What have poor people done to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai? Perhaps he misread his job description, as the latest move from the FCC would seem to geared towards widening the digital divide.
This week the FCC voted to scale back the federal Lifeline programme, an initiative which assists poorer families in accessing the digital world. It started with, telephone service but was rolled out to broadband last year. While a $9.25 subsidy might not sound like a lot, for those who live on the breadline, it probably means the difference between internet and no internet. That said, Pai has seemingly decided the world of social media, online banking and cat videos is not for poor people.
The changes include a spending cap, which could mean those who qualify for the subsidy would not receive it, and also a ban on resellers offering the subsidy as part of a deal. Essentially, only those who own their own infrastructure would be allowed to offer the subsidy, which could result in countless families have to cancel their current subscription.
The ban for resellers is currently out for public comment, but it would effectively reduce competition and push consumers towards the established players; AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile USA, and Sprint. According to Public Knowledge, an advocacy group trying to bridge the digital divide, 70% of those on the Lifeline programme get their internet through such resellers. Perhaps some will not be able to find a carrier in their area which offers the subsidy. Apparently they will just have to go without the internet.
Pai seems to be sending a very clear message; the internet and the digital world is not for poor people. Bad poor people, stay away from my internet. Be richer and then I’ll let you into my club.
Republican Commissioners have pointed towards a Government Accountability Office report which highlighted that fraud was commonplace within the Lifeline programme, but surely this report was supposed to suggest the FCC should sort out its processes. Some enrolments were filed in the names of dead people, which does suggest there are nefarious characters out there, but also internal processes are pretty poor. We can’t imagine the intended result was to scrap the scheme and exclude poor people from the internet.
Of course, the voting went exactly as you would expect. The Republican Commissioners voting with Pai and his mission to keep the poor in their place, while the Democrats voted against. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was clearly not happy, unleashing a stream of tweets, blasting Pai and his quest to cleanse the internet of the unworthy.
Naturally, Clyburn and her cronies are going to try and make the situation as awkward as possible for Pai and his journey to rid the digital society of lesser humans, but we have some sympathy here. The Democrats have spent the last couple of years building the FCC in their own image, and Pai is chopping it down piece-by-piece. All Clyburn can do is watch and tweet.