Ajit Pai Tried To Strangle A Broadband Aid Program For Low Income Americans. Then A Pandemic Hit.

from the you're-really-not-helping dept

While recently departed FCC boss Ajit Pai was perhaps best known for ignoring the public and making shit up to dismantle FCC authority over telecom monopolies, many of his other policies have proven to be less sexy to talk about--but just as terrible.

One of the biggest targets throughout Pai's four year tenure as boss was the FCC's Lifeline program, an effort started by Reagan and expanded by Bush Jr. that long enjoyed bipartisan support until Trumpism 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.

Despite constant pledges that one of his top priorities was fixing the "digital divide," Pai's tenure as boss included a notable number of efforts to scuttle the Lifeline program that weren't paid much attention to -- until a pandemic came to town. COVID-19 has shone a bright spotlight on the fact that 42 million Americans still can't access broadband (double official FCC estimates), and millions more can't afford service thanks to monopolization and limited competition.

Under Chairman Ajit Pai's "leadership," the FCC voted 3-2 in late 2017 to eliminate a $25 additional Lifeline subsidy for low-income native populations on tribal land. As part of Pai's effort, he also banned smaller mobile carriers from participating in the Lifeline program. Pai's attempt to neuter Lifeline in tribal areas certainly hurt overall enrollment, but didn't always fare well in the courts. One ruling (pdf), for example, noting that Pai and his staff not only pulled their justifications completely out of their asses, but failed to do any meaningful research whatsoever into how the cuts would impact poor and tribal communities:

"The Commission's adoption of these two limitations was arbitrary and capricious by not providing a reasoned explanation for its change of policy that is supported by record evidence. In adopting the Tribal Facilities Requirement, the Commission's decision evinces no consideration of the exodus of facilities-based providers from the Tribal Lifeline program. Neither does it point to evidence that banning resellers from the Tribal Lifeline program would promote network buildout."

That's a polite way of the court saying that Pai based his decisions on ideology, not evidence (kind of a theme throughout his tenure as reflected by other court rulings). On the other end of these decisions are real, struggling human beings. Human beings the Washington Post recently did an excellent piece on as it surveyed the real-world damage from Pai's decisions to neuter a program that already did the bare minimum to help struggling Americans:

"The restrictions have been especially problematic during the pandemic, as Americans find themselves more dependent than ever on their mobile devices to stay connected. Many Lifeline subscribers say they have had to make unfair trade-offs — talking either to family or to doctors, for example, or participating in their communities or saving precious minutes for emergencies — that most Americans would find unfathomable."

Lifeline as a program is no stranger to fraud, with companies from Sprint to AT&T being routinely busted for taking money for people that don't technically exist. As the report notes, Pai hid his ideological assaults on the program under the guise that he was exclusively worried about said fraud, yet didn't take the steps necessary to prevent said fraud from happening:

"Under Pai’s watch, for example, the U.S. government for years did not fully implement a national verification system — a state-of-the art digital tool designed to determine eligibility and crack down on the fraud Republicans sought to prevent. The myriad missteps are laid bare in a report released by the Government Accountability Office in late January, which found that by summer 2020, most states still had not implemented the technology. Those that did found it even harder for Lifeline applicants to get approved, creating undue delays even in cases in which low-income Americans should have qualified easily for the program."

Again, Pai's tenure was largely pockmarked by doing huge favors for entrenched telecom monopolies, then using flimsy or nonexistent data to justify those policies. All while simply ignoring the fact that monopolization and a lack of competition creates most of the sector's problems (note how he'd never discuss US broadband prices). Concern about fraud was never symmetrical; while Pai went out of his way often to highlight Lifeline fraud, he never once even mentioned the problem with throwing billions in tax cuts and regulatory favors at monopolies like AT&T in exchange for doing absolutely nothing. That's before you even get to Pai's most recent subsidization scandals, which doled out billions to companies that gamed the FCC process.

This kind of facts-optional ideology has, for years, been brushed aside as normal policymaking (former FCC boss turned top cable lobbyist Mike Powell wasn't all that different). Unfortunately while this stuff gets dismissed as boring policy wonkery or "partisan politics," it's good to remember this kind of behavior has very real costs that the purveyors of said policies try very hard not to think much about.

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Filed Under: ajit pai, arbitrary and capricious, covid, digital divide, fcc, lifeline, pandemic


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  1. icon
    jilocasin (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 6:00am

    All the poor have to do, is dole out there own contributions

    Apparently, that's just how the games played.

    If the poor really wanted to have some influence in telecom policy, they should do like all the other players and b̶r̶i̶b̶e̶ contribute to the campaigns of their elected officials. /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:39am

    Repubs want inefficiency and fraud

    Sometimes (most times???) I think the Repubs want inefficiency and fraud This gives them all the more reason to cut budgets and stop programs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:51am

    Or, y’know, benefit from the fraud in some way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:52am

    Ajit Pai did whatever he was told and paid to do by his real bosses - the cable and broadband monopolies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 7:59am

    Re: Repubs want inefficiency and fraud

    Cut budgets? They say it but they don't do it. They cut off the funding to the poor and make sure it gets funneled to the nearest "big donor". It's never been about smaller/cheaper government and always has been about power and grift.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 8:23am

    Now we can start to question how Pai became a multi-multi-multi millionaire during his tensure with offshore holdings and bank accounts more than 10x his total salary.

    Time for an "unexplained wealth order" I think and charges of corruption.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 8:53am

    Re:

    Well yes, cut programs for the poor and disadvantaged while benefiting from the fraud... it a win - win scenario.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 8:57am

    BIg telecom in american is based on a simple formula, donate to politicans
    .get big tax break,s, reduce competition with mega mergers,
    right now the focus is on break up facebook or google,
    erase section 230,
    less competition for old legacy companys or media companys like disney,sony,
    hollywood studio,s .
    follow the money, who makes donations to politicans in both partys who
    are attacking section 230 and tech companys .
    old companys like newspapers are the ones pushing for laws that google
    must pay for linking to any news websites .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 9:03am

    Re: Repubs want inefficiency and fraud

    Republicans campaign on "government doesn't work" but that's only true where they hold office.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 12 Feb 2021 @ 9:07am

    “The government doesn’t work because we broke it, so you have to elect us because only we can fix the government.”

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2021 @ 10:14am

    Re:

    Also, we have a plan to fix it. We can't tell you what it is because we are finalizing it and cleaning up the edges. As soon as that is done we will let you. Give us 2 weeks. It will be the best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Annonymouse, 12 Feb 2021 @ 10:39am

    The court rulings are not even worth the paper they were written on.

    Did they actually make them do the right thing?
    Did they Bin Bureaucrat Butts?
    Is Pai in a hole somewhere breaking big rocks into small rocks?

    Only when the answers are yes will things actually improve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 13 Feb 2021 @ 3:15pm

    "the purveyors of said policies try very hard not to think much about"

    I don't think so. I think its much more likely that Pai never thought once about the poor. He's only ever cared about himself, and the ideology of Republicanism. Even in its most toxic form, Trump-ism.

    After all, the real money is in grift.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    mitch shirley, 1 Mar 2021 @ 10:32pm

    Virginia

    Hey Karl, I hate that motherfucker too. My parents live in a rural area of Virginia and the rollback of net neutrality has completely fucked them, and by extension me when I am visiting. I am reaching out to Rural Development nonprofits and Virginia legislators to push for NN enforcement in the state and looking for any help I can find. If you would like to contribute or have anything to offer it would be greatly appreciated. Please let me know at mitchshirley123@gmail.com. Yes, I realize the risk of putting my email out there, but it doesn't matter since verizon won't let me receive them anyways.
    Thanks, -Mitch

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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