While President Trump and the Republican Congress rush to give huge tax breaks to big corporations and wealthy Americans, the Federal Communications Commission took draconian steps this week to roll back the Lifeline program, which helps provide telephone and Internet service to the economically disadvantaged.
Claiming it is an effort to eliminate waste and fraud, the FCC’s three Republicans – led by chairman Ajit Pai, formerly of Verizon – outvoted the two Democrats on the commission, who strongly dissented to drastically scale back a service that allows senior citizens, rural Americans, Native Americans, veterans and others near the poverty line to get a $9.25 per month household subsidy to buy wired or wireless phone service and as of last year, Internet service.
At a time when we need to be providing internet access to every American, the FCC wants to cut the Lifeline program. https://t.co/0P2OxLDlc4
— Ro Khanna (@RoKhanna) November 5, 2017
The program is not paid for by taxpayers, but rather comes from a fee on phone bills.
The fraud allegations are just being addressed by a new program that keeps close tabs on users – a program created at considerable cost – which Pai is now trashing.
The entire program that helps the 12 million needy Americans who qualify (of which about one third actually get the subsidies) costs about $2.25 billion a year, less than the cost of one of the new B-1 bombers the military is buying.
Pai’s proposal also calls for putting a cap on the Lifeline program for the first time, which is another way to limit how many poor people can be helped.
After Pai proposed the changes weeks ago, there were more than 50 filings with comments, almost all of which opposed Pai’s plan as counter-productive to the goal of narrowing the digital divide – the difference between Americans who can afford to have phones and be connected to the worldwide web, and those who are priced out of this crucial link for safety, communication and business success.
Although Pai claimed when Trump appointed him a major goal would be to provide these important communications services to all Americans, in big cities and rural areas, the vote he pushed through today does exactly the opposite, taking away affordable broadband access at a time it has become the major way to get mail, communicate and receive services from medical advice to access to items at discount prices.
Deeply troubling that the @FCC voted to undermine Lifeline. This will only widen the digital divide for 7.3 million low-income Americans who rely on this program to work & learn. We need #LifelineforAll!
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) November 16, 2017
The first immediate victims of the FCC’s vote are Native Americans, who with low incomes qualify not just for the $9.25 per month subsidy, but also an additional $25 per month, bringing the total to $34.25 monthly.
The $25 enhanced subsidy can no longer be acquired through resellers as of today, and tribe members who live off the reservation in the city no longer get the $25 subsidy.
This proposal is so twisted it not only will cut off millions of people currently being served, it also will make it much harder for anyone to get the service, even when they do qualify.
The key new barrier to using the program is that it can only be provided by big companies with their own system of wires and towers, and not by resellers, who lease space on the same wires and towers and often sell the services at a lower price.
— Mignon Clyburn (@MClyburnFCC) October 27, 2017
That means Verizon, AT&T or Sprint can provide the service, but Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile USA (which use Sprint’s system) cannot. Nor can Cricket Wireless, Consumer Cellular, Freedom Pop and Ting.
Pai argues this will funnel more money to big companies like Verizon which will make them spend more on developing their systems.
“This logic doesn’t really add up,” writes The Verge, noting that the resellers actually help make the huge cost of building out big phone systems affordable because the resellers buy excess capacity and subsidize the efforts to reach consumers in areas like rural America where the big guys say it isn’t economical to build.
The complication is that in recent years the big players like AT&T and Verizon have abandoned selling Lifeline service to poor neighborhoods and rural areas because it isn’t profitable enough, leaving the business to the resellers who now will be frozen out of it.
The proposed reseller ban would effectively force nearly three-quarter of the millions of users with Lifeline subsidies to find new providers, said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, one of two Democratic commissioners.
“Over 70 percent of wireless Lifeline consumers will be told they cannot use their preferred carrier and preferred plan,” Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted against Pai’s proposal, said this week.
“On top of that,” adds Clyburn, “they may not have a carrier to turn to after that happens.”
Until now, the Lifeline services has had bipartisan support. It was begun under President Ronald Reagan covering only wired phone service. It was expanded under George W. Bush to include wireless phone service.
Last year, under President Obama, it was expanded again to include Internet service as it became clear that people, businesses, students and others who can tap into the web are at a huge disadvantage.
Pai’s proposal has a number of other aspects that will also make it harder for those eligible to qualify or to find carriers who offer Lifeline, including Pai’s plan to turn some approvals of new services over to the states, which will slow down the growth of new entrants in the market.
Pai also wants to force everyone who gets a subsidy to pay an additional amount out of their own pocket, which would be a blow to some people who get service without paying a monthly bill.
It is not just a question of money. There are many poor people and those in rural areas who do not have checking accounts or credit cards to pay with, so they will not be able to participate.
So the very people who need it most and can afford it least are screwed not in one way, but in multiple ways, which as always in Trumpland mean the rich get more and everyone else is pushed to the back of the line – or in this case kicked out of the line altogether.
In her dissent, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworel provided additional reasons Pai’s plan is a terrible idea.
She points out that the FCC did not seek guidance from Native American tribes, veterans, the elderly or those trying to help school children have access to information, all of whom would likely have thought scaling back the Lifeline program was wrong.
“Instead of recognizing that there are Lifeline enrollees in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico who are using the program to pull their lives back together after devastating storms,” writes Rosenworel, “we seek to cut off their Internet and phone service.”
“This is not real reform,” concludes Rosenworel. “It is at odds with our statutory duty. It will do little more than consign too many communities to the wrong side of the digital divide.”
What Rosenworel is saying is common sense and what Pai is doing is a politically-motivated insanity that once again picks the haves over the have-nots in our society.
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) November 2, 2017
Our system gives Republicans the majority votes on the FCC, so Pai’s plan is virtually unstoppable – except at the ballot box next November and again in 2020 – when Americans will have a chance to vote on whether they want the rich to have it all and the rest of America to scrounge for scraps.
Today's @FCC decision on #Lifeline is not real reform. It's cruelty to the students, veterans, Tribal residents, elderly, homeless youth, and hurricane evacuees who rely on this program for the communications services necessary for modern life. https://t.co/3tTqFYwmq2
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) November 16, 2017