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WAWDT: FCC turning off low-income access to broadband?

The item that prompted me to begin writing about “Why are we doing this?” (WAWDT) was a news report about the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to rescind authorization for 9 internet providers to provide subsidized broadband to low income households under the Lifeline program (CNN; The Hill; Gizmodo). This is not the biggest issue out there, but in the torrent of news, it was in a way one item too many.

The details are a bit complicated, but the immediate effect seems to run contrary to the new FCC commissioner Ajit Pai‘s stated desire to end the digital divide. The Lifeline program (FCC general & consumer pages) began in 1985 as a way of assuring telephone access to people otherwise unable to access essential communications services (such as poor and elderly). Internet broadband was added to the Lifeline program in March 2016, in recognition of the increasingly essential nature of broadband – such as for students who need good internet access for their schoolwork.

The 9 companies that had been granted this status so far (out of a total of 117 applicants listed on the FCC’s Lifeline Broadband Provider Petitions & Public Comment Periods page, accessed 4 Feb. 2017) have had their status downgraded to pending. They are, in the order they appeared on the list:

The timeline and final outcome are uncertain. According to the Washington Post,

By stopping companies … from accessing the Lifeline program, Pai may be signaling his intention to apply more restrictions to the Lifeline program, policy analysts said. One such restriction could be a strict cap on the program’s budget, which is indirectly funded through fees in the bills of telephone customers.

Expansion of the Lifeline program to include broadband seemed a positive way to address one aspect of increasing inequality – access to information via the internet. Its ending or curtailment would certainly be a loss. Hopefully this can be reinstated or otherwise moved forward again in a way that benefits eligible people.

The FCC has at least one other potential WAWDT item on its policy agenda – overturning net neutrality as a governing principle of the internet.

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