Millions of Americans stand to receive subsidies for broadband service after the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to expand the Lifeline program, which was launched under President Ronald Reagan to offer low-income consumers discounts on phone service.
The highly anticipated vote, which was 3-2, pitted the three Democratic and two Republican commissioners against each other, as the GOP members said they opposed the expansion because there is no spending cap.
Chairman Tom Wheeler said he was “befuddled” at how a program started under a Republican president “has suddenly become so partisan.”
“Let’s look at what the dissenting votes are voting against: recasting Lifeline for the broadband era at a time when America does business online,” Wheeler said in his remarks. “Why should we continue to spend ratepayer funds only on 20th century narrow band service?”
The expansion of the 30-year-old program, which supporters say could help poor families perform simple tasks like pay bills and do homework, would offer consumers a choice to use the monthly $9.25 subsidy for broadband service.
But commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly argued that there is no set budget for the expanded program, which could lead to more fraud, waste and abuse, problems that were rooted out in 2012 during a major overhaul of the program under President George W. Bush.
“I am open to having a conversation about including broadband, but any change must go hand in hand with changes that are necessary to produce a fiscally responsible program,” Pai said. “And this proposal fails that basic test for several reasons.”
Pai said he and O’Rielly had proposed to keep the current $1.6 billion spending cap through 2018, with adjustments for inflation, but the majority rejected the idea. The commissioners have spent months behind closed doors trying to hammer out an agreement.
“It’s clear the majority wants to spend as much as they possibly can without a hint of restraint or possible change in administration,” said O’Rielly.
When asked why the spending cap was rejected, Wheeler told a FedScoop reporter that it would be “putting the cart before the horse” because details of what the modernized program will look like have not been finalized yet.
“Let’s figure out what we’re going to do, and then figure out how we’re going to pay for it,” he said.
Other details that still have to be nailed down include establishing a neutral third-party verifier to determine eligibility. Currently, the carriers and the FCC are charged with confirming who can participate.
The proposal also considers giving out the subsidies directly to consumers through vouchers, and the commissioners will have to decide whether carriers that currently participate in Lifeline should be required to offer broadband service as well as wired and wireless service.
An FCC spokesman said these issues will be discussed and worked out in the next few months before any changes are enacted.
Wheeler and the two other Democratic commissioners, Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, said it’s a no-brainer that Lifeline should be expanded to include broadband.
“The sad reality is that millions of our citizens are foreclosed from opportunities, trapped in digital darkness and are stranded on the wrong side of the affordability divide,” Clyburn said. “We know broadband is the great equalizer of our time, but it can only be so if everyone has access.”
Rosenworcel focused on what she has coined the “homework gap,” saying an estimated 5 million children cannot do their homework if it involves Internet access — or they have to go to other places with Wi-Fi, like libraries or fast food restaurants, to finish their work.
She said broadband would help students in school and beyond.
“It’s a loss for our collective human capital and shared economic future that we need to address,” she said of the lack of access millions of families have to the Internet.
Advocates of the expansion, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded the vote.
“The FCC took an important step in narrowing our country’s digital divide and ensuring that all Americans have access to the essential communications services they need to live, learn, and work in today’s digital age,” spokesman Scott Simpson said in a statement. “We thank Chairman Wheeler, and Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel, for their leadership in moving forward with the critical and urgent task of building the bridge to connectivity for children, seniors, job seekers, low-income communities, and communities of color.”