Free Press: Trump FCC Wages War on the Poor with Plan to Undermine the Lifeline Program

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Timothy Karr, 201-533-8838

WASHINGTON — Free Press on Wednesday condemned the Federal Communications Commission for waging a war on the poor by moving forward with a proceeding to deny essential broadband and telephone subsidies to low-income people.

Free Press filed comments in an ongoing FCC rulemaking proceeding in which the agency has proposed a number of dangerous changes to the Lifeline program, which offers modest subsidies to poor households seeking affordable access to communications.

The FCC proposal would harm struggling families, Free Press explains in its comments. If the changes proposed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai were adopted, the agency “would abandon the majority of current Lifeline recipients and leave millions of poor people without affordable communications options.”

The Lifeline program — founded as a telephone subsidy under the Reagan administration and updated during subsequent administrations to include modest support for internet access — was designed to ensure that low-income families can connect to modern communications to pursue employment opportunities, stay in touch with loved ones, and access education and emergency services.

Since he took the reins at the agency, FCC Chairman Pai has sought to unravel these benefits. Last year, he prohibited nine Lifeline broadband providers from offering new Lifeline options, reducing competition and choice for low-income subscribers in the process.

Now he proposes to severely cap expenditures and remove resellers — telecom providers that don’t own and operate their own network infrastructure — from offering Lifeline-subsidized plans. This proposal departs from three decades of FCC efforts to better serve the poor. If implemented, this plan would take away service from more than 70 percent of current Lifeline participants.

Free Press called on Chairman Pai to immediately terminate the agency’s proceeding because it is without public benefit and would hurt low-income families and disproportionately impact people of color.

Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González made the following statement:

“The FCC’s Lifeline proposals are part of Chairman Pai’s blatant war on the poor. They do nothing to curb the alleged waste, fraud and abuse that the agency majority has exaggerated to justify this attack on low-income households.

“As Free Press explained in recent testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, the ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ narrative is overblown, offensive and based on stale data. The proposals in the FCC’s notice do not purport to be biased toward any particular group, but they are patently discriminatory, both in isolation and in the context of a market whose structural barriers prevent people of color from equitable participation.

“The FCC’s proposals to eliminate providers and cap program expenditures are cruel and unjustified. And they’re likely to perpetuate systemic racism and inequality in this country.

“For instance, the self-enforcing cap on total Lifeline expenditures could arbitrarily deny service to Lifeline-eligible families, and it’s totally unnecessary based on the program’s structure and its already declining size. The lifetime-benefits limit that Pai proposes for individual households is unwarranted too and would disproportionately harm seniors, people with disabilities and others with fixed incomes who rely on the social-safety net for longer periods of time.

“The persistence of the digital divide means that millions of families — in particular Black and Brown people — are missing out on essential opportunities. Pai and his colleagues in the majority should focus on serving those communities instead of creating more obstacles to getting people online. This entire proceeding is a waste of time and the proposals in it should be rejected out of hand.”