FCC To Halt Expansion of Broadband Subsidies For Poor People

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced today that the FCC will be “dropping its legal defense of a new system for expanding broadband subsidies for poor people, and will not approve applications from companies that want to offer the low-income broadband service,” reports Ars Technica. The Lifeline program, which has been around for 32 years and “gives poor people $9.25 a month toward communications services,” was voted to be expanded last year under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. That expansion will now be halted. Ars Technica reports: Pai’s decision won’t prevent Lifeline subsidies from being used toward broadband, but it will make it harder for ISPs to gain approval to sell the subsidized plans. Last year’s decision enabled the FCC to approve new Lifeline Broadband Providers nationwide so that ISPs would not have to seek approval from each state’s government. Nine providers were approved under the new system late in former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s term, but Pai rescinded those approvals in February. There are 36 pending applications from ISPs before the commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau. However, Pai wrote today, “I do not believe that the Bureau should approve these applications.” He argues that only state governments have authority from Congress to approve such applications. When defending his decision to revoke Lifeline approvals for the nine companies, Pai said last month that more than 900 Lifeline providers were not affected. But most of those were apparently offering subsidized telephone service only and not subsidized broadband. Currently, more than 3.5 million Americans are receiving subsidized broadband through Lifeline from 259 eligible providers, Pai said in today’s statement. About 99.6 percent of Americans who get subsidized broadband through Lifeline buy it from one of the companies that received certification “through a lawful process,” Pai wrote. The remaining 0.4 percent apparently need to switch providers or lose service because of Pai’s February decision. Only one ISP had already started providing the subsidized service under the new approval, and it was ordered to notify its customers that they can no longer receive Lifeline discounts. Pai’s latest action would prevent new providers from gaining certification in multiple states at once, forcing them to go through each state’s approval process separately. Existing providers that want to expand to multiple states would have to complete the same state-by-state process.

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