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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 WickerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Biden visits local Mexican restaurant to highlight relief program Pelosi slams McCarthy for promoting COVID-19 relief provision 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 MarkeyEd MarkeyCivilian Climate Corps can help stem rural-urban divide Senate votes to nix Trump rule limiting methane regulation Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap 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 MooreLawmakers urge IRS to boost outreach about tax credits for low-income Americans McMorris Rodgers floats vacating Speaker's chair over Democrat's in-person vote after COVID diagnosis House approves rules package for new Congress MORE (D-Wis.) and Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksColombia's protests are threat, test for US Pressure increases for US to send vaccines to Latin America Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges 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.