Public Interest Groups Blast FCC Lifeline Reversals

On February 3, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission informed nine companies that they will not be allowed to participate in Lifeline, a federal program that makes broadband internet access service more affordable for low-income consumers. The move came just weeks after the FCC informed these companies that they would be able to participate.

“Since 2010, the FCC has been consistently working to improve and modernize the Lifeline program. Vulnerable communities, such as our nation's veterans -- who make up 13 percent of Lifeline users -- and low-income students -- who need broadband to succeed at school -- were poised to benefit from the low-cost broadband services the Lifeline program can bring. These unexpected revocations will not only limit choices for Lifeline consumers, but also have a chilling effect on participation of other potential broadband providers of Lifeline service," said Amina Fazlullah, Director of Policy at the Benton Foundation.

Danny Weiss, VP for Federal Policy, Common Sense Kids Action: "We are very concerned that this action by the FCC will increase, not reduce, the digital divide that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has pledged to address and that remains a serious problem for low-income school children and their families. We can and must continue to work together toward the goal of connecting every household in America to affordable high-speed internet."

"The Communications Workers of America has long supported Lifeline subsidies for broadband. We look to Chairman Pai to ensure that the program enables low-income consumers to purchase broadband services at an affordable price. We are concerned that today’s action may discourage participation in the program," said Debbie Goldman, Telecommunications Policy Director, Communications Workers of America.

“Pai’s actions create additional barriers to bringing poor Americans online, demonstrating that he doesn’t actually care about the communications needs of the millions of veterans, working parents and children trapped in poverty, despite his recent statements that everyone should have 'affordable choices' and that closing the digital divide would be a 'core' FCC priority under his leadership," said Free Press' deputy director and senior counsel, Jessica J. González.

“The new administration has demonstrated extreme hostility towards communities of color, and Chairman Pai’s actions today are no different. Today’s action is an assault on low-income households of color, who disproportionately lack access to affordable high speed broadband that these nine providers would have offered” said Stephanie Chen, Energy and Telecommunications Policy Director at The Greenlining Institute.

"Poor and working people need more options for internet access at a price they can afford - not less. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States, with some of the most expensive broadband access. Seniors, people with disabilities, and youth all struggle for basic internet access. This action by the FCC will hurt the people who need internet access the most - people struggling for healthcare, good work, dignified schools, and for access to their government - and it will keep companies from doing the work to provide internet access at prices low income communities can afford," said Hannah Sassaman, Policy Director, Media Mobilizing Project.

“Lifeline is a proven success story for communities that traditionally are forced to go without in our country, including low-income people, neighborhoods of color, and Americans who live in our nation’s rural and urban areas. To curb Lifeline’s continued attempts to keep up with technology is to perpetuate the digital divide; is tells low-income students that they should still go to the local McDonalds for free wi-fi to do their homework; it says to the unemployed that they should not have access to job listings that are on line; and it will result in seniors who are on a fixed income not having access to local services including emergency services” said Hilary O. Shelton, the Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and the Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy.

"We are concerned that today's action to revoke nine broadband providers' ability to provide Lifeline broadband service will have an immediate impact on low-income children who need internet to do their homework, and their parents' ability to find and apply for work. This action will hurt more than the customers of the nine providers if it deters other broadband providers from participating in the Lifeline program," said Olivia Wein, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

"NDIA's affiliates (libraries, community-based organizations and local governments) work every day to increase digital equity. Today's action by the FCC are counter to local efforts as we now have fewer internet service providers offering a Lifeline broadband service. Our disadvantaged communities need MORE low-cost options, not less," said Angela Siefer, Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“We have companies who want to offer thousands of low-income Americans a pathway out of poverty with affordable internet service and it appears that Chairman Pai is standing in their way,” said Carmen Scurato, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “We are beyond disappointed that the new Chairman has chosen to direct precious Commission time and resources to an action so antithetical to the Commission's mission- and so early in his term. If the Chairman wants to make real inroads to bridge the digital divide, he must allow and encourage service providers to participate in the Lifeline Program. Economic progress and educational opportunity are bipartisan and we urge policymakers to remember that the reckless decisions they try to hide on a Friday afternoon are continuing to disadvantage the half of all Latino households and 40 percent of African American homes that remain offline.”

"Just last week, Chairman Pai told his colleagues that one of his top priorities as Chairman is closing the digital divide. With no deliberation or public input, and over the objection of longtime Lifeline champion Mignon Clyburn, he undermined the primary federal program that addresses the affordability of broadband service, threatening to leave low-income families permanently behind," said Sarah Morris, Director of Open Internet Policy, New America's Open Technology Institute.

Phillip Berenbroick, Senior Policy Counsel, Public Knowledge: “Last year, the FCC took the historic step of modernizing the Reagan-era Lifeline program to ensure that America’s commitment to universal service includes broadband - the crucial communications platform of the 21st Century. Today, Chairman Pai revoked the ability of nine broadband providers to provide Lifeline-supported service to low-income families. The Chairman’s arbitrary decision will likely result in needy families losing access to the critical connectivity they use to communicate with loved ones, look for employment, complete homework assignments, access vital health care information, and engage in civic life. Broadband is now an essential service in the U.S., and necessary for basic communications. However, there are too few choices for consumers, and the cost of high-speed internet is unaffordable for millions of families. Less than two weeks ago, Chairman Pai committed that his leadership of the FCC would focus on closing the digital divide. Today, he has reneged on that commitment and signaled that the FCC might now be actively hostile toward small, competitive broadband providers and affordable access, which would exacerbate the digital divide.”

“Unfortunately, Chairman Pai’s action is a continuation of his previous efforts to vilify a program to help low-income families gain affordable access to broadband and telephone service. In his first speech to the FCC staff as chairman, Pai promised he would close the digital divide by helping the ‘private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else.’ Not only has he already broken his first promise, but his unilateral action over the request of Commissioner Clyburn means he has also violated his own regulatory philosophy, that “FCC is at its best when it proceeds on the basis of consensus,” said Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, UCC OC Inc.


The Benton Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting communication in the public interest. This release reflects the institutional view of the Foundation and, unless obvious from the text, is not intended to reflect the views of individual Foundation officers, directors, or advisors.