The outcry over the FCC’s move to kill net neutrality in the US has been loud and persistent, but a complex administrative change could have even more severe impacts for many Americans. Proposed changes to the federal Lifeline program could leave many low-income households without any access to the internet, neutral or not. Congress is urging the FCC to reconsider, but the agency doesn’t have to listen.
The Lifeline program came into being back in the 1980s under the Reagan administration to ensure low-income Americans had access to communication services. At the time, it was only used to subsidize landline phones. In 2005, the government expanded Lifeline to cover cell phones, and in 2016 the government added internet access. Under the Lifeline program, households earning 135 percent or less of the federal poverty level can sign up for cell phone and internet service for $9.25 per month.
Late last year, the FCC voted 3-2 to add limitations to the Lifeline program. Chairman Ajit Pai and the two Republican commission members voted in favor of the rollback, and the Democratic commissioners voted against it. With Republicans in control of the FCC, some of the changes were implemented immediately. Others are open to public comment with an expected implementation date of later this year.
The proposed change that has Democratic Senators up in arms is one that could cause 70 percent of Lifeline subscribers to lose their coverage. The letter, from 11 Democratic Senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, implores the FCC to reconsider limitations on Lifeline. The FCC’s position is that ISPs will provide more access with its new rules as opposed to less.
Under the revised Lifeline rules, the FCC aims to block broadband resellers from participating in the program. That’s the bulk of the available service, though. For the most part, ISPs that own the lines aren’t interested in providing service to Lifeline customers. So, even if households qualified for the program, it’s entirely possible they would have no Lifeline providers. Likewise, wireless providers lease their unused capacity to third-parties to provide Lifeline coverage.
The letter asks the FCC to explain how it intends to address households that will surely lose access to the internet when resellers are banned from the program. Even if the FCC’s predictions prove true in the long run, it won’t happen overnight. If nothing changes, the Lifeline program could be serving many fewer consumers later this year.
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