Groups Mass Against Lifeline Changes

The FCC is getting major pushback on its vote to revamp the Lifeline communications subsidy program.

Over 200 organizations, including the ACLU, American Library Association, the Benton Foundation and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, have written FCC chairman Ajit Pai urging him to reject his own proposal. Initial comments were due Feb. 21, with reply comments due next month.

They argue the proposed changes, which could include capping the fund and targeting it to facilities-based providers, would debilitate a program meant to assist low-income residents, including minorities, seniors, vets and the disabled .

"We strongly oppose the proposed changes, which would exacerbate the digital divide and devastate families enrolled in Lifeline," they told the commission.

The FCC voted along party lines Nov. 16, 2017, to make major changes to the program. Actually, it was a revamp of a revamp. The FCC revamped the program under previous chairman Tom Wheeler.

Related: FCC Extends Comment Period for Lifeline Revamp

Under Pai's proposal, which also included an order, a proposed order and an inquiry, the FCC--in the order part--"clarified" that premium WiFi did not qualify as mobile broadband under the subsidy, increased the portability of Lifeline service among carriers and targeted support for rural areas on tribal lands only to those tribal lands.

There was also an accompanying notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), which must still be finalized with a vote after the comments are vetted, that seeks comment on, among other things, capping the program--the most contentious issue in the previous Lifeline revamp--ending preemption of states' role in eligible telecommunications carrier designations, proposes to target lifeline to facilities-based broadband capable nets offering voice and broadband--the FCC has been migrating its telecom subsidies from voice to broadband over the past several years.

The FCC also seeks comment on adjusting the eligibility verification and recertification process. One of the things Pai did early one was to revoke the most recent round of certifications until the FCC addressed the verification issue. Pai's stated goal is to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, something he has long targeted in the program, though critics of the item, including some of those letter signatories, suggested it was a draconian hit on lower income residents being denied service.

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.