Ex-Wheeler Aide Sohn Slams Pai For Lifeline Moves

Gigi Sohn, former top counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, took aim at new FCC Chairman Anit Pai's revsersal

of a handul of Lifeline subsidy authorizations in a Web posting Thursday (Feb. 9).

Pai took to the Web himself to defend the move after critics said he was undercutting the program for subsidizing essential communications services (), in part blaming news stories he said had gotten the story wrong.

But Sohn said the criticism was justified.

In a post labeled "Defending the Indefensible," on the Benton Foundation Web site, Sohn said that the bottom lines was that Pai and his fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly "fundamentally disagree with the structure and goals of the Lifeline program and will seek to undermine it in word and deed."

Sohn argues there were no procedural flaws that should have resulted in withdrawing the authorizations approved by the FCC under Wheeler.

As to the fact that it was done in Wheeler's last few weeks, she pointed out that he was still chairman those last few weeks and in charge of the agency, and that they were issued on the bureau level, not the full commission, so there was no process problem with that.

Pai also said the withdrawals were so the commission could come up with a better process for weeded out waste, fraud and abuse before adding anyone else to the program. Insufficient safeguards has been a Pai criticism of the program under Wheeler's helm--Pai and O'Rielly both wanted to cap the fund as well, something Wheeler did not favor.

Sohn pointed to FCC reforms in 2012 that the full commission found to be sufficient to guard against waste, fraud and abuse. "The new FCC majority has consistently ignored these protections and their success in significantly reducing Lifeline fraud, choosing instead to aggressively demonize the program and, by extension, ts low-income recipients," Sohn says.

Pai has often argued that the FCC reached beyond its authority when criticizing various actions, but Sohn suggested that was a blunt instrument he had wielded indiscriminately and would use against other Wheeler tent pole issues.

"The Chairman is masterful in using the argument 'the FCC lacks legal power' to undercut just about every pro-consumer and pro-competition policy he doesn’t like," she wrote. "He used this excuse recently in declining to defend the FCC rules that lowered prison phone rates, and he will certainly do the same when addressing the FCC’s privacy rules for broadband and, ultimately, its network neutrality rules."

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.