Millions of Americans now can apply for a subsidy to get broadband access after a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission. The vote to modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program was 3-2, with the two Republican commissioners going against the proposal, citing budgetary concerns.
Low-income Americans, defined as those with a household income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level, are eligible for a Lifeline subsidy of $9.25 per month. Through the updated program, a subscriber can apply the subsidy to fixed broadband or stand-alone mobile. The FCC has also created a new third-party verification system to avoid the fraud that previously plagued the system. The budget is set at $2.25 billion.
The main goal was to modernize the program, expanding it from voice-only services to internet access. Commissioners and advocacy groups frequently cited the requirements for students to have access to the internet to complete school assignments. “All I needed for homework was my pencil, my paper, and my brother leaving me alone. But gone are those days,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her remarks.
The proposal did not move swiftly, however. In fact, the meeting was delayed by three-and-a-half hours due to an effort by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, to secure a deal with the two Republican commissioners.
Chairman Thomas Wheeler began the meeting with an apology, and a joke. The delay “was in order to give Chairman Martin the opportunity to unveil Facebook’s new pizza-delivery service,” he said.
Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, now Facebook's vice president for mobile and global access policy, appeared at the meeting, delivering pizza to reporters.
Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin delivers pizza to reporters during meeting delay, which he did during '07 delay. pic.twitter.com/Jrva64JQBS
— Jim Puzzanghera (@JimPuzzanghera) March 31, 2016
But later in her remarks on Lifeline, Clyburn shared the real reason. “Finally, I must address the elephant in the room … the delay in the meeting,” Clyburn said. “I have been consistent in saying that a cap should not be imposed. … I continue to hold that view.”
Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai spent the majority of his remarks outlining the scenario of what happened. “It is one thing to refuse to work toward bipartisan compromise. … It is quite another to launch a political campaign to force a Democratic FCC commissioner to renege from a compromise on her signature issue,” Pai said.
Pai and Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly referred to the morning’s agreement and now-approved budget of $2.25 billion as a joke. “It seems this item has done a complete 360 like some premature, cruel April Fools’ Day joke,” he said. “If the commission does absolutely nothing, spending blows right through the magic number and continues indefinitely. What does that make the magic number? A joke, not a budget.”
The FCC voted to propose a plan for Lifeline in June 2015 and has spent the last 10 months in a public commentary and drafting period. Some telecoms came out against the proposal. For example, AT&T asked for more information on the new verification program, which was proposed to move the burden of the review process for Lifeline applicants from the providers to the government.
In his final remarks, Wheeler said such a move will help combat fraud. "Another thing that this order does is to institute good management practices that were not put in place when the program was adjusted to encompass cell phones," said Wheeler, referring to abuse of Lifeline after the George W. Bush administration voted in 2005 to expand the subsidy to mobile phones.
Just prior to the decision on Lifeline Thursday, the FCC approved a proposal, also in a 3-2 vote, that would regulate how internet service providers could collect data. Several commissioners connected the proposal on Lifeline and on data collection by ISPs since the former brings more customers online. “Connection is no longer merely convenient. We live in an online-only world,” said Rosenworcel in her remarks on data collection. “In the broadband age, consumers should not have to be network engineers to understand who is collecting their data.”
The proposal requires ISPs, such as Comcast or AT&T, to offer an opt-in or opt-out option for consumers. They must also clearly show what data is being collected and what is being done with it.