FCC Votes to Restrict Lifeline Program in Underserved Communities

By Sameer Rao Nov 16, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) split along partisan lines today (November 16) when it voted to roll back various components of the Lifeline program, which subsidizes internet and digital technology for underserved communities.

FCC chair Ajit Pai—who was appointed by President Donald Trump—joined fellow Republican commissioners Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly to outvote Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel on the reform.

Lifeline operated as a subsidy program that helped lower the cost of phone service for low-income households until 2016, when the commission voted to expand it to include broadband internet access. The program currently provides households at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line with $9.25-per-month toward internet expenses. One of Pai’s first actions as commissioner excluded nine providers from participating in the program, which decreased the number of consumers who could benefit from it. 

While the program still exists, an announcement from the commission notes that today’s vote “makes some immediate changes to encourage facilities-based Lifeline service.” The FCC previously defined “facilities-based” to mean any company that owns most or all of the facilities it uses to provide internet services; that definition primarily applies to major internet conglomerates like Verizon and Comcast.

The measure includes components that work in these companies’ favor. One eradicates “enhanced” Lifeline support—an extra $25-per-month subsidy—in urban communities. Another restricts enhanced support on Native tribal lands—where the commission says 41 percent of residents have no broadband access—to people using facilities-based providers. A third prohibits those who rely on services that require a Wi-Fi hotspot from accessing Lifeline at all.

The FCC also voted today to remove restrictions on how many properties media companies can own in individual markets. For instance, one eliminated protection, the Eight-Voices Test, prohibited a single company from owning two television stations unless the market area also had eight other independently-owned stations. 

Social justice advocacy groups argue that today’s rulings will prevent many residents of impoverished areas, including Native Americans and other communities of color, from accessing the internet and the content it holds. One such group, The Leadership Coalition on Civil and Human Rights, includes digital equity organizations like the Center for Media Justice and the National Hispanic Media Coalition as members.

"Taken together, today’s decisions represent a major rollback in civil rights and a blow to our democracy," coalition president and CEO Vanita Gupta said in a statement. "One proposal would gut Lifeline, the program dedicated to bringing phone and internet service within reach for people of color, low-income people, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities, with particularly egregious consequences for tribal areas. The other eliminates several rules promoting competition and diversity in the broadcast media, undermining ownership chances for women and people of color."

She continued: “When the rules fail to ensure media access by all members of society, civil rights are denied. When media policies fail, equal opportunity and democratic participation are compromised.”