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Hill Weighs in on FCC’s Broadband Lifeline Vote

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were quick to react to the Federal Communications Commission's vote to add broadband to its Lifeline subsidy program.

"We share the goal of making sure all Americans can connect to this fundamental tool of economic growth and social connectivity, but we cannot stand by as uncapped spending threatens to undermine the USF and its benefits," said Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, and Greg Walden, chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee. "Unfortunately, it appears the order adopted by the FCC today — which still has not seen the light of day — fails to protect ratepayers from runaway costs and lacks necessary metrics to gauge performance.

“We have called time and again for the FCC to rein in out of control costs in the USF. The commission has agreed that the program should be put on a budget, but despite this important recognition, there is still no fiscal restraint in sight.”

The legislators wanted the fund capped, as did the Republican FCC commissioners who dissented. The reference to "still not seen the light of day" appeared to be a allusion to their ongoing push for the FCC to publish items before it votes on them.

The Republican leadership of the Senate panels with primary FCC oversight expressed similar concerns.

 “Today, the FCC adopted a proposal to expand the Lifeline program to subsidize broadband Internet services for low-income households," said Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). "We are not convinced that the measures taken by the FCC to address waste, fraud and abuse are sufficient to warrant the expansion of the program.

“At our subcommittee hearing earlier this month, Committee members on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about the FCC fundamentally changing or growing Lifeline without fixing existing problems first. This expansion may be ‘too much, too soon’ for a program plagued with problems and a lack of accountability in recent years."

The Senate Republicans called on the FCC to “adopt critical measures to restore fiscal responsibility to ensure that the program serves those who truly need it.”

“We also reiterate our call for the FCC to conduct a full program evaluation in accordance with GAO’s recommendations in its March 2015 report prior to adopting a final order expanding the Lifeline program to broadband,” the lawmakers added.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee, saw the matter differently.

“Access to broadband is the 21st century’s lifeline,” she said. “It is a pathway to jobs, education, health care and much more. The steps taken by the FCC today to modernize Lifeline and add broadband ensures that low-income Americans will have access to this critical communications tool. It also furthers our nation’s progress toward bridging the digital divide.”

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.