Court halts FCC move to lower broadband subsidies for tribal areas

Court halts FCC move to lower broadband subsidies for tribal areas
© Greg Nash

A federal court has blocked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from making changes to a broadband subsidy program that would have effectively eliminated benefits for many Native Americans living on tribal lands.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of the FCC’s order, saying that it would likely cause significant loss of telecommunications service to tribal areas.

“While there may be some public benefit to eliminating unnecessary spending, the Tribal Lifeline program has been in existence for nearly two decades and the Federal Communications Commission has not demonstrated that allowing it to continue in its current form while these consolidated cases remain pending will result in significant harm to the government or the public at large,” the court wrote in its order.

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The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines in November to make the changes, including limiting the type of carriers that can serve tribal areas and effectively lowering the subsidy for tribal residents enrolled in the program.

“Residents of Tribal lands, like many low-income consumers, rely on Lifeline service from wireless resellers, who are the primary, and sometimes only, providers of Lifeline service,” Gene DeJordy, an attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said in a statement. “The victory today is for the people -- Tribal members who cannot afford many of the basic necessities of life and rely on Lifeline service for their telephone and broadband needs.”

An FCC spokesperson said the agency disagreed with the decision.

“Because of today’s ruling, American taxpayers will be required to continue to pay for $34.25 a month in subsidies for Lifeline consumers in Tulsa, Oklahoma while those in rural Appalachia and Detroit only receive $9.25 a month,” the spokesperson said in a statement. "This makes no sense, and we will continue to fight to eliminate the waste, fraud, and abuse that has too long plagued this vital program.”

But the court wrote that the FCC “identified no evidence of fraud or misuse of funds in the aspects of the program at issue here” and that the plaintiffs, which include the Crow Creek tribe and the National Lifeline Association, are likely to win the lawsuit against the agency.