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Congress Is Trying to Stop Ajit Pai from Taking Broadband Assistance Away from the Poor

The Lifeline program provides subsidized communications services to low-income Americans, many of whom rely on it as their only way to access the internet.
Image: USDA/Flickr

A group of Senators have called on the Federal Communication Commission to reconsider its proposal to scale down a program that helps poor Americans get affordable internet. Following 68 Congress Members from the House who sent a similar plea last month, 11 minority Senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have co-authored a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to reconsider the move, which would strip access to the program from 70 percent of current subscribers.


“It is your obligation to the American public, as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to improve the Lifeline program and ensure that more Americans can afford access, and have means of access, to broadband and phone service,” their letter reads. “Your proposal accomplishes the exact opposite – it takes resources out of the hands of the most vulnerable Americans.”

Established in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan, the Lifeline program was created to subsidize phone service for low-income Americans. In 2005, it was expanded to include cell phone service, and in 2016, it was expanded again to cover internet access. Americans who have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal Poverty Guidelines, or are enrolled in certain assistance programs like Medicaid, are eligible to get cell phone and internet at a discounted rate of $9.25 per month.

In November, the FCC voted 3-2 to drastically roll back the program. Some of the proposals went into effect immediately, while others were left open for a public commentary before being considered later this year.

One of the more contentious proposals has to do with resellers, Lifeline-specific companies that don’t own their own infrastructure, but instead lease capacity from major telecoms providers like AT&T and Sprint in order to resell it at the subsidized rate through Lifeline. The majority of subscribers—70 percent, according to Congress—gain access to the program through companies known as resellers. Under Pai’s new proposal, these resellers would be banned from participating in Lifeline, leaving many subscribers with no option for joining the program.


The FCC stated that this would help to spur investment from major providers, but in the past these carriers haven’t had any interest in Lifeline.

“In many states, facilities-based providers have opted out of offering Lifeline-supported service altogether,” Phillip Berenbroick, a senior policy counsel at consumer advocacy firm Public Knowledge, wrote in a blog post. “The largest wireless carriers profit from this arrangement by leasing excess network capacity rather than letting it sit unused. Instead of promoting new network deployments and consumer choice, Chairman Pai’s plan would eliminate a profitable revenue stream for wireless carriers, while also eliminating non-facilities-based providers as a choice for Lifeline subscribers.”

In their letter, the Senators specifically call out this proposal, questioning what the plan, exactly, will be for these Americans who suddenly find themselves without any way of accessing Lifeline. They also inquire how making these changes will improve the digital divide, and the persistent, post-hurricane connection issues in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest rates of eligible subscribers enrolled in Lifeline.

“Instead of cutting the program, we should ensure Lifeline reaches more Americans in need of access to communication services,” the letter reads. “The last thing we should be doing is rolling back the policies that have brought connectivity to millions of Americans.”

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