The FCC is currently seeking comment on whether it should continue to hold up the rollout of broadband subsidies for low-income households.
The public inquiry is in response to a petition filed by more than 30 groups, including the American Library Association and the NAACP, asking the commission to continue rolling out internet subsidies through its Lifeline program.
One of the commission’s first major actions under Chairman Ajit Pai was to halt Lifeline’s expansion into broadband. The Lifeline program has long covered telephone service, offering low-income households $9.25 per month off their bills. But in 2015, the commission voted to let the program cover internet bills, too.
While the commission didn’t altogether reverse Lifeline’s coverage of broadband — and it signaled that coverage would eventually return — it did halt the rollout indefinitely, claiming the system was filled with “waste, fraud, and abuse,” which it largely hasn’t provided evidence for.
Pai has argued that this temporary pause isn’t a big problem since there are already more than 900 companies offering Lifeline subsidies. But Wired looked into it and found that the commission didn’t know of a single company among those 900 that offered internet service. Nine companies were supposed to begin offering broadband, but the commission’s action stopped that.
“Lifeline has brought affordable telephone service to millions of people in poverty,” the groups write in their petition. “Now it is the only federal program poised to bring broadband to poor families across the US so that they can connect to jobs, complete their homework, and communicate with healthcare providers and emergency services.”
The groups ask that the FCC reverse its order halting the Lifeline rollout, allowing those nine companies to begin offering subsidies, and generally stop interfering with the program.
The chances of that happening are slim. Republicans have a majority at the commission, and fellow Republican commissioner Michael O'Reilly has also criticized Lifeline for being susceptible to abuse.
When Lifeline returns, the thing to look out for will be whether the safeguards Pai and O'Reilly want to put in place deal with actual abuse, or whether they significantly raise the barriers for low-income households to take advantage of a program that’s supposed to help them.
The commission is opening comments on this petition for two weeks, until March 16th. Replies to those comments will then be accepted for another week, until March 23rd.
Comments can be made through the FCC’s website by entering “09-197” under “proceedings.”