s failing at so far."

- Updated at 3:40 p.m.