Before leaving his post in 2016, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued orders expanding and modernizing a program called Lifeline. Instituted in 1985, Lifeline provides $9.25-per-month subsidies to low-income and impoverished individuals to help them afford landline and cellphone service. Wheeler’s order added broadband Internet access. He also approved a proposal that would allow nine new service providers to join Lifeline. Now, President Trump’s replacement for Wheeler, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, is looking to scale back the program altogether.
In a plan laughingly called “Bridging the Digital Divide for Low-Income Consumers,” Pai proposes implementing a budget cap on what the FCC spends on Lifeline. Once the undefined cap is hit, Lifeline would cut off providing subsidies — even to those who qualify for the program. Pai said the move would limit fraud while keeping disbursements “at a responsible level.” “We intend for the program to automatically make adjustments in order to maintain the cap in the event the budget is exceeded,” he added (via International Business Times).
The Republican members of the five-person FCC commission have long voiced displeasure with Lifeline, claiming it’s plagued with “waste, fraud, and abuse.” One of the two democrats on the commission, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, said Pait’s plan damages a crucial support mechanism for families in need of help to access vital communication networks.
“If the goal of the current FCC majority is to widen existing divides, and ensure that our nation’s most vulnerable are less likely to be connected, this item sets us on that path,” she said. “It will harm those less fortunate, those who need to dial 911, stay in touch with their children’s educators, keep a job, and stay healthy. The day we head down such a path, is a sad one indeed.”
The commission is expected to vote on the plan during its November 16th meeting, which comes after an open period of public comment. With a three-to-two Republican majority on the commission, however, the plan is expected to pass regardless of the public’s response.
Earlier this year, Pai also announced his intention to rid many of the Obama-era net neutrality rules.