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Court Remands Lifeline Challenge Back to FCC

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has granted a request by the FCC that it remand the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' challenge to the FCC's Lifeline reform under former Democratic chair Tom Wheeler back to the FCC, now helmed by Republican Ajit Pai, for further proceedings.

That is because Pai has signaled the Wheeler reform of creating a national program for subsidy eligibility is being rolled back in favor of a return of state control over the process of authorizing participants. The association had challenged giving the feds such control.

"Eliminating the national designation procedure puts more 'state cops on the beat' and strengthens both complementary state Lifeline programs and the quality of service provided to customers, as well as deters fraud and abuse of the program," NARUC said last month after Pai announced his plans.

In outlining his plans, Pai had cited the suit and said that he was not going to defend it and in fact would unwind it.

"I am therefore instructing the Office of General Counsel to ask the D.C. Circuit to send this case back to the Commission for further consideration," Pai said. "And the FCC will soon begin a proceeding to eliminate the new federal designation process."

The FCC asked and the court has now granted that request. A NARUC spokesperson said they were discussing the status of that suit at presstime, but it is unlikely to go forward if Pai delivers on his promise.

Pai said by letting the states take the lead, "we will strengthen the Lifeline program and put the implementation of last year's order on a solid legal footing. This will benefit all Americans, including those participating in the program."

A bitterly divided FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to reform the Lifeline subsidy a little over a year ago following the collapse of an agreement among Pai, fellow Republican Michael O'Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn that would have capped the fund, something Wheeler did not want to do—eventually Clyburn said she could not support the cap either.

(Photo via Tori Rector's FlickrImage taken on July 21, 2016 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 3x4 aspect ratio.)

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.