Just a couple weeks into his new job, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is taking a page out of the president’s playbook and slamming “sensationalized” media coverage of his actions.
Thanks to a series of moves set to weaken net neutrality, reduce regulation of phone carriers, and alter a program meant to subsidize internet and phone access for low-income consumers, Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, is well on his way toward implementing the GOP’s agenda at the FCC.
On Friday, the FCC said it would reverse an order put forth during the Obama administration to allow nine internet service providers (ISPs) to participate in the Lifeline program. Only one of the companies, however, has already rolled out the program. Established in 1985, Lifeline is a $2 billion subsidy that allows low-income families to shave $9.25 off their phone and broadband internet bills every month; last year the FCC expanded the program’s terms to include ISPs that provide only broadband internet (in addition to ISPs that also provide phone or bundled phone-internet plans).
After a weekend flurry of headlines and criticism from activist groups alleging he’s advancing corporate interests at the expense of consumers, Pai punched back on Monday in a strongly worded blog post.
“Unfortunately, many of the media headlines have sensationalized this story and given some an entirely misleading impression of what is going on,” Pai said. “Indeed, based on the [sic] some of the coverage, one would think that we had ended Lifeline broadband subsidies altogether.”
When asked for an example of the slanted media coverage to which Pai was referring, FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield directed VICE News to an article in the Register, a U.K.-based internet industry trade publication. The piece’s headline incorrectly indicates that the Lifeline Program has been eliminated altogether. According to analytics firm Alexa, less than 30 percent of The Register’s traffic comes from the U.S.
Wigfield did not immediately respond to a request for other examples.
Pai said his decision will not prevent internet-only providers from joining the Lifeline program; instead, it means that their applications “simply remain pending” until they meet proper certification process. Pai added that the “prior FCC disregarded the well-established process” for certification.
Pai’s predecessor as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, did not respond to a message from VICE News.
According to Pai, these procedural missteps include failing to coordinate with the National Tribal Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group that represents telecom firms in Native American tribal lands.
Matt Wood, policy director at the open internet advocacy group Free Press, said that the tribal application issue is “not a reason to pull the certifications entirely, and essentially put these nine companies on ice. There are ways to cure a defect without taking them out of the game entirely.”
NTTA President Godfrey Enjady did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the Monday blog post, Pai said he did not want to infringe upon states’ rights in granting certification to telecom providers, adding that the nine companies affected by last week’s maneuver were just a handful of the 900 ISPs currently in the Lifeline program.
“Hyperbolic headlines always attract more attention than mundane truths,” Pai said. “For example, a story detailing how the FCC was undertaking further review of the eligibility of 1% of Lifeline providers wouldn’t generate too many clicks.”
Though Wood said that the FCC leadership in the past has frequently been critical of both activists and Wheeler, he expressed surprise at Pai’s criticism of the media.
“What’s maybe unprecedented is that it’s directed at the news accounts, and not the advocates,” Wood said. “It’s very similar to Trump: They want to give this populist, consumer veneer to what they are doing, while doing exactly the opposite.”