FCC votes to limit program funding internet access for low-income communities

FCC votes to limit program funding internet access for low-income communities
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took steps Thursday to roll back Lifeline — a program that subsidizes broadband and phone service for low-income households.

The FCC voted in a 3-2 split along party lines favoring Republicans to reform the program during the agency’s monthly open meeting.

Republicans, including Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Congress reaches deal on disaster aid Senators offer bipartisan bill to help US firms remove Huawei equipment from networks MORE (R-Miss.), praised the agency’s decision to begin pushing the program toward jurisdiction of the states.

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“States play an important role in preventing waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs, in addition to ensuring that people have access to essential communications services,” Wicker said in a statement on Thursday.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said before the vote that the purpose of the changes would help reduce “waste, fraud, and abuse that continue to plague the Lifeline program.”

In addition to pushing Lifeline authority to states, the changes also include the elimination of an extra $25 per month subsidy for individuals who live on tribal lands.

The FCC also voted in favor of considering a spending cap for Lifeline and barring resellers — telecom providers that rely on larger companies' network infrastructure — from offering Lifeline plans, but the agency is taking public comment on these items first. 

Critics fear that a spending cap could limit the program's effectiveness and worry that the reseller ban could make it hard for Lifeline recipients to find telecommunications providers that support the program.

In July, the Government Accountability Office released a report that found rampant fraud in the Lifeline program. In some cases, deceased individuals were still receiving money from the FCC.

Democrats don’t see the changes the same way that Pai and Wicker do. They argue that claims of waste and abuse that have plagued the program are based on dated research and say that giving states more power in handling Lifeline will curtail access to the internet for many poor communities.

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senate passes anti-robocall bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump MORE (D-Mass.) on Thursday called the program the “the Medicaid of the telecommunications universe” and argued in a statement that cuts “could exacerbate the digital divide and deprive disadvantaged communities the opportunity to access key educational, employment, and emergency services.”

In advance of the meeting, Reps. Gwen MooreGwen Sophia MooreEx-White House ethics chief compares Ivanka, Kushner security clearances to college admissions scandal Dem compares college cheating scandal to Ivanka, Jared's security clearance Dem lawmakers unveil Journalist Protection Act amid Trump attacks on media MORE (D-Wis.) and Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksLobbying World Treasury expected to miss Dem deadline on Trump tax returns Congress should look into its own taxes and travel, not just Trump's MORE (D-N.Y.) hammered the FCC’s anticipated decision to scale back Lifeline in a letter jointly sent by 56 House Democrats to the agency.

“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,” Meeks told The Hill. “This fits into the narrative where we vilify the poor.”

Moore singled out Pai’s commitment to bridging the digital divide by bringing better internet and phone service to rural areas.

“You can’t just say 'We’re going to carve out one section of the country, and be concerned about rural areas where there are white citizens, and ignore urban cities,'” she said.