So we've noted a few times how Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai enjoys wandering the country informing everyone he's a massive champion of closing the digital divide. But those claims have been repeatedly and consistently undermined by Pai's own actions, whether that involves rolling back net neutrality (a move that will make life harder and more expensive for countless consumers, non-profits, minority communities and startups alike), or his slow but steady dismantling of programs intended to make life a little bit easier for the poor.
One of Pai's biggest targets has been the FCC's Lifeline program. It's an arguably modest program that was started by Reagan and expanded by Bush, and it long enjoyed bipartisan support until the post-truth era rolled into town. Lifeline doles out a measly $9.25 per month subsidy that low-income homes can use to help pay a tiny fraction of their wireless, phone, or broadband bills (enrolled participants have to chose one). The FCC under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler had voted to expand the service to cover broadband connections, something Pai (ever a champion to the poor) voted down.
Now Pai is back with a new proposal that would prevent anybody but the nation's biggest carriers from helping provide service to the poor via the Lifeline program. According to Pai's new proposal, only "facilities-based broadband" providers (companies that own and operate their own networks) could participate in the program, forcing millions of the nations' poor off of existing MVNOs and other resellers, and forcing them onto the networks of incumbent wireless carriers.
If you've followed Pai's ideological rhetoric, it's pretty clear he sees government as a pesky impediment to the miracles of the broadband free market, which, in Pai's head, will always do the right thing if left in an accountability vacuum. But if you've also followed the broadband industry, you'll know it's not a free market. It's a mish-mash of regional monopolies that enjoy regulatory capture on the state and federal level, resulting in limited competition, high prices, and awful service. In telecom, history shows us that mindlessly gutting regulatory oversight instead of reforming it doesn't magically fix this problem, it makes it worse.
Still, it's clear that Pai believes that slowly dismantling the FCC as both an agent of altruism (empathy is painfully unfashionable) and oversight is the path to nirvana. And he's justifying his latest efforts to scale back Lifeline by insisting that booting resellers off the program somehow will magically boost broadband deployment:
"[W]e believe Lifeline support will best promote access to advanced communications services if it is focused to encourage investment in broadband-capable networks...We believe this proposal would do more than the current reimbursement structure to encourage access to quality, affordable broadband service for low-income Americans. In particular, Lifeline support can serve to increase the ability to pay for services of low-income households. Such an increase can thereby improve the business case for deploying facilities to serve low-income households."
Consumer advocates argue in their own filings with the FCC (pdf) that the effort is a pointless attempt to help drive additional revenue to incumbent carriers. And former FCC staffer Gigi Sohn recently noted in Wired how this is part of a broader effort that will make life more difficult for low-income Americans to actually get broadband:
"One of Pai’s first acts as chair was to chill competition and innovation in the Lifeline program. Pai reversed a decision made by former FCC chair Tom Wheeler that allowed nine new Lifeline providers into the program. In the process Pai got rid of new competitors who could drive down prices and improve services.
Now, Pai proposes to limit Lifeline even further. Eliminating a Wheeler-era designation that welcomed new broadband providers into the program, the FCC said in December, will “better reflect the structure, operation, and goals of the Lifeline program.” But if the goal of the program is to ensure that low-income Americans have affordable access to broadband, reducing competition in the program will do the exact opposite.
The problem is only compounded by Pai's failure to do anything about a lack of competition in general in the telecom market. And while incumbent ISPs (like Pai's former employer Verizon) routinely applaud Pai's efforts on these fronts, even they doubt the effectiveness of Pai's proposal. For example Verizon was quick to point out in its own filing (pdf) that Pai's plan wouldn't do what he claims and would actually be harmful:
"The proposed exclusion of resellers from the Lifeline program would be highly disruptive to existing Lifeline beneficiaries and is at odds with the Commission's goal of supporting affordable voice telephony and high-speed broadband for low-income households."
Even all of the dollar per hollar think tankers, academics, and others the industry uses to parrot anti-consumer policies aren't impressed by Pai's proposal. US Telecom, a lobbying group spearheaded by ATT, also panned Pai's plan for Lifeline, saying it wouldn't accomplish what Pai says it would (pdf):
"[T]he proposed elimination of resellers from the Lifeline program would not materially further the deployment of broadband infrastructure, because revenue from resellers already contributes to facilities-based carriers' deployment of broadband facilities."
Again, you've got industry and consumer advocates agreeing here that Pai is wrong and his plan will actually harm the poor.
But as his attack on net neutrality made pretty clear, Pai's blinded by an ideological vision of the telecom market that may or may not be supported by actual reality. And whereas a good leader would listen to opposition to his plans and reconsider positions that run in contrast to the will of the public, the insight of experts, and the facts -- Pai's default tendency is almost always to double down on bad ideas. And it this case Pai's bad idea is pretty clear: dismantling telecom programs that help the poor via death by a thousand cuts, no matter how counterproductive it is.
There's still time for Pai to back off his plan, given the FCC isn't expected to vote on the proposal until sometime after the public comment period ends on March 23. Still, when your definition of "helping the poor" includes ensuring cable boxes stay expensive and closed, allowing duopolies to abuse net neutrality and drive up service costs, protecting prison monopoly telcos that have price-gouged families for years, and preventing smaller ISPs from actually helping the poor you profess to love -- you have to wonder what it looks like when Pai actively wants to harm something.
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