The FCC Must Abandon Its Plan to Disconnect Low-Income Families

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a package of fatally flawed plans that would fundamentally undercut Lifeline. May 15's FCC oversight hearing is an opportunity for Congress to hold the agency accountable for its disastrous proposals. 

Lifeline began during the Reagan administration to promote universal telephone service, and was expanded under President George W. Bush to support mobile phones. In 2016, Lifeline was modernized to include subsidies for broadband. Today, the program provides $9.25 a month for low-income households struggling to afford service. At the end of 2017, the FCC issued a series of bad proposals designed to shrink the program — a thousand tiny cuts that cumulatively would leave millions of Americans stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

One of the proposals would ban wireless resellers from participating in Lifeline. Resellers, who serve a whopping 70 percent of Lifeline recipients, buy capacity wholesale from major telecommunications companies like AT&T or Sprint and then resell it to customers — typically at lower prices than the big brands offer, and without burdensome conditions like racially discriminatory credit checks. As major wireless carriers have largely abandoned Lifeline, banning resellers threatens to disconnect millions who have few alternatives for affordable service. The FCC also proposed a “self-enforcing” budget cap for Lifeline, which would artificially cap a program that has only a 30 percent participation rate. The cap would also prioritize money for rural populations over urban ones, pitting disconnected communities against each other.

Virtually no one supports these changes – not Lifeline subscribers, not resellers, not even big industry players like Verizon and trade group USTelecom. The FCC must terminate the proceeding and abandon any future its plans to gut the program. The FCC should remember its core purpose: to connect people so that our country’s most vulnerable aren’t left behind.

[Dana Floberg is the policy manager at Free Press, Carmen Scurato is the senior policy counsel at Free Press, and Erin Shields is a national field organizer for internet rights for the Center for Media Justice.]

The FCC Must Abandon Its Plan to Disconnect Low-Income Families