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The FCC is tasked with solving the digital divide and it's making things worse

The FCC is tasked with solving the digital divide and it's making things worse
© Anna Moneymaker

You’re doing something right now that 24 million Americans can’t, which is read this article. In an era that’s buzzing with talk of autonomous vehicles and virtual wallets, mere access to broadband internet remains out of reach for many. And while Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai frequently reminds the public that his top priority is closing the digital divide, his actions have made it harder, again and again, for Americans to get internet access.

There are a few particularly illustrative examples:

This past August, Pai proclaimed to Senators that “from the beginning of my tenure as head of the agency, I’ve made clear that my top priority would be to close the digital divide.” But Pai has been leading the charge to gut Lifeline, the federal program that subsidizes phone and broadband connections for low-income people in the United States.

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Pai’s proposed changes would cut off approximately 70 percent of the 10 million program participants — including approximately 44,000 individuals in DC alone — widening the digital divide among the country’s most vulnerable populations. Lifeline is the only federal program that provides subsidies to disadvantaged Americans for 21st century communications services and it is relied upon by victims of domestic violence, military veterans, homeless youth and others to stay connected.

Pai also told Senators that he was “pleased to report that the FCC has been taking significant steps to expand broadband deployment in previously unserved parts of our country.”

In the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, the first completed under Pai’s leadership, the agency determined that over 95 percent of Americans have access to broadband. This is a roughly six percent increase from the previous report.

That 95 percent, however, includes 10.5 million people who have access only to satellite service, which was not considered an adequate broadband connection under former FCC leadership. Satellite falls short of qualifying as broadband for many reasons, including its high latency, low reliability and its inability to support bi-lateral communication (required for Skype interviews and Fortnite sessions) — not to mention the data caps and often prohibitive price. The agency’s documented expansion of broadband is actually the result of an explicit decision to lower federal standards of acceptable service, as opposed to a change in the amount of Americans actually served by high-speed internet.

In addition, the report counted 24 million Americans without access to fixed broadband. Despite this fact, the FCC declared that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion and that the agency is “on the right track.”

Last year, Pai created a new agency committee that was tasked with advising the FCC how to effectively encourage broadband deployment. Pai said he was “excited that the [committee] will soon be getting to work on recommendations that will help break down barriers to broadband deployment.”

Unfortunately, Pai stacked the committee with industry representatives and much of its work benefits the industry’s interest in turning a profit, as opposed to actually making broadband more accessible. The committee’s work would in fact make it nearly impossible for cities and towns to build their own internet networks, an increasingly popular option for communities that are being bypassed by private internet service providers. Instead of encouraging deployment, this committee has worked to limit local communities’ ability to solve the problems that the market (and FCC) won’t.

Chairman Pai has proclaimed his goal of closing the digital divide again and again. But his actions as the leader of a federal agency — and one explicitly tasked with ensuring nationwide access to broadband, at that — consistently put industry interests over those of the public while inflaming the internet access crisis in America. Instead, Pai should be supporting programs that work, advocating for higher quality connections and empowering the local solutions that are actually getting people online.

In some of his first remarks as Chairman, Pai noted that “I have no doubt we’re going to be busy. There are a lot of challenging issues on our plate.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Cat Blake is the policy and program manager at Next Century Cities, a coalition of 190 municipalities focused on fast, affordable, reliable broadband for all.