Democratic Sens. Push Pai to Reverse Lifeline Decision

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Corey Booker (D-N.J.) are leading more than a dozen senators (all Dems except independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) calling on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to reverse his decision to withdraw Lifeline broadband subsidy authorizations from nine companies.

Pai said the decision was due to 1) procedural errors, 2) because they were issued in the waning hours of the previous Administration, something Republicans warned against, 3) and because he suggested the FCC needed to hit the pause button on expanding the low-income subsidy program until it got a better process for monitoring for waste, fraud and abuse.

The senators, who also included Al Franken of Minnesota, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon, said they were deeply troubled by the action.

Related: Ex-Wheeler Aide Sohn Slams Pai for Lifeline Decision

They said the chairman was undermining the program, making it more difficult for low income residents to afford critical communications services, and appearing to run counter to his pledge in the first days of his chairmanship to make closing the digital divide a priority under his watch.

The senators said that to "abruptly revoke" the authorizations only weeks after they had been granted was "unfairly punishing" low-income consumers.

Pai had pointed out in a blog post that eight of the nine customers had no customers so far, so the impact should not be great, and that there were still some 900 companies authorized and providing the subsidies.

The senators pointed out that the customers of at least one of the nine would have to be disconnected.

Evoking Sec. 706 of the Communications Act, they said that the FCC has an obligation to ensure “consumers in all regions of the country, including low-income consumers” have access to “advanced telecommunications services,” and asked him to reconsider the decision.

”Chairman Pai shares the Senators’ commitment to closing the digital divide and believes that the Lifeline program can play an important role in helping to achieve that objective," said a Pai spokesman. "The Wireline Competition Bureau’s decision last week did not have any impact on over 99% of the companies in the program, and eight of the nine companies affected did not have any Lifeline customers.

"These nine companies’ applications were rushed out the door in the final days of the last Administration through an improper process. Some of these companies did not follow Commission rules requiring consultation with Tribes. The Bureau granted some applications without waiting for the 30-day public comment period set forth in our rules to close. And there was inadequate attention paid to whether necessary safeguards were in place to prevent the waste, fraud, and abuse that has plagued the program. For all these reasons, it was important for these nine companies’ applications to receive additional review.”

John Eggerton

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.