FCC Fires Back at Democratic Senators Blasting Lifeline Efforts

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A spokesperson for FCC chairman Ajit Pai said Senate Democrats slamming the FCC for its administration of the Lifeline low-income broadband subsidy programming during the pandemic are to blame for not coming up with more money for the program as they seek tax cuts for the rich rather than negotiating for more broadband funds for the poor.

Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and two dozen other Democratic senators argue the FCC has failed to take "forceful action" to keep households connected during the pandemic and said they are profoundly frustrated.

Related: Groups Want Unlimited Talk, Text for Lifeline Subs

In a letter dated Aug. 27, they called on Pai to "reverse proposed changes to the Lifeline program, take immediate steps to open its assistance to more households, and ensure that its services meet the pressing needs of families during this crisis."

They said even given the vast "homework gap" as students prepare to return to school virtually, the FCC has no national plan to make sure there is access for those students, calling it a "looming disaster" and a "vast digital divide" the FCC should be doing more to bridge with Lifeline and other Universal Service Fund programs. 

Rather than ramping up Lifeline subsidies--those for low income residents--the FCC has "actively worked to undermine and destabilize the Lifeline program," they argued, adding: "The FCC has also failed to complete important reforms to ease burdens on consumers and reduce fraud, such as the full implementation of the National Verifier meant to automate registration and preserve the integrity of Lifeline. Lastly, carriers face continued uncertainty about the long-term stability of the program given the open FCC proposals to cut back participation and compensation for services. The consequences of this sustained assault on Lifeline are stark – less than 20% eligible households subscribe to services, as much as a 30% drop during your watch."

Related: FCC Won't Drop Suspect Lifeline Subs

But in a response to the letter, the spokesperson was not having any of it.

"With the universal service tax that consumers pay to fund broadband services already at record levels, chairman Pai for months has made clear that Congress needs to step up to the plate and make more funding available for connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesperson said. "It’s therefore disappointing that Senate Democrats have failed to do their job and are refusing to find common ground with the Administration and Senate Republicans on broadband funding and other core national priorities unless they get their demand for special-interest giveaways that have nothing to do with the pandemic, like tax cuts for the rich in states like Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and California."

"The FCC under Pai has taken a number of steps to reduce the red tape in the current program during the pandemic and encouraged ISPs to find ways to keep economically challenged subs connected so that Lifeline subs would not be involuntarily removed, but he has also proposed to cut the new minimum mobile broadband data capacity provided to low income residents by the Lifeline subsidy from 11.75 GB to 4.5 GB. 

But the senators suggested broadband fortunes favor the bold and proposed their own national plan:

1.) "Take emergency measures to provide additional financial support to Lifeline providers during the pandemic to temporarily support unlimited mobile data and voice minutes, and notify Congress if additional funding is needed for such changes.

2.) "Extend all current FCC waivers on Lifeline usage and subscriber documentation requirements for at least a full year, until August 2021 or when we have recovered from the pandemic.

3.) "Close the currently outstanding Lifeline proposed rulemakings that would create new obstacles for eligible households and add unwarranted burden on carriers.

4.) "Pause the scheduled changes to Lifeline program’s minimum service standards until the Commission studies such impacts on the market in its upcoming 2021 State of Lifeline Marketplace Report, to avoid disruptions to customers’ services.

5.) "Restore the monthly subsidy to $9.25 for plans offering voice services for subscribers who value voice over data-heavy plans and pause the planned decrease in contributions for voice support.

6.) "Work with states to increase the automated verification of state databases with the National Verifier program by the end of this year."

Among those signing on to the letter were Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.). 

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.