Democrats in Congress are questioning the new FCC chief over his decision to slow the expansion of broadband subsidies for low-income households.
In a letter sent this morning, 41 House Democrats write that the commission’s actions have the effect of “reducing, not expanding, internet access” and “will hurt those in our country that need the most help.”
In his second week on the job, new FCC chairman Ajit Pai reversed a decision by his predecessor that would have allowed nine additional internet providers to offer subsidized broadband access to households near or below the poverty line.
Pai also indicated that he has no intention of expanding broadband subsidies until he alters the program, called Lifeline, to deal with “waste, fraud, and abuse.” He’s previously claimed these issues lead to a loss of around $476 million a year, though he’s also said that he does not yet have evidence for this.
Existing Lifeline providers — of which there are currently over 900 — are still able to offer subsidies on phone or internet service. But expanding the program to additional internet providers is critical to its success.
For one, a local provider has to support Lifeline, or else low-income households can’t take advantage of the subsidies. And while the program’s $9.25-per-month discount might get you somewhere on landline telephone service, it isn’t hugely meaningful when it comes to broadband — having competition between Lifeline providers is a key part of keeping down costs for families that need it.
After being criticized for the decision last week, Pai wrote a blog post arguing that his decision wouldn’t have a big impact, since he was only removing nine Lifeline providers, and that the issue was being “sensationalized” by the media. Pai also noted that the nine providers that had their Lifeline status reversed could still receive approval at a later date.
Still, all indications point to Pai halting the expansion of Lifeline until he can alter the program. And when he does, it’ll be important to see whether those changes make it harder for eligible households to get subsidies; though he’s made no proposal yet, criticizing unproven fraud is often a cover for disenfranchisement.
The House Democrats writing Pai ask that he “reconsider the commission’s decision to remove the nine companies.” An FCC spokesperson said the commission is reviewing the letter.
Update February 14th, 12:40PM ET: This story has been updated with comment from the FCC.